Monday, August 18, 2014

Q Fest 2014: Backyard Barbecue Heats Up

Judge's sampling the 'que.
Thank you again for everyone who made Q Fest 2014 another great event! There is so much that goes into creating this event each year that I can't begin to express how grateful I am to have such understanding and loving people in my life. No shit. I'm not kidding this time. None of this happens without my lovely wife Jill and my kids, Cody, Dustin, Carter and Lily. Thank you all so much for helping with the house and yard, and most of all, for putting up with me all summer!

Me and my love!
Q Fest 2014 was our fourth yearly event and planning for it went relatively well, but for some reason I stressed about it the most. In addition to dealing with Jill's emergency surgery and extended hospital stays, all I kept thinking was , "there's no way we will get a fourth straight year of beautiful weather for this". Honestly, I had nightmares about the whole event being ruined by one thing or another. (An unwelcome interruption from my usual dreams about naked cowgirl zombies, but that's a discussion for me and my therapist.) But the barbecue gods were looking down on us and we had just a gorgeous day!

Jim Duffey entertains.
Highlights of the event for me included an acoustic set by my good friend Jim Duffey who opened the Fest with about an hour of his favorite original and cover songs. Jim and I have played in bands together since I was in high school and I have always been a huge fan of his songwriting talents. For me, great music is part of enjoying great barbecue, and Jim made my day by coming in from Chicago and sharing his songs with us! A special shout out to Hey Man, who finished up the day with their own musical sets!

A full yard of barbecue!
We had 11 teams register this year, but thanks to little Jude who made his appearance in this world just a couple days before, our good friends from Big Wood Little Beaver had to drop out at the last minute (damn kids!). The only dish I didn't get to try was Frank's BA ribs so I'm extra disappointed that I missed out on them because they did get an award. I never did get a chance to vote (too busy feeding you needy people) but I will share with you some thoughts. I really enjoyed John's smoked pork belly and was a bit surprised we didn't see him accepting an award. I thought Cody and Spencer's cheeseburger sliders were done extremely well. I also thought newcomers Mark and Kim's chili was a great first entry and I hope they will make another run at an award next year.

Each year it seems, teams are taking this competition more and more seriously. I think that's worth a loving slap on the ass. I see teams coming better prepared, making dishes that are more planned out and complex. We have teams coming with professionally made banners and t-shirts, and truly embracing the balance between having fun and competing. That's what this event was always meant to be. Making new friends over some cold brews, great barbecue, good music, and having a little spirit of competition to make it interesting. I hope we will continue to keep that spirit growing.

People's Choice Winners
1st Place went to House Targaryen Dragon Breath BBQ with their Maple Beef Brisket
2nd Place was Naked Bastards BBQ with Simply BBQ Chicken with Bacon Mac 'n Cheese
3rd Place taken by No Name with their Pork Tenderloin

Dragon's Breath BBQ, Naked Bastards BBQ, and No Name

Judge's Choice Winners
1st Place was Moeller Meat and Sweet BBQ with their Smoked Pulled Pork Sliders with Creamy Coleslaw
Judge's Choice Honorable Mention went to Second Hand Smokers with Frank's BA Ribs
Judge's Choice Best Side Dish went to House Targaryen Dragon Breath BBQ with their Potato Pancake with Goat Cheese Sour Cream

Moeller Meat and Sweet BBQ, and Second Hand Smokers

Cookie Contest Winners
1st Place went to Danielle Weber
2nd Place went to Lily Wild and Jillian Yorko
3rd Place was won by Jen Cullen

Danielle 1st, Jillian and Lily 2nd, and Jen 3rd

This was the first year we actually asked for donations to help us with the costs of the paper goods and beer. It's not about the money for us, but shit people, you drink like you'll never see another beer in your life! Everyone proved to be exceptionally generous, and after covering a portion of costs, we were able to make a donation to Pets Alive (formally Buffalo Humane) on everyone's behalf.

Special Thank You To:
Jim, Dave and Roger for entertaining us with music throughout the day.
Kelly and Alyssa for tending bar and keeping the drinks flowing.
Don, Barb and Rich for judging all our amateur entries.
Erin for running the judging contest and keeping us on track.
Jill for organizing and running the cookie contest.
Mom and Dad, Mary and Danny, John, Kathy and Jen who donated gift baskets.
Melissa and Bill for counting the voting ballots.
Joe and John for loaning us tables, tents and chairs.
John, Mark and Frank who helped with yard clean up Sunday morning while I had to be in Rochester with Carter for a hockey game. What a tremendous help!

