Our BBQ Pilgrimage 2012 began with four of us flying from Manchester (bumped into the Leelex boys on their way to Mexico City for their “research” trip to enhance their new project at Trinity) via Philly to Raleigh, North Carolina, the first of 5 states this time round. We had a slight pause in Philadelphia so what better to do than try the famous Philly Cheese Steak at Chickie and Pete’s. The bread was soft and the meat had the right texture (not sure it’s for everyone though, most Brits might not totally get it), although we agreed it could have benefitted from the addition of onions and peppers and a bit more cheese sauce it was proper tasty. Crab fries were interesting though. When we asked (in a rather dopey fashion), they informed us that it’s not actually crab, more the seasoning they use on the crabs in their region, but put on fries. Gullible isn’t the word!
After a quick, turbulent flight (in what felt like a 1920’s prop plane) we landed in Raleigh, the home of whole hog BBQ. JD loves cars and as soon as we saw the pre-booked Rav 4 mid-sized SUV at the car rental spot we knew there would be an issue, we asked the Hertz lady to find us something that would be more appropriate for this type of road trip and so JD wouldn’t complain. In true Red’s style, we agreed a pimping Escalade with some serious rims would be a much better choice. Screw the extra $35 a day! We jumped in and screeched away thinking we were rolling hard, only to realize that the hand break was still on. As JD was driving, we blame this squarely on him – Numpty!
Once we’d freshened up at the hotel, Scott, the receptionist at the Marriott Courtyard (easily the most enthusiastic person any of us had ever met) recommended a new name to us in BBQ in Raleigh, Danny’s Bar-Be-Que, so we thought we’d pop along for a quiet bite and leave The Pit until tomorrow. As usual we over ordered, something we see a lot at Reds so we should have known better! We had hush puppies, fried okra and corn nuggets to start with and strangly….no booze. They’d ran out. Not a bad thing knowing how much alcohol was going to be consumed this week. We had Barq’s root beer and iced tea, unsweetened. Our server, Sarah, was super attentive and friendly, just as we’d known she would be – what with it being the US. We had a brief kitchen tour with the owner, Kevin. We swapped stories and techniques, explained what ”bollocks” means and agreed that we’d discuss an exchange program for our Pitmasters to spend some time in their kitchen for a week or two before they commence their roles for Red’s in the UK – who wants to apply?
Stopped by Hooters on the way home, course, least said the better. Brainstormed ideas over multiple beers. Watch this space…
Back to the hotel, knackered – slept. Charlotte and then Charlston next…
So, morning after and here we are still in Raleigh, not for long though, we never stay in one place long enough to see the sights – its food, food, food all the way! Stopped in at The Pit in Durham, this was something else – food was amazing, staff were seriously into the whole BBQ scene and we managed to pinch a recipe that WILL be going onto the menu at Reds. We got our first chance to try Brunswick Stew. It’s a lot like a stew as you would imagine from the name however I’m not sure it’s from Brunswick, it was pretty darn tasty though – maybe we’ll see that as a special sometime in the future!
After a few photos it was on the road for our 280 mile hike to Charleston. We were going to stop by Charlotte but time was not on our side so we bypassed it and arrived in Charleston on the Gulf coast 4 hours later, even though the waiter at The Pit suggested we go to Shelby on the way to Charlotte to try a place called Bridges BBQ. He said their coleslaw looks like baby sick, but tastes like manna from heaven and their BBQ was well respected in their area. We’ve since discovered that Bridge’s BBQ is considered one of the best BBQs in the US and is a must see when we come back next year – bit gutted we missed it this time.
We hit Charleston pretty late and left early to catch a flight to Memphis, as Scott said to the cab driver in Charleston “it’s a beautiful place, but I’ve not seen it” There’s nothing quite like charming those locals. We did get time to check out a bit of the city though.
First stop, Piggly Wiggly – a superstore that James D – 6 times undisputed Southern States U-Turn champion – seemed to know a great deal about. From business model and founder to expansion strategy and corporate history, JD regaled us with the facts (oddly enough, facts were taken as gospel). Scott and Clint sniffed out a wall of BBQ sauces, hot sauces, rubs that nearly reduced Team Red to tears. Respects were paid in full. Conversation was intense, photographs were taken and locals were flummoxed.
