My Yahoo Instant Messenger popped up: “I’ve found the perfect truck!” It was John, a friend since gradeschool. He and I had been considering a small transportation business, and apparently, he was ready. A few years ago he had driven truck and still had his commerical driver’s license. He was in IT now, like me, but tired of dealing with angry customers for mediocre pay. A link popped up next and I followed it to a picture, description, and price for the truck on Ebay. It was in Dewitt, Arkansas, about 90 minutes outside of Little Rock.
At about a thousand dollars to have the truck shipped to us, we decided to fly to Little Rock and drive it back. It would be cheaper, and besides, it’d been a while since we’d had a good road trip. (The last one was to the high Uintas in Utah for fishing — a miserable trip in which, after a hike where I got separated at 10,000 ft from both my friends and the food and water, I had gotten sick.)
John dealt with the seller. He said “Rusty and his boy” would pick us up in our newly-purchased Chevy dually at the Little Rock airport. (The way John described him, I imagined Karl from Slingblade sitting on the other end of the phone eating french fried potaters and potted meat, mmm-hmmm.) I gave John the choice of themes for the trip back: Mexican or BBQ. Never a fan of Mexican, he chose the latter. That was fine with me. It meant the cooler, northern route through Kansas City instead of Santa Fe, and I love BBQ and have always wanted to make a meat Mecca Hajj.
We’d make the trip longer than necessary, first driving east to Memphis, then North to St. Louis, and finally west through KC and on home. People on Chowhound and eGullet had warned me that Memphis didn’t live up to the hype, but after the trip, we were glad we did Memphis because one of the best items of the trip was there.
John came up early to Portland. We’d be taking a red-eye late that night and figured we might as well get a round of golf in before we left. I had an ulterior motive, too. I wanted him to join me for some of LOW’s BBQ at the Portland Farmer’s Market to set a baseline for the trip. We split a mixed meat plate with pork and lamb ribs, beef brisket, and chopped beef. LOW set a tough standard. No sliced beef lived up to theirs. And their lamb ribs, as always, were phenomenal and, though it may not be a fair comparison, outshined most of the ribs on the trip. The pork ribs were a bit disappointing. It’s LOW’s most inconsistent item. Sometimes they’re great. Sometimes they’re only decent. Even on an off day, though, they compare favorably with what we had on the trip. (They have a tendency to not be as tender as I would like.)
To get cheap airfare, we had to take an annoyingly indirect flight. We first flew from Portland to Minneapolis, then from Minneapolis to Memphis, and then finally to Little Rock. I wanted so badly for “Rusty and his boy” to pick us up in Memphis instead. We had left at 1 am and it was 10 am by the time we got the truck and started heading east. It’d be two hours of driving on Arkansas’s wickedly bad roads with headaches from lack of food and sleep before we’d reach Memphis.
It was Sunday, which had frustrated my plans a little. I had wanted to hit some of the favorites like Payne’s and Cozy Corner, but they were closed. As I called meat peddler after meat peddler on my list, I was ready to follow Nietzsche in his declaration that “God is dead”, and thus curse the deity responsible for these pit masters taking a day of rest. Lucky for my eternal salvation, some of the recommended options on my list were open.
Microsoft’s Streets & Trips software showed that Central BBQ would be the closest and so we hit it first. It’s always encouraging driving up to a BBQ shop and seeing a huge wood pile and billowing smoke from a half block away. Even if the guys behind the counter looked like Deadheads in their tie-dyed shirts and the line was populated with yuppies and frat boys, they’d made a good first impression and I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Of course, any doubts would be confirmed or refuted when our ribs, sandwich, and chips arrived.
The ribs (dry) were perfect — a caramelly bark on the outside which when broken revealed delectable pink meat, moist and tender. I was unable to stop crunching the addictive seasoned potato chips. The sandwich was forgettable at best, however. But it may have been a question of regional palates. The texture of the meat was like soft tuna fish which melted into the traditional Wonder bread-like bun.
We got the same thing, though a little better because of the slaw, at Corky’s. But still, these sandwiches which Memphis ‘cue lovers exalted online didn’t come close to anything John and I would normally call good. Corky’s failed in the ribs department, too. The rub applied after cooking excited the tongue, but most of the meat wasn’t really tender or moist and the “bark” just came across as tough, extra dry exterior, not the crisp and flavorful bark of Central’s ribs. A few bites here and there showed promise, but a few bites among a slab of ribs does not a happy pig-eater make.
Our last stop in Memphis was German Commisarry, but we had a hell of a time finding it even with the mapping software. We got held up by rubberneckers slowing at a jailbait car wash. Presumably in Memphis, Q joints are closed on Sunday, but high school girls raise money for their cheerleading team by shaking their scantily clad goodies in Germantown. (Amazingly, there seemed to be parents running the fundraiser — an all-too-literal meaning for “pimp-daddy”.)
