Saturday, October 27, 2007

California BBQ

"Oh, no, you don't want to eat barbecue in California," my brother's West Coast friends told me. "You'll just be disappointed."

I tried to explain to them that I was no barbecue bigot, that just because the Carolinas are home to innumerable world-class pulled pork joints didn't mean I wasn't receptive to slow-smoked brisket and beef ribs and sausage links and any number of other barbecue variations. I even tried to explain to them that barbecue had a long history in California, that in the 1930s and 1940s no upper-middle class ranch home was complete without a custom brick barbecue pit in the backyard.

They were unswayed. "Stick to fish in California," I was told. "There's no good barbecue here."

This was about two weeks ago, and I was in Los Angeles for my brother's wedding, which was taking place at a ranch in the hills near Malibu (not far from where some of the big wildfires have been burning, but this was a week before those started). On the opposite side of the 101 freeway from our motel in Agoura Hills was a fairly frumpy looking building with a green, pagoda-like roof and a plain sign saying "Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill."

The exterior looked like something out the late 1970s, the kind of building that might house a Ponderosa or some sort of buffet cafeteria. But, a continuous plume of smoke churned from a brick chimney, and when the wind was blowing the right way the entire motel parking lot was awash in the fabulous aroma of roasting meat. The cautions of my brother's friends were still fresh in my mind, but my barbecue ecumenicalism won out. How bad could it be?

The answer is: not bad at all. Wood Ranch surprised me. I was expecting the interior to be bare-bones and a bit run down. Instead, I found a very modern, upscale restaurant with young, perky servers wearing buttondown shirts and ties. Now, this might bode ill for a barbecue joint in some parts of America, but in California it must not, for the Wood Ranch had a true item of glory on its menu: barbecued tri-tip.

I had never seen tri-tip on a barbecue restaurant menu before, so I bypassed the pork and beef ribs and the slow-roasted chicken and went with the specialty of the house. This was a big two-inch slab of beef that had been slow-roasted overnight then finished just before serving on a mesquite-fired grill. I had mine medium rare (which is as rare as it comes), and it was juicy, tender, and utterly delicious.

The Tri-tip roast is a cut from the bottom sirloin and, though obscure just about everywhere else, it's apparently a popular choice for barbecuing in California. So, to those naysayers who claim California doesn't have a distinctive barbecue style or, even worse, doesn't have any good barbecue at all, I say, try the tri-tip.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Slow Burn

Two weekends ago I finally carved out sufficient time in my schedule to smoke a big Boston Butt in my new side-burner grill (along with two whole chickens, for good measure). I took some photos and meant to blog about it, but then I got caught up in getting ready for the big trip I took this past weekend with my family to Los Angeles and didn't get a chance to post anything.

Slow-smoking meat is a time-consuming process: for Boston Butt it takes about 1.5 hours per pound, and I had a 5 pound cut, so you do the math. I'm still getting to know my Char-Griller Super Pro, so much of my time was spent fiddling with the air vents and adding more lump charcoal and more hickory chunks, but after a few hours I had gotten the hang of it and was able to keep the smoker consistently in the 220 to 250 degree range.

For all my fighting with the temperature of the fire and general futzing around not knowing what I was doing, there were two remarkable things. First, you go through a ton of charcoal during an 8-hour burn--an entire bag of lump charcoal, in my case, along with half a bag of hickory chunks. Second, maybe it was just beginner's luck, but the end product was absolutely unbelievable--far better than I ever dreamed it would be. Tender, juicy, smoky pork with great burned ends and a good half-inch red smoke ring.

Here are some pics:

The meat prepped with a spice rub and ready to hit the grill

The end product: tender, juicy, and perfect for pulling

The day after: barbecue sandwiches

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Seewee Restaurant

This weekend I took a drive with my family up Highway 17, heading north out of Charleston, and we stopped for lunch at the Seewee Restaurant in Awendaw. The Seewee is located in an old wooden building, a former general store with old, thick brown floorboards, a collection of mismatched furniture, and a long, low old-style Pepsi cooler in the back where they keep drinks and little cups of cocktail sauce. It's got charm.

The Seewee has gotten a lot of ecstatic reviews praising the general fantasticness of the food. The late R. W. Apple of The New York Times wrote last year that the Seewee is "blessed with virtuoso practioners of [the] old Lowcountry art, frying," pointing particularly to their skill in "frying shrimp, as well as any Tokyo tempura master, without a scintilla of heaviness or a smidgen of grease to mar the love affair 'twixt crustacean and palate."

Now that's some fancy writing and quite a build-up, too, so I felt duty-bound to try the fried shrimp. And I did, along with onion rings, mashed potatoes, and lima beans.

I'd love to crank up the adjective machine here, but I've gotta be honest: I found the Seewee's food to be solid meat-and-three fare, but nothing out of the ordinary. I think a lot of reviewers have been bowled over by the restaurant's atmosphere and got a little carried away with hyperbole. The fried shrimp was a little on the smallish side, competently done but nothing to write home about (and certainly not holding a candle to the fried shrimp from The Wreck or any number of other Charleston restaurants). Ditto for my wife's chicken-fried steak, another staple of Southern meat-and-three fare: good, but not in the top 10 local entries.

But, the waitresses were friendly, and there's a little icebox with glass bottled Cokes and Nehis next to the cash register--perfect for taking one for the road. I wouldn't drive out to Awendaw just for the Seewee, but if you're on the road going to Georgetown or Myrtle Beach, it's worth dropping in for a nice country-fried lunch.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

This Just In

Cereality, the restaurant chain that specializes in selling bowls of cold cereal (over 30 brands of them) to college kids, has announced that its King Street franchise location is closing. The company's website quotes a USA Today reporter asking, "The latest fast-food concept is so absurdly simple, self-indulgent and reflective of one's inner child that, well, how can it fail?"

As it turns out, the answer to that one is simple. The Charleston franchise attracted a good breakfast crowd, according to its franchisee, but "business was slow the rest of the day."

Go figure.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Fried Peanuts

Fried okra, fried pickles, fried Snickers bars--just when you thought Southerners couldn't fry another thing, here come fried peanuts! They seem to be fairly new on the scene, but I've seen them popping up more and more in gas stations and roadside stands across the Carolinas. These are whole peanuts fried in the shell, and they come salted or in Cajun flavor (I've also heard reports of barbecue and salt-and-vinegar flavors, but I've never actually seen them for sale). Intrigued, I finally bought a batch, made by Mike's Peanuts in Summerville SC and sold down at the Boone Hall Farm store on US 17 here in Mount Pleasant.

The thing about fried peanuts is that you can, in theory, eat them shell and all. Whether you would want to is another matter. Since it's fried up nice and crispy, the shell can be easily chewed and swallowed, but it's still a little too fibrous for my taste. At the same time, if you just split and discard the shell like you would with a roasted peanut, you lose out on a lot of the good salty flavor. One route is to pop the whole peanut into your mouth (like many people do a boiled peanut), pop out the nuts, then discard the shell. Or, you can follow the advice of one sage fellow on the Web and eat the shell of every third peanut, which, as I see it, is enough to get the good salty flavor while doing minimal damage to your intestinal tract.

I love the South.

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