Thursday, September 23, 2010

True Texas BBQ: Blacks

On the road again
Goin places that I’ve never been
Seeing things that I may never see again
I cant wait to get on the road again

Willie Nelson

Its 7:40. We stroll out to the car. It hand’t even had time to warm up. John looked at me and said “that could be the coolest place I’ve ever eaten”. I smiles and replied, “welcome to true BBQ, and True Texas BBQ takes that a step deeper, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Now lets get to the next place”

John and Martin couldn’t believe it. Yes we were really going to another BBQ place in less than an hour. Oh I would have like to stay at Kreuz longer, but time was running out. Blacks remained to be explored. Question rose, how do we get there. I had no idea…I said just go back that way…we drove about 30 seconds and there was a sign at the end of side street…faded by the many texas summers…BLACKS THIS WAY.

I didn’t need to know anything else. We parked right out front…the unassuming front and entrance meets every expectation I have of a BBQ place. We strolled in and somehow walked right past the entrance to the line. Somehow I was instantly intoxicated by the smell of post oak and rendering meat. It was creeping everywhere in this place. Everything about it was so unassuming and unpretecious. The pictures of the football teams on the wall. The pictures of the Black Family all over. Bottles of sauce and an unmistakable tinge to all the walls saying they cook bbq here. So, I found the line to get food, but like a salmon on its way to spawn, there I was paddling upsteam .

We were corrected quicky by the delicate Hispanic woman working behind the sides…we took a plate, piled on some beans and pickles and walked to the meat counter.

½ chicken…couple rings of cheddar jalapeno sausage…and a beef rib…yes one of those dinosaur bone beef ribs!

I asked the gentleman about his warming pits and he said that when we were done eating to stop by and he’d show us around. I introduced myself to David and thanked him and told him I’d be back to take him up on his offer.

So we sat there. John announces he doesn’t like sweet tea, but cannot imagine drinking anything else here. We stared at the walls, and sampled all the food. Both my guests are amazed at these places. That feeling of becoming overly full starts to set in. A relaxed feeling comes over us, almost like a couple beer buzz. Pleasanly content. At that instant everything was falling together…willie nelson on the radio…the family coming in for a bite, the workers getting ready to close up.

We finished our food and I went directly to David to take him up on taking a look around. He excused himself for a minute and came back with a slightly dejected look on his face.
He let me know that Mr. Black has just left and that he gives a much better story about the place than he could. David is beyond polite. Everything out of his mouth is full of respect and a genuine appreciation that we’re there at Black’s…”just like Mr. Black would want it”. Somehow, staring into David’s eyes, I believe him, his attitude and aura is an extension of the Black family.
We didn’t “see” much…a true Texas pit…a pile of post oak, lifted the lids of the pits, smoke billowed out and wrapped its tentacles around use, giving us a special taste of what makes Texas bbq so true before it assaulted the walls of this shrine or maybe sneaking through a crack in the wall on its way to connect this pit with a little piece of Heaven.

We walked out of the place, several minutes after closing, and Martin and John were just standing there. John uttered the words, "Now THAT is the coolest place I've ever eaten at...I'm taking my family here sometime soon. Thanks Joe."

Me - I thank so many people, Kelly, and DivaQ, and Chris, and Dave, Wayne, and Vencil, David and Kevin, all those people who truely understand BBQ...and who aren't afraid to share it.

True BBQ Revisited – 2 Years Later: Kruez

The following is a blog I wrote some time ago...taken a little while to get it up to the public's eye, but still worthy of pubishing. Take a read...Joey Mac

Hard to believe that almost 2 years ago we had that voyage to Taylor…Wayne Mueller’s story, Vencil Mayer’s steely eyes, Brian Bracewell’s family pride…all leaving such an indelible image in my memory…True BBQ…True Texas BBQ…

Well it happened again. This time it was in Lockhart TX…home of three of the most venerable BBQ shacks in Texas, the whole country for that matter. Spent the week in San Antonio for work. Putting in long hours making an engine work began to worry me that I wasn’t going to make it to Lockhart. So on Wednesday I simple stated to my colleagues, we’re going for BBQ tonight and we’ll need to leave here early enough to make it.