The guy at Central had warned us not to bother looking for German Commissary because “tain’t no good.” But it wasn’t bad. The ribs were a step up from Corky’s, even if they didn’t have a palate-loving spice rub or even salt. The pulled pork was juicy and substantial, an agreeable contrast to the sandwich meat at Central and Corky’s. Disconcerting to this northern boy, an elderly white woman sat in the entryway directing customers and hollering orders to the black crew behind the counter. Miss Daisy may not sit in the driver’s seat, but make no mistake, she pilots the vehicle.
The Dixie Pig was a planned stop in Blytheville, Arkansas, on the way north to Missouri. But alas, they closed at 1:30 pm. We even had purchased a cooler at a local Wal-Mart (you’re always within walking distance of a Wal-Mart in the South) and loaded it with ice for leftovers. Oh well, the Mt. Dew was keeping us awake at least. Maybe when my sister graduates from Arkansas State University next year I’ll have an excuse to visit this legendary oupost.
We were still stuffed from the pounds of pig in Memphis when we reached St. Louis where we’d stay the night. We slept in a bit and took a leisurely pace across Missouri, stopping at Best Buys and Circuit Cities on I-70 hoping to find the Roady 2 so we could get XM radio. (It was sold out everywhere. We finally got the last one in stock at a Best Buy in Ft. Collins, Colorado.) About 60 miles east of KC, we could see an ominous wall of clouds forming ahead. We pulled over and thought twice about possibly driving our new truck through tornadoes and hail. But Johnny Cash was on the CD player and we decided to “drive on”. It rained so heavily we had to slow to walking speed and turn on the hazzards, but by the time we reached KC, the worst seemed to be over.
The advance word on Chowhound and eGullet was that LC’s was the place in Kansas City. So we went there first. The smoke fell to our noses, weighted by the humidity, the air so thick you could taste the wood. The fuel pile behind a barbed-wire topped fence guarded the outside back wall, while bars guarded the windows on the front. They had several options and we ordered what we thought would be a modest amount of meat, a mixed plate of ribs, sliced pork, and sliced beef, and an order of burnt ends. What we got was a massive meatathon that included fabulous fries and a Dagwood made from the sliced pork and beef.
As we tore through the Q, we tore at the toilet paper roll-style napkin dispenser to remove the excess grease and sauce from our faces and hands. While the ribs weren’t as tender or crusty as the ones at Central, they had a strong and pleasant smokiness. The sliced pork and beef were more like cold cuts than the juicy sliced shoulder and brisket I’m used to. But the flavor, especially of the pork, was excellent. They made a perfect sandwich. And they were clearly better than the mush on the sandwiches in Memphis.
My favorite item, though, was the burnt ends. Wow. As smokey as the ribs and sliced pork, but exuding liquid gelatine and fat, with that nice charred crust that gives them their name. I usually prefer hog to heifer, but these were superb and one of the best pieces of BBQ I’ve ever eaten.
Man does not live by Q alone, so we decided to hit Strouds while in KC for some fried chicken and home cooking. We arrived there just as they opened. The exterior is rather non-descript except for the proclamation: “Home of the pan fried chicken.” The interior looks like Stroud’s raided your grandmother’s Goodwill donations. The light fixtures glow in dull earthtones and the windows are draped with frilly curtains that have a tinge that make you wonder if they were always yellow. The ceiling sags down while the floor bows up. Someday, I suspect, the two will meet. But the staff was welcoming and eager to know why I was taking pictures — and honored that we chose to fit them between two BBQ legends.
John and I split a dinner that began with a rich chicken noodle soup. The noodles and broth were obviously homemade. It reminded John of the noodle soups his mom made after he bought her a pasta maker. For me, it harkened back to childhood meals when my mom and grandmother made everything from scratch. The bulk of the meal came next: green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and, of course, pan-fried chicken. The bowl of beans was topped with a hunk of ham, hinting to the smokey juices surrounding the beans. The potatoes were adequate, though I prefer them enriched with lots of butter and cream. These were obviously thinned with water or milk and little, if any, butter. The gravy was a peppery cream/drippings hybrid, neither especially bland or especially meaty. The chicken was crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, but could have used some seasoning. Was it the best chicken I’ve ever had? No. But it was good and the overall meal was very good.
They ended the dinner with cinnamon rolls. More like buns than rolls, John and I had doubted whether they’d be anything special. His mother makes terrific cinnamon rolls, traditional yeasty pinwheels loaded with butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar. The extremities get crusty and John’s family fights over every bit on the bottom of the pan. But these were exceptional in their own way. More subtle than the typical cinnamon roll, they were light, emphasizing a light breadiness over their sweetness.