See everyone next year!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Barbecue Success (and Boners) at Taste of Buffalo 2014

When I wasn't swearing under my breath at all the parents who pushed their kids and strollers through the Taste of Buffalo this year, I was barbecue hunting for the best smoked tastes the festival had to offer. 

Barbecue Success

My first positive shout out goes to Dinosaur BBQ and their Smoked Turkey Sandwich. No offense to Dinosaur's pulled pork (which I sampled at the BBQ Blues Bash few weeks back), but the smoked turkey slapped that pig down pretty good. I generally like a thinner slice on sandwiches, but this turkey was an exception with a nice thicker cut that had a perfectly balanced smoke. The slices were moist and the bite was easy. I'm slowly learning to enjoy barbecue for the true taste of the meat without masking it with sauce, and this sandwich was a great example. Served with just a brushing of sauce on a soft roll, the turkey was front and center...and delicious. We bought two more and brought them home.

A surprising second shoutout goes to the Riverstone Grill and their Bourbon Smoked Brisket Sandwich. Maybe I just don't get out enough, but this restaurant wasn't even on my radar until I saw their booth and the open smoker with a whole pig on the rotisserie. Barbecue bingo. The smoked brisket hit on just about every detail. A great flavor blend of the subtle smoke and beef, accented by the sweetness of the bourbon. Again, this was a sandwich that didn't need to be enhanced by anything other than the meat juices and small amount of sauce on top. If I wanted to nitpick, I might say that the beef might have been cooked a little too long and was just a bit too soft. I'm all for tender, melt in your mouth bites, but I might have liked just a bit more texture and chew. It was a great sandwich.

R'nR BBQ food truck was also at the Taste, but to their credit, the line was too long for me to wait in. I'll try and catch them at another event this summer. (I did get a chance to eat at the R'nR truck last year at Larkin Square, and the Barbecue Bacon Burger was fantastic.)


Barbecue Boners

Okay, so we all know that true barbecue means: meat plus wood plus smoke. Too many vendors that called themselves "barbecue" at this year's event ignored this sacred tradition, and in my opinion, that's just not right. I'll start with an apology, that if any of these restaurants smoked their meats off site and then finished them on a grill at the event, I'm sorry to call you out here. I don't think it's coincidence that my two favorite dishes came from Dinosaur and Riverstone, which both had multiple smokers going throughout the day. 

So I tried ribs at Fat Bob's, and although they did have some smoke flavor, I just didn't enjoy them. Although they had great color and crust, the meat was well overdone and the heavy sauce was just too overwhelming for my taste. (My wife and youngest son also tried them and enjoyed them much more than I did, and they raved about the Mac 'n Cheese.) I did not see a smoker at BW's Barbecue, and since I had their grilled ribs just a couple weeks ago at a catered event, I skipped their tent. I also saw a couple large grills at JD's Smokin' Grill, but by the time I decided to try their dark meat chicken portion, they had run out. Again, without signs of a smoker on site, my enthusiasm was pretty limp. My final miss goes out to Garris BBQ, who chose to offer fried catfish instead of a barbecue dish. Garris is one joint I haven't been too yet, so I was especially disappointed that I did't get a chance to taste their barbecue.


Final Saucy Thoughts

So maybe I'm just being a barbecue snob here, but I really was disappointed by the lack of real barbecue being offered at the Taste. Get your smoker there next year and get the job done right. Special shout out to the folks who did the planning or organizing for the Taste this year, as it was extremely well done. Thanks again to my usual tasting crew of Jill, Taryn, Cale and Carter.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: JD's Smokin' Grill and Bar

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!

JD's Smokin' Grill and Bar

JD's Smokin' Grill and Bar
When I heard about JD’s Smokin’ Grill and Bar a few months ago and did a brief review of their menu online, for some reason my first impression was that this was simply another burger and wing joint that just happened to serve a few barbecue dishes. My only excuse (besides too many beers) is that I didn’t read carefully enough, because after Jill and I met a few friends out for a late dinner last week, I can now testify that JD’s is most certainly an authentic barbecue place that knows a little something about smoking them pigs.