My guests on this trek need a little introduction:
Martin – a gentleman from Austria who is in Texas for the first time. An adventurous person, he fit right in.
John – a Texas transplant who hails from Michigan. He’s been in Texas for nearly two years and he admits it was time for him to experience some True Texas BBQ.

San Antonio traffic was a little heavier getting out of town than I cared for but oh well. Ms. GPS said we’d get to Lockhart by 6:45…plenty of time. So this hour + drive is filled with tales of college football, places to see in Europe, a little work, but my mind was flipping pages of Peace Love and BBQ, recalling conversations with Kevin from Kruez, reading through emails from Chris and Dave to set the tone of what to expect.

I could not have scripted the next part any better. Getting off the expressway, you get onto a nice 4 lane highway…that highway merges down to a wide 2 lane…the next left turn finds you on a rural highway, still paved, winding through fields of hay, milo, a little corn, and pastures with the venerable longhorn. Their majestic horns looking ominous and yet so perfect for what we going to do. The look on Martin’s face at the site of those cattle was exactly what I wanted. Yes, we do have some interesting creatures here in the States, and in Texas especially.

On the outskirts of town I was smacked in the face of a reality of the 21st century, you cannot escape the track home subdivisions. Here in this town off the beaten track was a series of ugly two story track homes that could have been anywhere…Chicago, Cleveland, San Jose. This isn’t what I needed to see. But about the time that thought was starting to illicit disappointment in my psyche, we passed up some marvelously looking homes…large homes, wooden homes, huge front porches, rocking chairs on the front porch, folks out watering flowers and chatting in the warm east Texas evening. Approaching town, it got even better…wooden sidewalks, 19th century gables on store fronts, dates on the front of houses…1901 etc. This is more like it. Turning left on to Commerce street we passed storefronts and pick ups. Made it through town…we were seemingly heading right out of town when we were stopped at the tracks by what had to be the slowest train EVER!! Clock now said 7:10, and I’m panicing…we have two BBQ shrines to see in 50 minutes. My friends don’t really know that, they just think we’re heading to Kruez.

In between train cars, you can see peeks of the crimson building that I’d only seen pictures of but know it was right. Train passes and there it stands, the back end of the place so many of my friends say define the epitome of Texas BBQ. We pull up, park amongst all the pick up trucks and a corvette. John’s BMW is a little out of place. I have to pause a moment to look around. Just take in the front of the place…walking on the wooden porch…the banging of the screen door…Louis Mueller’s come racing back into my mind…like a drug induced flashback, my pace quickens a bit. I open the door and let my guests in. The sign directing vegetarians into grocery store makes them chuckle. I gait down the hall. I find myself wishing I was here at noon…being able experience a line all the way out the door, but instead we make our way unabated. Then we walked into the meat room. I know my mouth was agape for at least 2 minutes. The sight of so many pits, real pits, real Texas pits, just dumbfounded me. Only a couple were going at this hour. The smell of post oak filled the room, going right to my brain. Walked up to the counter…realizing that I really didn’t know what the proper etiquette was…I hadn’t even looked at a menu, I hadn’t even seen a menu and to be honest with you, I’m not sure I ever really saw one. I felt like I was coming home (damn…listening to Robert Earl Keen singing…I’m coming home as im writing this). The Hispanic gentleman behind the counter looked tired and acted even more tired. Yet he was polite and to the point. I ordered up a pound of brisket, some fatty side and some flat side…and two rings of sausage…yes bread and crackers.

