Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Barbecue Tour of Far South Alabama.

There are many places, people, even states that lay claim to great barbecue. I grew up between the forces of Memphis pork butt and Texas beef brisket, sometimes waved by the eddies of Kansas City and St. Louis. Arkansas’s own home-grown ‘cue’s descent into obscurity, that of the smoked goat, left behind only some of the famed sauces that once covered it (McClard’s and Craig Brothers’ comes to mind), coleslaw on the top and sometimes, the desire to serve one’s meat on white bread.

Nationally, we speak a language of barbecue. Many of our restaurant chains offered barbecue sauce slathered on whatever meats each serves, from Arby’s to Slim Chickens to the lowly McRib. Yet, despite generations of drive-thru customers coast to coast, our regional barbecues retain their unique accents, styles and cultures.

The last few days of July, photographer Grav Weldon and I traveled to a sunswept plain close to the Gulf of Mexico, to experience the exotic and the ordinary, and to discover whether Alabama’s claim to having the best barbecue of any state is merited. We proceeded with suggestions from our friend Art Meripol, photographer of the fantastic new book Alabama Barbecue: Delicious Road Trips, and from our friends with Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. And we utilized a fantastic barbecue-centric application available for free, the Alabama BBQ app.

We crisscrossed the area from Orange Beach to Fairhope, looking for places to sample and sniffing the air for those great flavors that often pull us off the road. After three days and nights and (I kid you not) 11 different meals, Grav and I came up with our five favorite spots for barbecue within 30 minutes of the Alabama Gulf Coast. What’s unusual about this list for us, is that we agreed on the exact order of each of these eateries.

Next time you’re headed south to enjoy the white sand beaches of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, put these stops on your itinerary.

1. Down South Bar-B-Q (Foley). As I write this, I am weepy because this diminutive yet ridiculously good barbecue joint apparently does not ship its products. One of our first stops on our trip, Down South
became our standard to which others aspired but few came close. There’s no dining room, just a screened-in pavilion to the side with picnic tables and fans on white sand. There’s no credit card machine – it’s a cash only joint, unless you have a local check – and the entire operation is tucked away about a block from Highway 59.

The barbecue is simple and cheap. We went for a
couple of sandwiches – the pulled pork and the sliced brisket. The pinkish pork in its tangy sauce was superb, but it was the brisket that really stole my heart… peppery, red ringed, extraordinarily tender. Great with a spicy barbecue sauce, it tastes like prime rib when paired with the horseradish sauce. That sauce… smooth, creamy, just
enough bite, I could drink the stuff. Ask Grav… I did actually shoot the remainder. The horseradish potato salad with simple red skin mashed potatoes, salt, pepper and I believe the same horseradish sauce, is a masterpiece.

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2. Hog Wild Beach and BBQ (Gulf Shores). There’s a sign right by the register that emphasizes the situation on supply at the restaurant: “when we’re out, we’re out.” That’s right – the restaurant closes down when it’s sold out of all of its pork, chicken, sausage, baby back ribs, turkey and wings.

We met our friend and Gulf Shores contact Kay here for lunch on a
Friday afternoon and sampled ribs, chicken and turkey. The ribs were good even by our at-home standards, but they paled in comparison to the turkey, which was succulent, juicy and soft and served as a sandwich with that white Alabama barbecue sauce and pickles for a remarkable combination I’m still dreaming about.

And then there was the Smoked Crispy Chicken.
Think of what would happen if a smoked beer-butt chicken and a Peking Duck had a delicious baby. This is a smoked chicken half that’s quickly deep fried to crisp the skin to ridiculous perfection. Grav is still raving about this beauty.

Cait's potato salad
deserves special mention; absurdly pickle-y, it's just excellent.  The recipe's actually posted on the wall, for those who are interested in tackling it at home. Also, the layered banana pudding here was both light and heavy, with plenty of banana pieces and ‘nilla wafers. Website.

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3. Moe’s Original Bar-B-Que (Orange Beach). The only chain on our list, Moe’s made it because it’s excellent and a block from the beach. And, of course, because it’s quite excellent.

Moe’s was founded by Mike Fernandez from Tuscaloosa, Ben Gilbert from Athens, and Jeff Kennedy from Huntsville. They all met at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and they all
ended up in Colorado, eventually starting a barbecue joint in 2001. What? No, really. This spot was in their sights for a while, and after first Ivan and then Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast in 2004 and 2005, they bought the little shack
right off the highway and opened the first Alabama location there. Today there are locations in Colorado, Maine, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina… and all over Alabama. A couple years later they’d open one in Windmill Market in Fairhope, but that place took another
turn (which you’ll hear about below).