What JD’s is not, is a little hole in the wall, off the beaten path barbecue shack. It is a pretty large, open space for a typical joint and has plenty of seating, booths and tables, as well as an outdoor patio. It’s very easy to overdo the vintage sign and old license plate look when you’re trying to give a place that “ole’ country” feel, but JD’s is done simply and gives off a very warm feeling for such a large space. The cleanliness throughout was impressive and worth noting, and the wait staff was extremely friendly.

JD's BBQ Wings
JD’s menu is pretty extensive for a joint that touts itself as having authentic barbecue, so for this review we skipped the more traditional burgers and salads, and went straight for the “q”. We started with two appetizers: the Red Neck Egg Rolls ($6.50) and the Jumbo BBQ Wings ($6.29). The egg rolls were filled with JD’s pulled pork and homemade coleslaw, served with a side of sweet chili dipping sauce. The fried roll itself and the coleslaw had a groovy crunch to them, complimented by the tenderness and mild tang of the barbecue pulled pork. The dipping sauce offered just enough sweet and mild heat, so it did not overwhelm the pork and slaw flavor, but complimented it just right. (My only suggestion is that these could be served on some sort of napkin or deli paper to soak up a little of the oil that settles on the bottom of the fried rolls.) The “jumbo” barbecue wings were just average size actually, but once we tasted, we were not disappointed. The wings are first smoked on JD’s pit, and for my taste, they hit the smoke just right. It was not too heavy, which can be easy to do with small cuts of meat, but strong enough to stand out. The wings are glazed with JD’s mild barbecue sauce and finished off on the grill. Again, the sauce and char were mild enough that they did not overpower the great taste of the smoke, but gave just enough sweet flavors to make it all work well together for an exceptional barbecue wing.   

Red Neck Egg Rolls
Next came out the complimentary homemade cornbread. According to their website, this is owner Dinah’s special recipe and it is served hot with a generous spoonful of their maple butter. I am not a huge cornbread fan in general, but after listening to our friend Taryn go on about it being “perfect”, I had to dig in myself. The cornbread had an ideal consistency and crumble, with just the right amount of sweetness, highlighted by the rich, nutty flavor of the maple butter. (Hint, melt the maple butter right over the cornbread while it’s still hot.)

But onto the main event barbecue, JD’s sample plate ($15.99) including sliced brisket, quarter chicken, and ribs. We first tried the brisket which was sliced thin and served with the original mild sauce on top. Even though Cale and I had a short debate about thinner vs. thicker cuts, the brisket was tender, moist, and easy to pull apart. The smoke was rather mild and could have gotten lost if a stronger sauce was used, but overall it was really well done brisket. The quarter chicken consisting of a leg and thigh (you also have the choice of getting a breast and wing) was again smoked on the pit, glazed, and finished on the grill. For Cale the char was just right, while I would have liked a bit less since I think it overwhelmed some of the other flavors. However, the meat inside was moist and enjoyable.

Sampler Plate with Brisket, Chicken, and Ribs
So to be honest, we came to the restaurant late and were the second to last table to be served. I’m not fishing for an excuse here, but the ribs we had were a little dry. There were some good flavors there in the spice rub and glaze, but…

Okay now wait. You don’t think I’m going to review a barbecue place and verbally slap around their ribs without doing my research do you? Well read on folks. I drove back down to West Seneca a couple days later for lunch all by myself, cozied right up to the bar, and with a cold beer in hand ordered a half-slab of ribs ($15.99). I made it a point to ask the bartender (shout out to Irma!) to tell the chef “light on the grill char”, and she happily did. I enjoyed some friendly chit-chat over another beer and when the ribs came out I knew it was the right thing to come back for. Presentation was outstanding with a beautiful dark-red color and shiny glaze. (Sorry, but I forgot to take a picture. Give me a break. I’m still new at this…geez.) When I bit into the first rib the meat was tender, with just enough pull to keep the meat on the bones without making it difficult to eat. The meat had a nice smoke ring and that hickory flavor came through really well, complimented perfectly again by the mild house sauce.  For many barbecue joints, reputations can be made or lost on their ribs, so I am glad to say these are well worth a visit to JD’s.

