Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review: Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit

When I first really started to get into the fine details of barbecue, Kentucky Greg taught me a very important lesson: "There is no such thing as bad barbecue. There is simply barbecue you might like, and other kinds of barbecue that other people might like." So as I sample local grub and write about it here, try to keep that in mind. Even though I'm one of the smartest yahoos you'll ever meet, my tastes may just not be the same as yours. Please support all our local barbecue dives and judge for yourself stupid!

Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit

I had the pleasure of meeting Greg Engelhardt a couple years back when he sat down with me for an interview and shared his thoughts and philosophies on barbecue. I used some of that interview in a video I posted on an earlier version of this website, but regret that I haven't stayed in touch with Greg since then. So when I decided to start doing some barbecue reviews on this new blog, I had to start with Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit.

Jill and I took a couple friends who had never been to the Pit before for dinner, so we were already feeling good and ready for some mouth watering Q. Greg's has a pretty standard fair for beer, so I opened the night with a draft Bud as we eyeballed the menu. I had already taken a sneak peek at work, so my dinner started with a cup of the Brunswick Stew. Saying the stew was friggin' great is an understatement, and is certainly a contender for the best thing I had all night. The stew had hearty chunks of Greg's barbecue beef and pork, giving the broth a subtle smokey flavor, along with generous cuts of vegetables. I shared the stew with Jill and her eyes lit up on the first bite. (Hmm...I remember when she used to look at me like that!) Anyway, she ended up taking a pint home to eat later. That was the only appetizer we tried, but no worries because our entrees came out really fast.

Knowing that Jill would order ribs and I could steal one or two, I ordered the two meat combo with pulled pork and chicken (leg and thigh). I was given a choice between white and dark cuts, which I thought was a nice touch. Now, I forgot to ask for sauce on the side so it came with a helping of Greg's sweet sauce already poured on. Ain't a damn thing wrong with that, but sometimes I just like to try the meat without sauce first so I can get a sense of the dry rub and smoke flavors before saucing it up. I am partial to barbecue chicken, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed the quarter chicken more than the pork. A nice forkfull of dark meat and a bit of the barbecued skin in each bite...really well done. Since the sweet sauce was already on the pile of pork, I did dig to the bottom and get some meat to try with the spicy sauce Greg offers on the tables. I love hot spice, but I know many people don't care for much in their barbecue, so it surprised me how much of a kick the sauce had.  I'm still developing my pallet for this sort of thing, so I couldn't pick out the dominant spice being used, but there was definitely something coming through strong and tasty. 

Of course Jill can't eat all those ribs, so I was more than happy to dig right in. Greg's serves a St. Louis cut rib in either a 1/2 or full slab, or as part of a combo platter. Jill's 1/2 slab was served without sauce, which I like, so I was able to get a great bite of the spices from the dry rub and the flavor of the smoke. Um, I love trying different sauces, but these were the first ribs I ever had that I was happy to leave the sauce off. The flavor and texture were that good. The meat pulled easy from the ribs, another plus for me, and there was a noticeable smoke ring and good penetration of the rub. I did try a bit of the sweet sauce on my last bite to get a sense of how it complimented the other flavors, but I tell you it wasn't needed to make these ribs great.

My side dishes included Greg's hickory baked beans, which he cooks right on the pit. So I was able to get two or three wonderful bites in before our friend Taryn took the bowl and finished them herself. Bitch...they were really good! My second side was some collared greens, which I had never tried before in my life. I thought I would be adventurous and embrace a dish that is pretty popular in barbecue culture, but alas, I didn't care for them all that much. I'm sure as far as collard greens go, Greg's were probably delicious like everything else we had, but it just wasn't my thing. I blame Jill.

So the girls finished the meal by sharing a Sweet and Salty Fudge Pie with vanilla ice cream on top (like that was really needed). Um, do I really have to tell you if it was any good? Look at the picture stupid! I love eating pretzels with ice cream already, so this dessert was a hit even before I tasted it. A must have when you go there.

Some quick hits:
Greg's is a typical barbecue joint in that it's not too big, not fancy, plays great rhythm and blues, and has the obligatory picture of Elvis on the wall. Overall, a laid back comfy joint to hang out and have a few beers.
Service was exceptional, even when we stayed past the official closing time so Cale and I could have a final beer of the night. I wish I had gotten our waitress's name to compliment her, so my bad this time around.

