Sometimes an obscure reference to an obscure place, which has a niche product, makes the best lead for a road trip destination. Following up on a single sentence in a June food magazine had brought me to a very happy valley, literally Happy Valley in Lenoir, North Carolina, which is the home of Atlantic Sturgeon & Caviar Company.
Through an email exchange I got the invitation from Elizabeth Wall, who does the marketing over there, and headed out, completely oblivious as to what to expect. As much as we do with Smart Kitchen, we were not super-experienced with Sturgeon, or frankly Caviar, beyond the usual of scoop, serve, revel. I was not prepared to be blown away by the the mix of Sea-World, Natural History Museum, green aqua-farming and outstanding culinary adventure. As you can imagine, I am now a super-fan, mega-convert.
Apparently the “farm” is the brain child of two valley residents, who were childhood friends and both aware of the depredation of the Russian sturgeon population. They got going in 2009 and then brought in the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation and NC State to help with the “fish husbandry.” Today, the farm is run under the auspices of the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation and turns out the only domestic Ossetra Caviar. They also have some Atlantic Sturgeon Caviar and Siberian Sturgeon Caviar. I was partial to the Siberian we sampled, even though it was technically out of date. The salty, briny taste was reminiscent of the ocean, even though the Siberian Sturgeon were raise in landlocked Happy Valley.
The surprise product was the Sturgeon meat (smoked & unsmoked) which Atlantic Caviar calls “The Pork of the Sea.”
Atlantic Sturgeon & Caviar Companyalso does some mail order, if you are in the mood to try some of the real good stuff for a holiday or just a treat. I know we will be anxiously awaiting our Fed Ex package in late November. : )
The video is a bit on the long side for our Blog, but it has a lot of information that you don’t see just anywhere.
Smok Shak BBQ in Ingersoll, OK is a bit of a trip to reach because it is between Alva, OK and Cherokee, OK in the “Ghost Town” of Ingersoll, OK.
According to TravelOklahoma.com, “Ingersoll began when Native American reservation land was opened to public settlement. The town gained momentum after the Choctaw Railroad opened a line in 1901. Within one month, Ingersoll’s population boomed to more than 1,500 people, and it was officially incorporated the next year. The flourishing city quickly became known as a sinful town because it was home to seven licensed saloons and two pool halls. In 1909, Ingersoll was considered for the location of the county seat, but lost out to Cherokee. Following its defeat, Ingersoll’s population gradually declined.” The post office was finally discontinued in December of 1942.
Telephoto Shot of a “Ghost” farm house.
The Ingersoll tiled grain elevator, made of hollow red clay tiles, is on the National Register of Historic places (bonus!). By the way, I think the “Washout” on the elevator is an ad for a livestock wash or a truck wash and has nothing to do with the structure.
Historic Tile Elevator in Ingersoll, OK
Amid the historic, but abandoned backdrop, an old pizza hut building was dragged out to Ingersoll in 1985. The oil bust of the 1980’s had left Debra Engle with the former restaurant building and a vacant lot off of Highway 64 in unpopulated Ingersoll, OK. Like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials, it turns out she had two great bit that went great together. She relocated the building to Ingersoll and opened the Smok Shak BBQ joint.
When I arrived on Memorial Day Weekend (7 PM on Friday), Ingersoll was a ghost town, except for the parking lot full of cars at the Smok Shak. Exiting the Smartkitchen-mobile, there was a great smell wafting over town. The clean earthy smell of the high prairie was on the wind, punctuated by the hickory smoke of BBQ from the Smok Shak.
There Were more Cars Around the Other Side
When I went in the joint was half full with locals and oil field workers (the colorful Boot&Coots, or Schlumberger coveralls gave it away). By the time I was finishing up the Smok Shak’s small dining room was full. A party of 18 had walked in and took over the place. They were not closing until 10, so presumably more of the living would stop by. Perhaps the ghost service starts at midnight? To make sure I beat that rush, I ordered a sampler plate (4 items for $14.99) and an iced tea.