6 or 7 U-turns later we hit Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ – a place that is taking Sullivan’s Island and the greater Charlston area by storm (they had a new place opening too). During our trip we’d experienced the good and the not so good of Southern BBQ… but Home Team were firmly in the right camp. The place looked the part and the service was top notch (thanks to Beth, our waiter who did a cracking job of sharing some knowledge and keeping us happy), the sauces had a good kick and the Baby Backs were on point. We went behind the scenes for a fix of Smoker Porn supplied by ‘Big Will’ a marvelous man mountain, who talked us through his approach to all things meat. Top dude. These guys have their own way of smoking meat and serve all their meat naked. Their table sauce approach was similar to ours, although they also have a Hot BBQ (Red) sauce in their arsenal, oh and they drop the odd fresh split habanero into their vinegar pepper sauce. Stored! Strangely, they prefer to braise their brisket in a mirepoix in their smokers. This leaves the brisket moist but not very smoky (except the top layer of fat). Not sure we’ll be doing the same. We’ve quickly realized that our brisket is as good, if not better, than the stuff we’ve tasted on this trip.
After a few drinks in some seriously stylish bars on the main strip downtown (really nice place, with more than a touch of the colonial about it), we heading back to the hotel for a well deserved 2.5hr sleep before catching a flight to Memphis. The hotel itself is worth a mention too – think ‘A Little Mermaid’ meets ‘Finding Nemo’, on hallucinogenics, and you’re halfway there… I had no idea that seashells had so many uses… amazing. It’s also worth noting that we’re lucky to be writing this blog at all, based on Scott’s last second junction choice (from the middle lane) as we approached the gas station slip road near the airport. Thank God they don’t have curbs on their central reservations in the US. Could have been tricky dropping the pimpmobile off with its wheels hanging off and a few broken noses.
We mourned the loss of the Caddy Escalade at the rental car station (but little did 2 of us know that significantly bigger things were right around the bend. U-turns were about to get a little trickier).
There’s four of us on this road trip but only two of us knew about the mobile home (RV) we were due to pick up in Memphis, which as you can imagine came as a big surprise to James A and Clint. James D and Scott didn’t quite think things through when it came to driving this thing though – it’s 40 feet long and about 12 feet wide, essentially it’s a National Express coach with beds (not enough beds as we found out later) you would usually need a HGV license to drive – something none of us have of course. You don’t so much drive the thing as ‘taxi onto the runway with it’. BEAST.
As ‘popping to the shops for a pint of milk’ was now a major operation, Janet – the owner of MMC rentals – was good enough to lend us her truck so we could go grab some BBQ for lunch as we missed brekkie (nice lady). We made a bee-line straight to ‘Memphis Barbecue Company’ keen to see if the place could live up to its mammoth rep (no exaggeration we’re talking 4 times World BBQ championship titles to go with the other 2,496 BBQ trophies and awards). Taste buds were primed and excitement hit boiling point as we parked up next to the owner’s ‘Competition Rig’ – basically a giant smoker on wheels that the owners team cart around the south, smashing the competition with on an almost constant basis). ‘Daryl‘ showed us the rig as well as the outdoor restaurant smoker, itself equally vast. This Ole Hickory monster takes 200 pork butts at any one time. We entered the place and were immediately hit with the smell only the converted can truly appreciate. Angel’s wept, Scott got the pre-meat sweats and a booth was acquired.
We were looked after by Wesley (an LA native whose travels had brought him to Memphis), the guy was damn good at his job, he didn’t just know the menu… this dude was the menu. A true gent and funny as hell. After about three hours of worship and people watching (the one’s that weren’t dressed in camo), we remembered that we had borrowed Janet’s truck, thanked the guys and headed out only to be greeted by royalty in the parking lot. We bumped into Memphis BBQs owner Melissa Cookston, the undisputed queen of barbecue. This Southern belle is not messing around… she’s the driving force behind the brand, the food and is on the verge of some big things including a major book deal. We were lucky to talk to her before things go really stratospheric – Memphis BBQ has been open since Dec 2010 and plans are afoot for 5 more (Red thinks that this is the tip of the iceberg for this super savvy BBQ guru). And the best thing about her? We sat with her and enjoyed 2 hours of advice, secrets and frank, funny and fabulous conversation. She’s great and firmly supports the way we’re doing things in the Circle of Truth.