Our last stop (after more searching for the Roady and getting stuck in Chief’s game traffic), was the famous Arthur Bryant’s. It’s in a somewhat seedy part of town. Just a couple blocks away, a stopped car in the middle of the road piled a hooker into their backseat as we waited for them to move on. Despite this, an eclectic clientelle waited in line for their meat offerings, including families, college students, blue collar African-Americans, Mexicans, and us. It’s cafeteria style in every way. The plain tables and linoleum flooring. The line winding around metal fencing. Sliding glass windows separating those ordering from those taking orders. Your meal even comes on plastic trays like my hot lunches in gradeschool.
You can order by the pound at Arthur Bryant’s, which is a nice convenience. We sampled the sliced pork and beef, the burnt ends, and the ribs — a head-to-head matchup against LC’s. Not one item was clearly superior to that at LC’s, except maybe the sliced beef. The sliced pork was possibly more moist than the sliced pork at LC’s, but lacked the intense flavor. The burnt ends came drenched in sauce, hiding any of the crustiness that I was looking for. The ribs were close, though less meaty. Even the sauce wasn’t quite as good as LC’s. We left bloated and shoved leftovers into our cooler for breakfast the next day.
The television in Arthur Bryant’s had been scrolling weather warnings during our entire dinner. The Doppler radar showed a line of red across I-70 west of KC. The announcers for the Chief’s game worried it would have to be stopped due to lightning and tornado warnings. It was sprinkling when we got into the truck and by the time we crossed into Kansas we had entered Baghdad during shock and awe. The air rumbled with constant thunder. Flashes were all around us. Before we even left Kansas City, strikes landed instantaneously with their claps. We were having a hard time readjusting our eyes after the blazing bursts. Then the rain came. Three hours later, the flashes were on the horizon again and we no longer wondered if lightning prefers the chubby (me) or the muscular (John).
After a night in a Colorado-border roach motel, we set off for Denver, only a couple hours away. I’d been checking my email wirelessly at Flying J truck stops and requested a lunch suggestion from my Texan friend, Scott. But before I’d get a chance to test his research, a new set of dark clouds would stand in our way. This time, they were being discharged from our tailpipe. Every time we went up even a slight grade, our cruise control would kick into overdrive and soot would fly from our exhaust. Eight hours later, our asses sore from Chevy dealership waiting room chairs, we learned it would take two days to get the parts and we might as well drive it home. At least it was under warranty. And in that time, we had gotten a recommendation, and for BBQ even: The Brickyard.
Bright red on the outside, it’s hard to miss. The walls are bright red, too, with patrons’ comments written in black marker on every bit of reachable space. We ordered another mixed plate and a slab of ribs. Like the KC BBQ joints, they sold burnt ends, and on our mixed plate we ordered both beef and pork burnt ends along with sausage. The order came with fries. Everything was comparable to the ‘cue we’d had in Kansas City, though not as smokey. But we were surprised at how good it was. Denver-dwellers can be proud.
As I noted, we found the Roady 2 in Ft. Collins. With Art Bell to keep us company through remote Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, John and I decided to drive through the night, taking turns napping. We reached Pendleton, Oregon, just in time for lunch. My copy of Roadfood recommended the Circle S BBQ for ribs and home cooking. Perfect. The dark wood exterior reminded me of BBQ dives in Texas. The row of big trucks outside suggested belly-pleasing food inside. Unfortunately, they were probably busy due more to lack of competition than outstanding food. That, and the stuffed jackalopes on the walls. We ordered a full slab or ribs. They had little to no smoke flavor, seemed braised, and while not bad, just underwhelmed after three days of high quality Q. We should have ordered the chicken-fried steak.
Once back in Portland, there was one place left on my list: Campbell’s. I figured I would begin and end with my favorite BBQ in Portland. Campbell’s smoker with it’s large metal doors might look like LC’s, but smokers don’t cook meat, pitmasters cook meat. One of the areas that Campbell’s needs to improve to challenge for Portland’s best Q is their meat selection. The brisket I received, while tasty and in many ways better than the beef at anywhere on the trip except LOW, had slices with large strings of gristly sinews and sections of fat. The pork ribs had a nice bark, but some pieces were dry and some bones barely had meat on them. They do make very good sides and a delicious sweet potato pie which gives them an edge as a restaurant. They just need to take a little more care with their meat.
2500 miles later, I already missed some of the great food I had eaten only a couple days earlier — those ribs from Central BBQ in Memphis, the burnt ends from LC’s, the cinnamon rolls from Strouds. But I was encouraged that I had some damn good ‘cue in Portland, too. Of course, I haven’t sampled the Texas meat tabernacles. Lockhart, Texas: 2300 miles. Hmmm…..