For my sampler, I wanted to taste ribs, the sausage, the pulled pork and the smoked ham. I got two “wows” on this plate, one yawn and a thumbs up for decent work. I have not had a lot of smoked ham, or spent much time with it but I have an opinion. Thinner cuts of smoked ham seem to display more flavor characteristics. This thick cut of ham was pleasant enough but a snooze in the overall scheme of things because the flavor did not carry over through the whole thick bite.
The Smoked Ham
Sampling, my way down the plate, nibbling and taking photos, the ribs came next. They elicited a “Wow” or was it a “WOW?”
The Beautiful Crust on the Amazing Ribs at Smok Shak
The crust was flavorful and a good bite. The fat was perfectly rendered and flavored the meat wonderfully. I did go back and work on those rib bones once the photos were finished. Next shot was of the pulled pork and the sausage.
The Pulled Pork and Sausage at Smok Shak
The sausage was another “WOW,” like a smoky, cheddar, jalapeno jaeger brat. The pulled pork may have suffered by comparison with the sausage or the ribs. In reality it was competent and pleasant. In fact, it was a great platform for enjoying the Smok Shak’s very good mild BBQ sauce.
Overall opinion? I would put some hundreds of miles on the odometer to return. The location, the history and most importantly the food is very compelling. I guess you have to excel to survive in the restaurant business in a ghost town for 30 years.
If you want to Facebook Smok Shak they are up there. Also if you plan to visit and have trouble with your GPS, try it on coordinates. The lat/long I got from mine is N 36° 47′ 840″ W 098° 23′ 527″
You know those times where you have been fixated on something on so long, expecting it to be great, and then you get there, meet the person, or achieve the goal and its only “OK.” Well that is the feeling I have after visiting this OK Oklahoma landmark, even though the burgers sort of charmed me over the course of the meal.
Sid’s is Pretty Small
I had wanted to come to Sid’s Diner since reading about Sid’s in Saveur Magazine’s Burger Issue back in 2009. It was always on my short list for the Summer Food Drive, but then every time the weight of the northern route (Kansas, Missouri, etc.) or the southern route drew me away from the more central route, which would have included Sid’s Diner. Sid’s (along with Feltner’s What-a-Burger) was always the toughest to cross-off. A fried onion burger fired my imagination and this year I was on the central route.
Sid’s is Much Smaller than it had Looked on the Internet.
Finally getting here, I am not bitter after my first bite, but instead feel deflated, like the air coming out of a balloon full of hype. I should not be surprised that a cost savings measure (adding cheap onions to expensive beef in the 1920’s) isn’t a first-bite flavor revelation.
Sid’s “King Deluxe” Fried Onion Burger
One bite in, if I want to be magnanimous, I’d say “I’m into juicier burgers,” or I’d say “I am not that into charring,” something to shift from pure blame to an impartial matter of opinion. I know that fairer is the right course and factually correct, but at the outset I am feeling a smidgen of petulance about my visit. Let’s just say this, at this point, for me, the corner and the short, windy walk around Sid’s neighborhood are the best part of the visit. El Reno’s shades of Norman Rockwell ride easy on the nostalgic tourist.
An interesting looking doughnut place is across the street.
From the Doughnut Stand Parking Lot to the North East
Sid’s Neighbors to the South
So, on to the world famous, tv-hyped, fried onion burgers. Mine arrived as a thin, dry burger (you can almost see it desiccating on the plate in the video) with some charred onions in it. I like Martinis dry, but not burgers. The second bite was also dry, but with some flavor of fat and char together, followed by an after taste of soft bun. Hmm was it bad or good?
The dryness is probably a result of Sid’s vaunted “smashing the burger flat with the Spatula.” We teach the exact opposite at Smart Kitchen. We say not to squeeze or smash the Hamburger with the spatula or the moisture will come out. Here at Sid’s Diner it was smashed and the moisture came out. Maybe they should spring for the $9.99? I doubt that they will though, because they are doing alright with plenty of folks; and smashed fried onion burger is something of a regional cultural item, a part of the local cuisine of this bit of central Oklahoma. Not everything is for everybody.