Remembering the loaned truck once more we headed back to MMC and Janet (who remarkably hadn’t called the cops, or hired a bounty hunter to track us down.
Anyway, after a few scrapes and far more near misses we drove out of the RV rental place with Janet looking worried (insightful questions such as ‘do we have to empty the toilet’ didn’t seem to fill her with confidence… weird) She left us with one particular pearl of wisdom though: “watch out for the hoes. There are thousands of them and they’re everywhere, and the pretty ones are cops”. We mulled it over as we moved on to THE Heartbreak Hotel (RV Park!) to drop anchor for the night before hitting downtown Memphis.
The RV park is opposite Gracelands, the home of some dude called Elvis, we’re not sure who he is, but he’s big in Memphis (Costello?). Obviously, being within feet of Gracelands we’d be crazy not to check out the home of one of musics greats…. Clearly we’re crazy then as we totally bypassed it and favoured going out to get positively poogeyed – it’s a an S.A thing) instead (he had nothing on Cliff Richard anyways). We did buy some Elvis chocolate in the BP garage though… which was nice.
Since hitting Memphis we’d be warned by anyone and everyone that it was 2nd in the US for murder and one of the most dangerous cities on Earth – nice. The main advice was not to go down any alleys with homeless people or bums… sound advice but I wasn’t sure what would make me do this anyway, its not like I’ve made a habit of that in the past, so I wasn’t going to start now. Anyway, we went into Memphis, it was pretty good, very touristy with loads of neon and some cool bars (notably The Flying Saucer, a joint with over 250 craft beers on draught. The Silly Goose was pretty good too, but the whisky was flowing pretty good then so it could have been crap… who knows). On the way to Charly Varga’s Rendezvous, some dude on the street asked Scott for the time but as the guy looked like he hadn’t washed in a few hours, Scott ran off across a park through fear of being mugged (or worse). I told the guy it was 8.30PM, he thanked me and strolled off. Anyone who hits Memphis and likes BBQ tries The Rendezvous at least once. The owner is/was Greek and approaches the dry Memphis-style BBQ with a strictly Mediterranean feel.
The restaurant feels like you’re in an Italian Pizzeria or Greek Taverna, knickknacks gathering dust everywhere and echo’s of The Rat Pack in the background. We ordered some ribs and beer and moseyed over to the kitchen with the coal ovens (they had about 4 separate kitchens and prep sections across the restaurant. A real labyrinth. The pitmaster showed us how they charbroil their lion ribs in the ovens, directly over coal (no wood). After 1.5hrs they pull the ribs out, slap a watered down vinegar mop over them and then douse them with their chunky rub which means they come to your table ‘dry’. The rub definitely has that Med flavor of paprika, garlic and oregano. Our ribs were a little too charred, but fair play to them for doing their ribs on their own, different way.
It’d been a long day so after a few beers, a couple of whiskeys and some bratwurst would you believe, we got a cab driven by a budding Somali business mogul back to the RV park to go to bed, knackered&pissed . com
Thursday morning was a lopsided affair. SM and CB awoke to find that they’d been sleeping on a serious angle. Looks like we’re not too hot at using the RV’s stabilizer system – it sits on three legs and should be as solid as a rock – we went for just the one leg – more of a plate spinning thing going on.
After a little shower block hide the flip flop (that’s not a euphemism I swear), and several rounds of pretty ropey coffee, it was time to pack up the RV. Practical things had to be done: emptying the thunder box (lovely bit of spray-back on that one), disconnecting utilities, raising ‘the’ leg etc. etc. (basically a long list of things that we were winging it with. A trip to the nearest 7/11 brought rich rewards indeed in the form of Muscle Milk (“contains no milk”) and a caffeinated energy drink that had sought to differentiate itself as providing a purely sexual stimulus… that one’s not gonna make the bar menu I’m afraid! Scott got an eyeful of truck-porn too with the arrival of black Dodge RAM 3500 Heavy Duty pick up… rollin’ hard baby!!