I’d envisioned having my food wrapped up in butcher paper so many times, that it didn’t phase me at all. My dinner guests were amazed…where’s the tray, where’s the plate, where’s the fork…I was having a hard time taking the next steps into the place. Something about this room gave me pause. Oh I knew full well that it is of relatively new contruction, they were in the process of creating history rather than perpetuating it. Because of that, the place gave me a feeling of being half in a museum, half in a Cracker Barrel, but some of the items and pictures in there were perfect and as I was explaining to my guests why we order the food the way we did, it became more clear to me. Part of this place is blazing a new historic trail for Texas BBQ, but there is a part of it that is preserving that purest form of BBQ delight. I was also realizing, again for what must be a thousand time, that as hard as we try to make BBQ be about food, its not. BBQ is so clearly about sharing. Here the Kreuz family preserving a piece of history that just cannot be recreated. Society won’t allow it. The communal nature of everyone ordering from the a common chopping block…getting their extras in a store…its just not the way people dine anymore. The fact that Kreuz preserves this tradition is worth the trip to this shrine anytime for anybody.

I admit, initially I was disappointed. The folks there were ready to go home it was obvious. But somewhere in my recollecting this visit it became more clear. There is so much more about Kreuz than the food, although I have to tell everyone, in my opinion, they have THE BEST SAUSAGE ever!!! Hands down, no questions asked. Everything about it was perfect, flavor, texture, casing…so not only is their BBQ good, their food is too.

Before we walked out I had to stroll back through that hall of pits again. I chatted with the counter help a little, I wasn’t meeting any owners today, they’d all gone home. I took one big breath in, closed my eyes and listened to the crackling fires, the banging lids and the knife assaulting the block. And yes, this was True Texas BBQ. Thank you Kreuz!

BBQ, sliced beef and bread
Ribs and sausage and a cold Big Red
Bbq make the whole world see ya
Bbq makes everybody someone
If you’re feeling puny. Don’t know what to do
Get yourself some meat
Eat some BBQ…

Robert Earl Keen…BBQ

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Getting a BBQ fix (cont.)

Question: Does the constant quenching of the passion detract from it or make the burn less.

Answer: This one is complicated. The longer I push aside the need to BBQ, the more it tends to occupy my mind, enabling resentment to ooze in. I’ve become very effective at recognizing when that resentment is directed at my family, and I’ve taken personal measures to ensure that does not happen any longer. Actually I managed that after about year two. But the resentment attributed to “the real job” and its relentless pursuit of my time is different. The struggles of keeping a positive attitude and defining the personal goals that satisfy a need to feel fulfilled become a daily challenge. Not just a footnote challenge, but a challenge that requires pausing in the parking lot to define a state of mind that will be conducive for a working environment. Patience runs thin.
The burn to pursue BBQ does not die. It is not quenched. It may be forced to smolder for a little, but it takes just a little fanning to get the fire going again. Eventually something has to give though, and if its not BBQ, what will it be? Like I said, this one’s complicated.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Been a while since I’ve had a chance to blog. I know all the experts say, do it frequently, and make it relevant. Great advice when you’re able to focus on one subject, unfortunately real life gets in the way of that.

Question: How do you satiate a passion when it’s in direct conflict with all the other things that suck up time?
Answer: Get a fix anyway you can. Example – I had to give up cooking a contest two weekends in a row. Blocked the time out a long time ago, got the understanding from the family. All set. WRONG. Real job collides sending me to San Antonio TX for a week. Unfortunately it's the week between the two contests I’d like to attend. Others do this all the time, and I probably could have to, but at what sacrifice? Family sanity for the most part and I already drive them mad.

My fix – other than cooking for several parties the last couple weekends, finding an escape in TX. If the paying job is going to carry me near some of the meccas of BBQ, you’re darn right we are going to go support them. This time it will be Lockhart. I’ve never been, but I will. Funny thing…the folks I’m going to do business with haven’t been either, so here’s a guy from Chicago, meeting a dude from Switzerland in San Antonio, who is going to guide some Texans to Lockhart to savor a bit of the truest, purest form of American Cuisine. Yeah, I’m ready.
A better fix – figure out a way to make the passion a paying job. Amberque is doing fine, we’re establishing ourselves in a little market. My biggest challenge is taking it to the next level, but that’s subject for a new blog. And if you show me anybody who gets this far into BBQ who hasn’t at least thought of opening a place, I’ll show you a liar. They may be effective at talking themselves out of it, but they’ve thought about it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Its not a Texas town.