We were tempted on our Thursday night visit to sample the Thanksgiving Thursday, which consists of the sliced smoked turkey with cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce and white sauce on a bun… but wasn’t sure if that’d be a good review. Maybe at some other time.
Instead, I went for the smoked barbecue wings, which were glossed with that very tangy Alabama tomato-based sauce and served with white sauce for dipping. They were piquant and suckable, and eight was just too many for one sitting. The
banana pudding, by the way, was smooth and banana flavored with a little vanilla wafer thrown in.

Grav’s choice of sliced smoked turkey was decadent, especially in size, with seven slices of turkey drizzled with both that tangy red sauce and
the milder but still perky white sauce. He favored this turkey over that at Hog Wild BBQ (though I felt the other way around about it) and was floored over the tenderness… as in, you could gum this turkey. We’ll be looking for Moe’s elsewhere (I think Little Rock is ready for a franchise). Website.

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4. L.A. Barbecue (Summerdale). It was as if providence itself was shining down on us… in the form of a very strong, very bright rainbow that came on when we were just a quarter mile from this location on Friday evening. Moreso, as we tried the different sauces and meats within, a double rainbow formed, and one customer claims
he saw a third arc starting to form.

That being said, we were pretty pleased with the offerings here, especially the barbecue beef brisket stuffed potato I procured. The strongly smoky beef needed taming, which it got initially under the cover of cheddar cheese
and sour cream but which was perfected with so many sauces. How many? Six – from the savory, vinegary mustard sauce to tangy and smoky Texas, a strongly sweet Southern and a white Alabama, 4-Alarm Fire to a Jezebel sauce. It was the last that really caught my attention. Its sweet green essence was undeniably tantalizing… I found
myself striping that potato with strips of the white Alabama, the Jezebel, the Southern sweet and the Texas, and still could not get enough.

Grav’s choice at L.A. Barbecue just barely can
be considered barbecue – it’s the joint’s smoked chicken salad, which retained a remarkable smoke flavor. Served up on green lettuce leaves, it was a nice cooldown in contrast to all the hot-on-the-bun barbecue we’d had on our trip. Website

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5. Mister John’s BBQ (Fairhope). Now, if you’d told me that the most exotic item on my entire journey would be Argentinian smoked beef brisket created by an elderly gentleman who’d been working with meat longer than I’d been alive, I wouldn’t have believed it. But that’s exactly what I encountered inside Fairhope’s famed
Windmill Market.

This exquisite sandwich on a bun baked by Sweet Olive Bakery was the most ridiculous fusion of meat with green chimichurri sauce, savory coleslaw, red cabbage and Alabama white sauce you can imagine… but it was also one of those things you
have to savor when you go to Mister John's BBQ. You don’t get much of a choice – the combination melts the bun and you end up going to search for a fork because, well, dang.

Grav stepped away from the sauce and went for the smoke with the daily special, a smoked meatloaf sandwich that was also quite amusing, served up
with a side of perfectly seasoned collard greens. The winner, we both agreed, wasn’t just my barbecue sandwich but the bread pudding made from Sweet Olive Bakery bread glued together with a lovely lemon-laced frosting. Writing that line just made me salivate again.

This place, by the way, took the spot originally held by Moe's Original Bar-B-Que when the
market originally opened. Moe's is great... and so is Mister John's. Website.

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On our three night trip, we also sampled a candy shop, a popsicle stand and a fruit stand – and that’s on top of the delicious breakfasts David conjured for us at Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast each morning. We found that everywhere we went, including all the beaches, were within a half hour’s drive. That included everything from watching the crowd at The Flora-Bama on the Florida-Alabama border to catching a sunset over Mobile Bay at Fairhope. In-between, we strolled through historic Fort Morgan in the rain, thrift-shopped in Foley, surveyed the beach in Gulf Shores, explored the back roads around Bon Secour and walked the boardwalk at the Weeks Bay Pitcher Plant Bog.

We utilized the Alabama Barbecue app, which came in very handy for finding some of our more secluded barbecue joints. It also shared tidbits of information about each of the restaurants along our way. Our next visit, I believe we’ll check out Mobile’s thriving barbecue scene using this handy application.

So when you head to the Alabama Gulf Coast, do yourself a few favors. I've given you some good tips here on barbecue joints, but you can make your own choices thanks to the good folks at Alabama Tourism.  Go do some research at the Alabama Barbecue website.  It has a lot of great stories, interesting links and information about Q - Alabama's Barbecue Legends Documentary.  And pick up a copy of Alabama Barbecue: Delicious Road Trips (boy, I sure wish my books were published looking this good!) by Annette Thompson with Art Meripol.  It makes a handy roadtrip bible for your Alabama barbecue trip.

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Alabama Tourism. The opinions and text are all mine. Photos for this piece were shot by Grav Weldon and Kat Robinson.