We were ready to get the big rig back on the road. So long Memphis . Adios Mr Costello… you were fun and the eatin’s were gooooood. Amen.
The plan was to ease up just a little on the BBQ intake and head down to Cajun country and experience The Big Easy itself, New Orleans Louisiana.
Following a Wendy’s Baconator breakfast of truly momentous grease proportions, about half way down (it took about 7hrs or so) we pulled off the I55, following our noses after seeing a sign promising fresh Crawfish. The fish was pretty illusive, but we did manage to find some pretty terrifying suburbs – there’s so much to love about this part of the world, but the gap between America’s rich and poor is stark and pretty huge . As the drug dealers began to take a keener interest we pulled a U-turn (which very nearly took out a disused store – JD had it under control allegedly – I’m not so sure). We headed for the freeway and stumbled upon ‘Red Barn Country Store to grab some supplies’.
This place was great, spotlessly clean and stacked with everything from homemade jam, chutneys and sauces (one called “Come Back Sauce” because it was so good, it made you come back) to live goldfish and cricket,s and… wait for it… a large jar of ‘Pickled Pigs Lips’. These things were a veritable nightmare. We’re no strangers to weird and wonderful foods, but these mama’s were Level 10 nasty. Boss Level badness. Hateful. Horrific (you get the picture). Naturally, JD was challenged to eat one for a princely $50 reward. It should have been $50k – these things were big. Think ‘the consistency of jelly, laced with sinew and prickly hairs, about the size of a chicken breast and a pretty unnatural shocking pink colour’ – there’s a rumour that here in the Deep South a’ Lip Po Boy’ is poised to replace the death penalty as a firmer punishment for the areas worst offenders. The shop keeper, made it clear that she had never, and would never eat a pigs lip. The 800 year old hillbilly stood in the store next to us said he preferred the feet. And the kid in the trucker cap declared: “I don eat dose cus I know whut them pigsr been eating on with dose big’ol lips”. Naturally, video cameras were fired up and JD rose to the challenge. The results are best seen in their full motion glory (with a strong constitution). See the evidence
After a few more hours of driver ‘hot-swapping at 65’ in the RV, the landscape changed dramatically and we found ourselves driving on a freeway that was elevated out of the swamps of the Bayou itself… the islands of land broke to reveal the mighty Mississippi and a quite unbelievable sunset. Incredible sights on the fun bus. Spectacular natural beauty was short lived and soon replaced by the sight of 100’s of tail lights as we approached downtown NOLA at rush hour. Bugger. A wrong turn past the Mercedes-Benz Superdome proved a master stroke and we stumbled on our RV park. The park was mad – about 50ft from the freeway, and only 4 blocks from the French Quarter. Camping New Orleans style. We dropped anchor, set-up the RV with the aid of a helpful Canadian gentleman and headed out.
First stop, Bourbon St. A plastic tourist freak show. A turbo Blackpool. Newcastle’s Bigg Market magnified tenfold. It was awful, and certainly not the real NOLA. But it had to be done and it was fun. After a couple of drinks we headed to The Acme Oyster Company. Big with tourists, massive on superb Cajun-style seafood. The place was buzzing and operated a queue and booking system much like our own (although our system is fairer, surprisingly!). JD declared himself as ‘James from the UK’ and was mortified to be referred to as such, very loudly for the duration of our visit. The service was not quite up to the standard we’d gotten used to, but the food was superb. We had two styles of Oyster, first, served raw with a cocktail sauce (these were from brackish water – half salty / half fresh) and were quite subtle in flavour. The second platter was grilled with a topping of dressing, garlic and parmesan. They were great. We partnered the Oysters with some Jambalaya, Andouille sausage, rice & beans and some superb soft shell crabs. The crabs were coated in a thick Southern style batter and complimented the tartar sauce nicely. We settled up and made a bee-line to ‘The Joint’ a BBQ place we’d heard some good things about. The Joint was far enough out of the tourist trap to bolster our confidence in the place… but alas, it was closed so we’ll have to pick that one up on the next pilgrimage.
