Friday, January 23, 2009

Ramblings: BBQ Joint Reviews

I have determined that I would never want to be a professional restaurant critic.

Gary, the proprietor of, was generous enough to invite me to join him on trips to four different BBQ joints that he was reviewing. I enjoy joining Gary on these jaunts. The BBQ banter is fun. Critiquing the food, service and ambience is enjoyable. The experience, however, is one that is best enjoyed in moderation.

Feeling an obligation to ‘do the restaurant justice’ pulls you from the simple pleasures of sitting down to a good meal with friends. I recently posted a synopsis of a visit to a local BBQ joint at the BBQ Brethren forums. I was there with my niece and parents. My father had a burger and I had a hot dog. If I were there to review the restaurant I would have had a responsibility to order a sampling of the BBQ fare. Don’t feel like BBQ that day? Have a hankering for a hot dog? Too bad.

From my visits with Gary and my experiences purchasing food from Long Islands various joints to bring back to a friends BBQ place for comparison purposes, I would hazard a guess that my threshold for reviews is about once a month.

I strive to ensure that the information on this site is not geographically specific, ensuring that the posts are as useful to someone in Maine as they are to someone in Alabama. Because of this, we don’t do restaurant reviews. We can, however, discuss the process.

The first step is planning. Are you going to hit more than one place that day? What are their hours? How close are they to each other? Is this a new visit or a return trip? Do you want to repeat the same menu items from your first visit? What time of day are you arriving? Should you go later to allow for meats to have been smoked from that morning? Do you try to avoid the time approaching closing so that you don’t get food that has been sitting in a steam table for hours?

Once you arrive at the restaurant your first concern is anonymity. You want to try the food exactly the way that everyone else gets it. You don’t bring attention to yourself. You take photos surreptitiously. Questions are asked about smoking woods or the type of pit without trying to sound too knowledgeable or overly curious.

Before getting to your table, you take in the ambience. Were you greeted at the door? Is the staff friendly? Is the room too hot or cold? Is the music deafening? Do they have a motif? Did they achieve their d├ęcor goals or does it come across as kitschy?

Once you are seated you try to gauge how long it takes to be approached by your server and to receive water at your table. How is the service? Does the server offer suggestions? Are they knowledgeable about the menu?

Hopefully you are joined by friends so that you can order a large amount of food without it appearing to be a bacchanalian feast. All of the basics are covered. Appetizers will usually include Burnt Ends and maybe some smoked wings. Side dishes will include a sampling of corn bread, beans, coleslaw, collard greens and mac & cheese. Main dishes will include ribs (beef, St. Luis and baby backs), brisket, chicken and pork (usually pulled). Specialties may be tried if they are apropos (such as a smoked meatloaf). Sadly, you are usually too full to try a dessert, although a bread pudding or a cobbler are just as emblematic of BBQ as ribs.

You sit and discuss while trying to digest. If possible you take notes that you will flesh out when you leave. If this is your second trip of the day you start to plan your menu for the rest of the week. Salads will play a large part. Tofu is no longer classified as a four letter word. You pay the bill and make your way to your car, mission accomplished.


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Pigtrip said...

Thanks for the mention and thanks even more for joining me on the restaurant visits.

You did a nice job of raising many of the questions (struggles really) that go through my mind before and during a review.

But there's one aspect you left out that hits especially close to home for your site in particular: do you order the meats with or without sauce? There are pitfalls either way. Ordering without sauce may improve the product because you can taste the meat and spices without interference or artificial moisturizing agents. Or the product could suffer without that crutch, plus you're not really reviewng what the cook intended you to taste. Ideally, trying it both sauced and unsauced is the way to go, but that's not always practical. It can drive you nuts.

Eric Devlin said...

That is absolutely true and another reason why I limit how often I would do something like this. In general I prefer to order meat without sauce so that I can get a better impression of the quality of the cooking and the meat itself.

I don't want to feel obligated to try it one way or the other when I'm trying to enjoy a meal.