Some final thoughts and opinions:
JD’s offers three original barbecue sauces table side: Mild, Original, and Rebel Yell (spicy). In general I think barbecue should be about bold flavors, but I thought in this case the mild sauce complimented most of the meats the best. It was sweet without being too aggressive, while the flavor of the original sauce didn’t hit me as well. The Rebel Yell sauce had a strong cayenne pepper taste and was our second favorite.

I tried three of JD’s side dishes not including the cornbread. The big hit for me was the real mashed potato with gravy. A hearty mash of potato with some chucks and skins left in, underneath a thick ladle-sized potion of gravy. Recommended.

JD’s offers a pretty standard fare of bottled and tapped beers including the usual Blues and Buds, along with some local choices from Great Lakes Brewing and Flying Bison.

Sorry, but there was no room in the bellies to review any of the homemade desserts.

It can be extremely hard to get all of the flavors that go into barbecue to play nice together, and overall, JD’s does it better than many of them. When I describe the flavors and techniques as mild, don’t misunderstand, it’s not a bad thing. JD’s offerings had a milder smoke flavor, but that was complimented extremely well by the mild sauce they are glazed with, and those are complimented by a mild char on the grill, and all those profiles together make up really enjoyable barbecue. Owners Joe and Dinah have done a really nice job putting together a welcoming restaurant, and yes I get it now, some pretty smoking barbecue.

Thanks again to Jill, Taryn and Cale for a fun night out and helping me with this review! At the end of our evening I did ask if I could go back and look at owner Joe’s pit, but alas it was past closing time and they had to promise me next time. I’m holding them to it.

JD's Smokin' Grill and Bar
1956 Ridge Road
Buffalo, NY 14224

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

In Search of the Ultimate Taco

Okay, I know tacos are not traditional barbecue, but they are one of my all time favorite foods, and so I'm going to exercise a little self-indulgence and write about them here in my barbecue blog. And yes, I know there is a difference between a "taco" and "burrito", but for this discussion, I use "taco" as the general term. Deal with it!
My original taco heaven.

When I was in high school and getting drunk regularly with friends, our go to place for the end of night munchies was a placed called Casa DiBello on the corner of Maryvale and Beach. I used to get a large beef  taco with no tomatoes and extra hot sauce, take it home, sit on the end of the couch in front of Saturday Night Live, and dig into the best damn taco I ever had. Now really, what sets tacos apart from each other is the flavor and texture of the meat inside, and the ground beef they used at Casa DiBello had a combination of spices and tastes that I have not been able to find since. Again, my pallet is not sophisticated enough to know what exact flavor profiles were in there, I just know it was f!@#ing great! And so when the owner of DiBellos sold the business in December of '89, my lifetime obsession to find a taco THAT good began.

I happen to know one of the owners who bought the place in '89 and run into him from time to time, but he swears to me that that the original owner did not sell him the recipes, just the business. Because I refuse to accept that the recipe is gone forever, I suspect he is holding something back from me. Once in a while when I press him on the issue, he will offer little tidbits like, "I think it started with a Lawry's taco seasoning mix", or "try adding some cumin", but I can never get anything more from him dammit. I think DiBellos finally closed it's doors sometime in the mid-00's.

I have tried unsuccessfully to track down the original owner, Bob Miller, over the years. The best I have gotten is some conflicting reports that he went to school and became an RN, and/or he opened a horse training facility down in Pennsylvania. That's not a joke. He always had a love for horses and harness racing and had pictures of them all over the walls when he owned DiBellos. Well, where ever he ended up, I hope he is doing well and would love to hear from him.

So I have tried every kind of store-bought taco seasoning I can get my hands on, and find nothing that compares to the flavor of Bob's tacos. I have tried tacos all over town and am continually disappointed with the results. I don't think Mighty Taco even uses real beef. Moe's sucks. Taco Bell isn't worth the 99 cents. Lloyd's Taco Truck gets kudos for effort, but it's not my thing. I spit out Ziggy's the first time I tried their tacos. And don't tell me to go to an authentic Mexican place because that's not what I want. I simply want that crappy, American version of a taco that I used to get at DiBellos, dripping with hot sauce and all it's original flavor.

My go to taco from Johnny's.
My go to places lately have been Johnny's Pizza on Union in Cheektowaga, and Burrito Bay on Millersport in Amherst. They are a long way from what I used to savor at DiBellos, but they are well above average tacos. I would love to try some new places around town, so send me suggestions where I can faithfully continue my search for my ultimate taco. And so it goes.