We headed back into the city to drown our sorrows. The hangovers promised to be pretty impressive indeedy.
As promised, hangovers were quite intense. And as usual, SM awoke completely unaffected with the usual energy levels intact. The same cannot be said of JD who remained corpse-like with a slightly green hue even when the bedroom compartment was moved back into the RV and we hit the road. We rolled out of the New Orleans RV park at 8am (pretty respectable considering the 4am finish).
Back on the road, we headed north through Louisiana. All the stereotypes were in place with swamps, hydrofoils and dual-wheeled pick-ups in full force. 3hrs later (and still in Louisiana), a gas stop proved the ideal souvenir hunting destination for JD, who had risen from his pit just in time to select a stuffed alligator head for his son (after much deliberation, he’d walked past the impressive red neck knife range… perhaps 4 is too early to start a weapons cache?). CB emerged from the gas station empty-handed, generally bewildered by the volume and range of sugar coated crap on sale. Anyone for diabetes? No, no we’ll pass, but thanks.
We stopped for lunch at Burger King. After all, they’re so hard to find in the UK (it was wise to seize the opportunity where we could). It proved a good move as we were able to see their brand new BBQ fast food range. BBQ really is ingrained in this part of the world and its continued resurgence is leading to everyone from international superbrands, to independents and backyard pitmasters getting in on the action.
It took so long to fill the RV with gas that we considered saving time by extracting and refining are own fuel source. SM put a good shift in at the pump, and although the fill-up accounted for around 60% of his time in the States a real sense of achievement was felt by all (we worked out that back in Blighty you’d be looking at a cool £500 to fill this baby up). SM eased out the cramp that had begun to take hold of his body and it was time to swap drivers
It was my turn (JA), and to be frank I had been avoiding the task like a pickled pig’s lip poboy. Seen as though the Red’s boys had handled about 1,200 miles between them, there was no getting out of it and I was keen to pull my weight with a cool 4-5 hour shift or so. My keen instincts told me that there could be subtle differences between the driving experience between my Volvo C30 hatchback and the 40 x 12ft girth of the RV, but a quick lap of the gas station car park told me that no… the differences were in fact non-existent and all would be well. OK. Straight on to a 4 lane Interstate, surrounded by traffic approaching Houston, the US’s 4th largest city. As the lanes narrowed to allow for the roadworks and the narrowed carriageway, it soon became apparent that we were all about to die. Sweet Jesus have mercy, I have never been quite so terrified or out of my comfort zone in all of my 33 years on this Earth. I decided to mask this expertly by sitting motion-less, in absolute silence, my body tensed and curled over the steering wheel with the consistency of an over cooked pork crackling. After about 20 minutes of sweat and statue-like driving style, it became apparent that that the Red’s boys were aware that I lacked even the basic skills to drive the RV (foiled again)… SM approached the situation with subtlety and diplomacy: “How are you feeling James, would you like to swap, or are you OK?”. It would seem that a decision had been made to save our souls from impending disaster… the trip was good, but not worth the ultimate sacrifice. I accepted his kind offer with a degree of enthusiasm and took a few minutes to gather myself. As emasculated as a post-op transsexual, I decided to focus on photography and brand-related brainstorming. Probably for the best.
