Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sounding off on barbecue

Star Staff Writer Andy Johns is a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge. He's frequently seen haunting barbecue joints, and in today's Your Table, he lets us know which way the smoke blows.

Check, please: The sauce on good barbecue and mush syndrome

Summing up the all the barbecue joints in east Alabama is like asking the Michelin Man to write a column on tires: They may all look the same to the untrained eye, but there are plenty of differences if you know what you are talking about. And like tires, it takes a little driving to appreciate all of the differences.

Being the intrepid reporter that I am, I always like to schedule my interviews in around barbecue joints. I've interviewed a coroner at Goal Post Bar-B-Q (order the pork sandwich but save room for peanut butter pie); a police chief at Jon Boy's Smokehouse in Roanoke (go for pulled pork and baked beans); a fire chief and sheriff at Marie's Bar-B-Que House in Heflin (pork sandwich is the best around but ribs disappointed me); and a commissioner at Partner's Pit BBQ in Lineville (I'll put their twangy red sauce on anything and have heard they have good stew).

In other travels, I've visited the Choo-Choo Bar-B-Que in Wedowee (good St. Louis-style ribs); Brad's Bar-B-Q in Oxford (pork was too sweet for my taste); The Rocket in Jacksonville (average pork, good atmosphere); Cooter Brown's Rib Shack (better ribs than Dreamland … there I said it); and Golden Rule Bar-B-Q in Oxford (step out of the Alabama box and try the beef brisket).

Any where I go Dad's Bar-B-Q on McClellan Boulevard is almost always on the way to or from work at The Star, and they always have good, cheap pork sandwiches, fries and sweet tea ready to hand out the drive-thru window.

On a slower-paced day, I love going into the restaurants and letting the hickory smoke and d├ęcor make a lunch break really feel like a break.

High school jerseys on the wall are good for school spirit, but I like the restaurants that have more unique features. Dad's on McClellan has the telephones on the table you use to order. Partner's has tons of old pictures and tools on the wood panel walls. Golden Rule has a few seats at the bar where you can see right in to the pit. Goal Post on Quintard wins points with me for the neon sign of the kicker booting a football.

But for my money, there's no better place than Ron's Bar-B-Q in Alexandria. Barbecue judges know that a lot of restaurants over-cook their pork trying to make it tender. If you pinch some of your pulled pork between your thumb and forefinger, it should maintain its shape when you open your fingers. If the pork turns to unrecognizable gray mush, it is over cooked. Mush-syndrome is more common than you might think.

Ron's pork stands up to the test, and anytime I can schedule a work assignment out on U.S. 431 I try to make a stop.

The sauce at Ron's compliments the meat without covering it up, and the onion rings, fries and bake beans make it feel like a meal.

During the fall, winter and early spring, Ron's is an even better place because that is "stew weather." For about seven months a year, Ron's has the best Brunswick stew you can find. You might as well finish reading the paper instead of rushing off to try it because they're already done with it this year.

Don't like my choices? Fine with me. You could make an argument for almost any place, though arguments with samples are preferred. I haven't hit them all yet, so there may be gems I haven't found.

One of the places left on my list to try is Big Daddy's in Munford, which looks to be about the size of my office cubicle and almost as sturdy. I went by on a Monday once but the place was closed. Next time you're in Munford, do something newsworthy — it will give me an excuse to try it again