As I was thinking all this, the visual appeal of the burger kicked in and I went in for bite three. The burger was growing on me. It was a more historic taste, with some complexity because of the burnt onions and some contrast due to the terrific, moist produce (Tomato & Lettuce). I was slowly converting from a Negative Nelly to a Neutral Nancy and then to a nice Nodding Nick. My plan to eat only half the burger was modified, on-the-fly, to eating three quarters. After all that travel, I am glad I had those next few bites.
I went from “No, not coming back” to “Coming Back” from 50 miles, but really likely further since to my knowledge they are sort of short on burger Meccas in Central OK.
You can visit Sid’s in El Reno or even try your hand at making a Sid’s-style burger by following the Sid’s Diner Fried Onion Burger Recipe, which was published in Saveur in 2009. The link goes to their site.
Jigg’s Smokehouse has been a fixture off of Interstate 40 (exit 62) in Clinton, OK since Lyle “Jiggs” Botchlett wanted an outlet for the turkey rolls, eggs and whole turkeys coming off of his farm. Jigg’s original business was a retail, take-away outlet only.
Thirty six years ago, Jigg’s niece’s husband, George Klaassen, bought the outlet and started a restaurant with only 2 items; ham sandwiches or turkey sandwiches (served with butter). As business picked up, Jigg’s Smokehouse’s Menu expanded. George’s “creations,” like the Pig Sickle and the Wooly Burger resulted; and are why I was interested in visiting George’s son Lynn Klaasen, who had taken over in 2000. I had heard about the items but wanted to see for myself what the heck the Klaasen’s had been up to. It also turns out that Jigg’s authentic Beef Jerky has quite a reputation.
The challenge was navigating to Jigg’s on back roads from Bobcat Bites via GPS. In theory, there should have been no problem. I could do it in my head. I-25 South to I-40 East, exit at #62 in Oklahoma, but that would be close to 600 miles of interstate I have already been over quite a few times. Where is the fun in that? I chose instead to hopscotch up to the northeast corner of New Mexico and then discover new territory (for me) by entering the panhandle (appropriately culinary) of Oklahoma for the first time. It is beautiful country, by the way.
From Bobcat Bites, the problem was that, Jiggs’ Frontage Road address was a mystery to the GPS, as was Jiggs’ itself. As far as it knew, neither existed. I could trick it to get to Clinton, OK and then find I-40. Once on I-40 I could go the wrong way a bit before backtracking 17 miles west to exit 62. No problem, except that even off the freeway at exit #62, you can get confused looking for the place,. Yes, I got confused. I admit it. I also did not ask for directions…because no one was around to ask. There were farms and grass and an RV shop. Nothing looked like a barbecue pit. I am embarrassed to say, I had to sit and look for more than a few minutes until I noticed that the farm building across the freeway and west a bit had cars parked in front of it. With that visual discovery, my brain finally noticed the sign that said “Jiggs.”
All in all, it was a small, fun 600 mile adventure but, after fasting 24 hours, I was more than ready to arrive and sample. If you plan on heading over there and having an adventure, great. But if Lynn hasn’t yet called the GPS people yet to introduce himself, you (and the GPS) may find Jiggs’ Latitude and Longitude (N 35°28′ 52.46″ , W 99° 1′ 37.73″) handy. Your welcome. : )
The Saturday afternoon that I arrived, the wind was BLOWING the sweet smell of grass and growing crops across the prairie. It was terrific, especially because Clinton, OK has a 124,000 square foot Bar-S Meat Processing Plant (makes franks, lunchmeat & sausages), which, I am told, can waft some unpleasant odors over the town. I am always happy for good luck.
Jiggs” Smokehouse, Finally
From the outside, I expected a rougher crowd. Once inside though Jiggs’ Smokehouse has a BBQ feel and everyone was great. The table next to me (the surprised group in the video) was a group of old friends from town. One couple owned a farm down the road. The others had grown up within a literal “stone’s throw” of the place but now lived in Colorado. The Coloradans had driven back for a visit, a reunion at Southwestern Oklahoma State University (they put SWOSU on the shirts) I believe, and of course some of the ‘cue from their youth. The custom choppers belonged to some off-duty firemen.
Inside Jiggs’ has an old time BBQ pit feel.