Its not really a shack.

And its not just outside LaGrange...its in LaGrange...LaGrange IL that is.

Q BBQ is one of the latest additions to the BBQ scene in Chicagoland. Opening up last year, Mike and his guys have mangaged to generate a lot of buzz for a corner BBQ shop in the quaint downtown area of LaGrange.

Oddly enough, I heard about it from a good BBQ friend of mine, Mark Link from Uncle Bubs BBQ in Westmont, IL. He mentioned that it was worth a trip to go check out the new place so one Thursday afternoon, I took the 20 minute drive up to LaGrange for lunch.

I timed my visit so I was strolling in about 12:50 or so...past the main lunch crowd in hopes to meet Mike LaPidus. Facebook posts made it sound like it pretty easy to find him there and they held true. He was right at the front counter. I introduced myself and it didn't take long to be whisked to the back to check out the pit see what was loaded up. Mike takes genuine pride that his Old Hickory is going almost 24/7, making brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, chicken, and wings.

Mike wasn't always a BBQer, always had an interest, but ran a sandwich shop for years. One thing led to another, and Mike found himself stomping through Memphis and Texas, and all over the place learning more about BBQ. His homework paid off as he's making some pretty good BBQ.

I got to sample lots of the offerings at the shop and it was all good. Not being much of a critic when it comes to BBQ, I find something good in almost everything I eat, I enjoyed everything. The ribs however left a lasting impression. They were great and I'd say they nailed those loin backs for sure!!!

Q takes an intriguing approach to decor. The chalkboard menu and country store-like front is juxtaposed with the swanky chic of an urban dining destination. Mike's response to that observation was, he's a foodie, he likes to try to give the clientele from LaGrange a feeling of chic with the simplicity of comfort food that BBQ offers. Well it works, the dining area is small, quaint, but inviting for anyone. Might be a risky approach for some BBQ places, but for this location, it works.

We talked a little of the trials of getting staff to put out the food with the same level of passion that Mike has for it. This is not something that is a unique challenge for Mike and Q. Its a common theme among most BBQ entrepreneurs I speak with. These guys painstakingly develop processes and techniques to first emulate something they like but then modify to give their BBQ its unique character. All BBQers are then faced with the task of imparting that knowledge and passion onto someone else, who may or may not have the same deep rooted desire and understanding of what makes good BBQ. The BBQers who manage to develop this asset, and then exploit it are rewarded with turning out good food again and again.

Overall, I'm glad I stopped in. I'll be back, probably toting some business lunch companions with me. Q is certainly worth a stop on your tour of Chicagoland BBQ.

Memphis...My turn to Chime in

OK, my good friends Danielle and Chris have already sung poetically of our trip to Memphis this year. As much as I could write about that experience, I’d not offer any new perspective or contribute to the discussion in a forward manner. So instead of talking about all the places and people we shared that experience with, I instead would like to focus on one person…Daryl.

Who is Daryl? He's the gentleman pictured above sitting in the front, left wearing the black stocking cap. (Thanks Chris for the picture) We bumped into Daryl exiting one of the places we visited on Beale Street, which one, it doesn’t really matter. He was a friendly guy, wearing a University of Iowa stocking hat complete with the embossed tiger hawk sitting on his forehead. His coat was weathered, but underneath it, he was an engaging conversationalist. We asked him how to get to Gus’ Fried Chicken.

Daryl gave us directions of how to get to Gus’, but there was something about the doubt in his voice in which he gave those directions that gave us pause. As he was about to go the other direction, Woody and I showed our Hawkeye pride by belting out “In Heaven there is No Beer.” Daryl couldn’t resist and had to show us up by doing his rendition of “Walking in Memphis.” We all laughed…Daryl commented how much Dave Raymond walked with purpose … ”he know where he go…y’all follow him…where he going now…’dat ain’t the way”!!!