Texas is a big old place. Real big. And the oil refineries are like cities. It’s an impressive sight with rolling countryside that reminded CB of his native South Africa. After tackling Houston traffic and an almost endless journey, we hit Luling a sleepy little place with a well-respected BBQ joint called ‘Luling: City Market’. Unfortunately the opening hours were 7am to 5pm. 7am? Even SM doesn’t want a Babyback breakfast?!! Eyes were dried and we rolled on to Blacks of Lockhart, a family owned beef-based BBQ bonanza that had been feeding the locals for 80 smoke-filled years. Black’s was great. Every one of their 80 years had played a part in making the experience… you can’t recreate that level of authenticity and you’d be foolish to try. We were greeted with true warmth and the obligatory kitchen tour request was accepted immediately. But first it was time to collect our meat from the 80 year old butcher’s block and taste the goods. At Blacks it’s firmly all about the meat with sides taking a definite back seat. They were good, but nothing to write home about, so I won’t. The Beef Long rib was however, a very different story indeed… the thing was huge… probably a good 20-20cm long with a real Flintstones feel. The meat was tender and moist with an amazing marbling throughout. A thing of beauty. The jalapeno cheese sausage was a hit too, 100% pork and with real European flavoring. The biggest hit of the day was the Brisket. we’ve had some mighty fine brisket on this pilgrimage, but this was truly superb prime USTA beef available with or without the fat at it’s very, very best. Baby backs were pretty good but lacked the meaty proportions we’d grown accustomed to in S. Carolina and Memphis, where the hogs are a little heftier. Food defeated, we were led into the kitchen by Chuck – a true gent. And what a kitchen. The authenticity of the eating area was dwarfed by that of this temple to all things meat. Titanic brick built smokers, towers of brisket and a stack of Post Oak wood tried out for a year and a half prior to burning to reduce the smokiness and get that subtle Black’s BBQ flavor. And at the rate these guys serve folks (6,000 people from Friday to Sunday), it’s safe to say that they’ve got some formidable storage! With the first US F1 grand prix imminent, and an influx of 200,000 additional people to the local area, plans were afoot to feed double this amount over the coming weekend.
We hoped to hit a couple of other local joints including Kreuz Market, which promised great things indeed, but were disheartened to find it closed. A quick phone call confirmed that Salt Lick was still open, we might just make it if we adopted a lead boot approach to proceedings. Things got off to a shaky start as JD felled some low hanging branches outside of a funeral home with the RV (sorry guys). A quick climb up the RV’s ladder confirmed we were unscathed… but the tree needed a little tlc. Off to the legendary Salt Lick at considerably speed, the RV handling like a hippopotamus on ice. JD was taming the beast with impressive skills and was even unfazed by a wrong turn which led to a 40 mile detour (we were low on time and things were looking bad for a slap up supper at Salt Lick). JD responded with gusto… perhaps too much as another low lying branch hooked onto the electric awning tearing the bracket off and leaving it swinging (there goes the deposit), SM leapt into action fashioning rope from plastic bags with levels of resourcefulness that would make you average boy scout green with raw envy. Awning on (ish) back on the road, the clock was ticking and the meat was drying out at the Lick. We arrived, panic-parked (including a completely unnecessary 9 point turn by JD, again!) and ran in. It was closing and it was cashing-up time. Salt Lick was a big place and cash only, which explained why the staff met us with startled looks and we were closely followed by three members of the local sheriff’s department who were getting just a little twitchy. After a few minutes of exasperated explanation the Salt Lick team furrowed brows turned into the welcoming Texan smiles we’d gotten used to and trigger fingers relaxed. Salt Lick’s Ian showed us the giant fire pit that formed the centre of the cavernous restaurant and talked us through the way they do things. 30 minutes later, we were bid farewell with a not insubstantial bag of BBQ and told that our money was no good. Thanks Salt Lick, it was very much appreciated.
We headed to the RV park (located immediately opposite the restaurant – what a holiday that’d be), dropped anchor and tucked in with a bit of ‘American Dad’ to keep us company. It’s a miracle that the satellite receiver was still on the roof at all. The BBQ treasure bag that Salt Lick’s Ian kindly arranged for us was filled with brisket, rib and sausage jewels from their open pit. And some sides. Bearing in mind the meat was from the end of their long day’s service their brisket was excellent (although not as moist as Blacks), pork sausage also very European in it’s flavour and their ribs were super smoky and a little dry with little in the way of rub added to them. The slaw, which interestingly contained toasted sesame seeds, was a bit sweet and their BBQ gravy was thick and rich. It was good to ravage on BBQ meat again. It had been an entire 24 hours since the last frenzy. It was good to sleep through the meat sweats in the floor of the RV, again.
Home next…See you in ’13 US, perhaps with a larger party and a videographer!