All I can say is get your ass to Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit and enjoy. It really was a great night, with great friends and exceptional barbecue. That's what it's all about folks! Check out Greg's website and give him a "like" on Facebook.

Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit
2186 George Urban Blvd.
Depew, NY 14043


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What exactly is a barbecue “joint”?

Authentic Buffalo "joint".
Let’s get something straight, just because some line cook in a restaurant serves pork ribs that came out of a freezer or splashes some sauce on half a chicken and calls it barbecue, does not mean it is. Sure, maybe they can serve something that looks like barbecue, and if they get lucky, might even be somewhat tasty, but true barbecue it ain’t. A restaurant like that might be fine for the kids (or a date with your ugly cousin), but true barbecue aficionados seek a holier temple: the lowly, roadside, hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint.

Okay, maybe that description is a bit harsh, but for a cornhole like me, there is a mysterious reverence and admiration for places that only do barbecue and do it extremely well. Let other restaurants worry about offering gourmet crap burgers and low-cal fart salads. I’m simply looking for the best damn barbecue I can find: ribs, pork, brisket, chicken, and a couple homemade side dishes. That’s it. Oh, and maybe a bowl of chili or homemade soup. That’s it. Oh, and maybe some fresh baked pie for desert, but shit, that’s it!

Real bbq means real smoke.
Barbecue joints (or shacks) first and foremost are completely dedicated to making true, slow-cooked, American barbecue. This means they are probably cooking on an outdoor pit in the back, and burning a good amount of wood. They are craftsmen at what they do, spending years perfecting their rubs, sauces, and cooking techniques, and they are extremely proud of their ‘q. I would say that most pit masters would be happy to take you around back and show you their cooker if you ask nicely and if they have the time. Being dedicated solely to the art of barbecue is really the one overwhelming feature that sets a joint apart from just a regular family restaurant.

At best, a barbecue joint is decorated with a couple faded pictures of Elvis and maybe some old bottles of Redneck Ass Blaster hot sauce. In some joints you might even find one of those mechanic’s posters with a hot chick in short shorts bending over a tool box. Eat up boys! The point here is simple stupid so take note: it’s all about the ‘q and not much else. Mismatched tables and chairs, plastic silverware, and beer straight from the bottle is all the ambiance you’re gonna get, and it’s all you need. Sit back and just enjoy the laid back, uniqueness a joint offers, and don’t be a snob. Oh, and unless your hearing some southern rock or classic rhythm and blues in there, you might want to ask if you’re in a legit joint.

Barbecue joints offer only the best in custom decor.
Have you ever heard of Cattleman’s BBQ Sauce? Maybe not, but it’s the brand of choice you will be served in thousands of restaurant kitchens around the country where they buy it in 5-gallon drums. Pretty original, huh? Joints and shacks don’t put up with this fuckin’ non-sense and are mixing up their own unique dry rubs and sauces in-house. Most joints will offer a sweet, tomato-based sauce, a vinegar-based Carolina sauce, and some sort of spicier sauce. Joint owners are just as proud of their sauces as they are of their barbecue, and will eagerly tell you about all the sauces they offer, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Memphis Championship BBQ
I have nothing against chain restaurants, but with all due respect Famous Dave, your cookie cutter restaurants are not real barbecue joints no matter how hard you try to give them that ‘ole down home d├ęcor. When I was in Las Vegas last year, I made a point to visit Memphis Championship Barbecue, one of the restaurants owned by competition circuit legend Mike Mills. It’s not so much that the barbecue was bad, it was average, but the place just felt very “corporate” and impersonal. When I got home, I saw another Vegas joint featured on the Food Network, where this pit master was firing up his smoker outside the back of a gas station and serving ribs up to bikers right there at a bunch of broken down picnic tables. Now that’s a barbecue joint, and the place I should have sought out while I was there!

So, seek and you shall find. The best barbeque is not gonna be found at your local Smokey Bones or corner Arby’s. The best barbecue is hiding in a small, unambiguous (didn’t think I knew big words like that, did you) shack along the roadside somewhere. It won’t be fancy, but there will be a real pit master at work, smoking some of the best damn ribs and chicken you will ever taste. So grab yourself a pretty girl (or guy, or one of each...hey, we don’t judge here) and dammit, go eat!