Then Woody said it…almost as it was coming off my lips… “Just come join us for some chicken.”

“I couldn’t do that…’day ain’t gonna let me in down der…I homeless.”

“Maybe so, but you’re with us, come on”.

For the next hour or so Daryl led me on a journey to a place I don’t go very often. A walk on the path of trepidations those less fortunate than us stroll along everyday. Daryl's obvious experiences with feigned kindness forced him to move with caution, but for whatever reason he stayed with us. Maybe it was the lure of having a good meal, maybe the optimism of getting a couple bucks from this fun loving crowd, but I want to believe for that moment in time, Daryl just felt comfortable with a bunch of strangers. Two hundred feet from the door of Gus’, his level of anxiety had risen enough that I was convinced he wasn’t coming in. Woody, myself, Chris…everyone in our gang, gave reassuring glances…not looks that begged him to come with us, but looks that said, hey, its OK, your with us, you’ll be fine. No one elevated his stature in our group. Nobody diminished it, he just became another one of us.

We entered but Daryl couldn't bring himself to remove his coat. The server took our drink orders and finally got to Daryl. Daryl froze, barely able to speak, challenged to breathe. ”I’ll just have tea thank you”. As the server went to fetch drinks, Daryl’s face lit up and relaxed. That look is etched into my mind as the symbol of this BBQ sojurn. Relief, delight, disbelief, gratitude, wonderment all jumbled up into a sense of pride, that he’d sat down at a restaurant and ordered a drink. He shed his coat and shared a meal with 11 other people from all across north America. Not a meal begged for or stumbled upon, but a meal he had been invited to.

We gave him the largest piece of chicken. We gave him all the fries he wanted. We shared our fried pickles with him (which also induced peculiar look on his face). But what he relished most was being included, if only for an hour. Telling his his story and listening to others. We joked with him, he joked with us. But he gave us the gift, that twinkle in his eye, if only for short time on this cool and rainy day in Memphis.

Yes we shared. Not because we had to or felt obliged, but because we offered, and Daryl had the courage to accept. So, in Memphis, my best BBQ experience was at a fried chicken place with New Orleans man who had been blown to Memphis by Katrina.

Do I need more evidence that BBQ IS sharing? NO.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Good BBQ is like a Jimmy Buffet song...

It takes you someplace you've never been but always wanted to be and makes you feel like you've always belonged.

BBQ and Buffet are simple. Neither are filled with complicated cords or overproduction but rather gentle melding of a few basics. They don't require extensive training to decipher or create, just simple views on life's pleasures. Neither will ever be accused of manufacturing mediocre for the masses, but instead they motivate throngs of followers by creating cravings using nothing more than comfort and simplicity. Generations connect, smiles ensue, and if only for a bit, Buffet and BBQ lavish us with a great gift, respite from the whirlwind we call life.

Check your pretensions at the door, pull up a chair, grab a drink and dive in. Dare to day dream...beaches, a gentle buzz, hickory smoke wafting, full bellies, people smiling in a relaxed comfort zone. Both conjure images of places that elude us or have long passed away. Hard as we try, we'll never get there. Buffet and BBQ are port holes we use to gaze on the fleeting images of these by-gone places, feelings, and attitudes we crave as we are tossed by the storm of life. Whether it's listening to the narration of a lazy Caribbean beach stroll, or carousing with neighbors at a block party pig roast, our senses steer us the that place of gentle relaxation.

So to those who create those escapes for us...the Jimmy Buffets of BBQ, don't stop. Whether its a joint in the Carolinas, a monument in Texas, maybe and iconic place in Kansas City or even a "Shed" in Mississippi, or maybe it's just your back yard, America (and Canada too!!) thanks you!

Joey Mac