BBQ, Burgers and the Road

Faded sign, dilapidated awning. These are good omens.

Some folks are clairvoyant and can walk outside, hold a finger in the air and predict the weather. Some people are naturals at picking horses at the track. Lightning strikes a crowd of ten people; one person always goes untouched.

Me? I possess a sixth sense that allows me to sniff out a local BBQ joint while driving at top speed. On a good day, I can wind down the road, inhaling with wild abandon until I hit pay dirt. I always have my window cracked, because authentic BBQ smoke lingers – and your nose may well be the first sign that a good thing is approaching. I close my eyes (metaphorically of course, I mean I am driving) and let my sense of smell guide the way.

The same goes for burgers. By the way, I like mine with lettuce, pickles, onions and mayo. I always ask for real mayo, declining the use of Miracle Whip on principle alone. I have been known to travel with a small jar of Duke’s just in case.

Ketchup is for fries.

On the subject of burgers, here’s a favorite pastime of mine: I sit at the counter of Steak and Shake and watch the cooks on the line work the flat-top for hours the way some guys watch golf on TV. I admire the precise fluidity, dexterity and economy of motion. I covet the meat forks and spatulas they wield.

Don’t under any circumstances slight or offend the guy working the flat-top – the short order cook… a fast dying breed and true artist. Always tip your hat as you leave and pay him the respect he deserves for a job well done under heavy pressure.

Low-rent building equals high quality 'cue.

But authentic BBQ is the road food that heightens and focuses my natural powers. Texas, Kansas City (just the city) — neither in my definition of the South, but credit must be given — Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia; these are The Big Five in my book, and I am especially alert when driving in these states. Pay close attention, because good product is deceptively situated; attached to the side of a mini-mart or auto parts store, sharing a wig shop, or often in what the locals call the “old plaza mall” – you know, the run-down strip mall heading out of town.

I always stop at BBQ huts in someone’s front yard. This also applies to fried chicken shacks, but that’s just being polite.

A good place to snoop for BBQ info.

People debate, argue and shoot one another whilst discussing the merits of different styles of BBQ from state to state, but remember that essentially there is only good or bad BBQ. Don’t waste time on the bad stuff. Politely push your plate aside if it’s not acceptable, nod and continue on without speaking. The good stuff may be just around the next curve.

That’s not to say luck can’t play into an unexpected discovery. Eavesdropping on conversations by locals while gassing up, alert browsing of the isles at the local feed & seed and staying clear of interstates are a few of my favorite investigative tools.

Pit-masters are wary of outsiders and will deftly use location as a foil to discourage those who are seen as hobbyists, spies, non-purists or food bloggers.

Authentic pit-masters don’t blog, at least not in the South.

A list of things to look for in a real joint:

  • Pit master lurking… by a large, visible woodpile around the side of the building. Smoke coming from the smoker. Outside seating. Fly-paper and ceiling fans.
  • Pit master lurking: Serious, self assured, not speaking. Lacking teeth. Foam hat.
  • Rolls of cheap paper towels on the tables.
  • Beer and soda.
  • Compartmentalized paper plates and plastic utensils.
  • Hand-lettered signs with unintentional misspellings.
  • Cinder block, galvanized or aluminum siding for exterior walls. (All three is the holy trinity.)
  • Fluorescent lighting. Few windows. Sketchy rest rooms.
  • Authentic folk art created with sincere vision by an owner with no formal art training, displaying grand scenes of pigs, chickens and cows in various forms of cooking or cooked states.
  • A dimly lit dirt parking lot. Walk-up window. Sheriff’s cars and pick-up trucks.

A list of things to look for in a shameless impostor:

  • No woodpile. No smoke. No outside seating. Air conditioning advertised.
  • No pit master or being told they’re “gone for the day.” Pit masters are never “gone for the day.” It’s a way of life. (Did I mention they don’t blog?)
  • Linens, china or stainless flatware.
  • Wine and sparkling water, anything spritzy.
  • Fancy signs with correct spelling. Any type of computer or flat screen TV’s.
  • Wainscoting, bamboo flooring, recessed or track lighting, etc. etc. Airy, bright and full of windows. Piped-in music. Live plants. Clean rest rooms.
  • Retro pig art bought on eBay or done by an artist from somewhere in California.
  • Paved, striped, well-lit parking lot. Drive-thru with functioning speakerphone. State Police cars and SUV’s.

We can smell the brisket from here.

Lastly, I like to use BBQ joints as landmarks in giving driving directions to friends. “Take a left at Harold’s and make sure you stop and try his ribs” will leave a better impression than any “sensible” directions or Google map.

As a chef involved in lots of fine dining over the years, I find that people who invite Stephanie and me to dinner seem overly stressed on what to serve. Speaking for most chefs, a chicken roasted with love, burgers on the grill or a sack of really good BBQ from your favorite local spot and plenty of cold beer will always hit the right note.
If it’s BBQ, look over your shoulder for the crazed maniac swerving to a stop in the parking lot and give him a wide berth at the counter.

If it’s burgers, remember to have plenty of Duke’s mayonnaise on hand.

Ketchup is for fries.

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