When I walked in, Lynn Klaasen, (the owner with his wife Becky) was working and showed me around a bit during a lull in the service. I was very impressed with the smoking room which sort of juts out into the dining room. The old seals are not what they were, so they tape the door to prevent smoking out the guests in the dining room.
The Original Jiggs Smoking Room
You Can Almost See the 36 Years of Smoking Meat
I also liked the hand painted turkey restroom signs (Hens & Toms) that recall Jiggs’ first retail operation. There was an artistry of the hand we don’t see everyday now.
Hens & Toms are heritage birds here
We had a nice talk about BBQ places and road food. I got a few recommendations (The Germantown Commisary in Memphis where I am heading & Eischen’s Chicken in Okarche, OK where I not going now) and learned some things. In fact, I was so taken by the surroundings, walking, talking and recording, and the kitchen was so fast that I almost missed my own order arriving.
My Mystery Meal at Jiggs
I had ordered the Beef Brisket Sandwich, The Pig Sickle Sandwich and a Wooly Burger. Everything looked great, but like an old episode of The Price is Right, I was most intrigued by the mystery behind towel #1.
The order mapped
The item to the left was obviously the Brisket, which was tasty and held the promise of greatness if not in such other grand company. I took a bite, said hmm pretty good but gave in to curiosity and moved on quickly to the other items. I am interested to try the un-sauced brisket by the pound, another time, to generate a fuller, better opinion.
Beef Brisket Sandwich @ Jiggs Smokehouse
The sandwich on the right must have been the Pig Sickle Sandwich, which is made from a custom, rib-meat sausage patty. It tastes like what a McRib should taste like. It was so pleasant, and novel, that the Pig Sickle had the highest percentage consumed of the three dishes.
Pig Sickle Sandwich @ Jiggs
That left the Wooly Burger, right? But why the heck was it quarantined behind the veil of paper towels? I imagine presentation, since the other sandwiches were not similarly clad. I have another admission. I forgot to ask why and will have to follow up.
The Wooly Burger from Behind the Veil
Expecting a wooly bbq’d hamburger and getting instead an over-sized ham tower (with a salami sausage attic) anchored between a white bun foundation and a white bun roof is quite a shock. My neighbors were just as excited to see what was doing and as you can see in the video, just as shocked. That is Flair man.
How did it eat, you might ask? Very Carefully. Actually, it was clearly going to be a “Knife & Fork” operation. I gave up on the two handed method when I saw the Wooly Burger. The sandwich was terrific. Good enough with its delicate ham, savory sausage, soft bun and tangy pickle relish that I had to wrestle with my discipline to hold to a “sample” (albeit a large one).
The Wooly Burger may be my second favorite ham sandwich ever (LC’s in Kansas City takes first place), which is saying a lot. I’d drive back for another. In fact, as I write this from hundreds of miles away the thought “how about now” is tugging at the edges of my mind. I better wrap up and head on down the road to the east before I turn around and head back west.
The address for Jiggs’ Smokehouse is:
22203 N Frontage Rd Clinton, OK 73601
I had heard of Bobcat Bite for a few years but was always put off by the name. After being skunked at Pie Town, I was ready to give it a try. When I arrived there were about 40 people waiting in line on a Friday afternoon.
Everyone Wanted a Burger.
It turns out that there are two lists. One, the first list, is kept inside. Make sure to stop a server and get on that list. When you progress far enough on the first list, you are “promoted” to the big board. Getting promoted from the list to the board was an accomplishment, or at least an event. We, the patiently waiting customers, took to congratulating, and joking about, each new “Board Member.”
Finally a “Board Member.”
I could spot the regulars because they knew to bring reading material. The rest of us played “watch the list.” We watched it like hawks, err Bobcats, and pretty soon we all knew who each party was. After a bit, there were very few strangers waiting for a burger. The crowd, looked like a rural group but was actually very sophisticated. Conversation ranged from construction/architecture to art (Santa Fe is an arts colony) to last week’s New York Times Magazine. Needless to say with an hour plus wait, we gelled. By the way, take out orders, for those who are not blogging, seemed to go a bit faster.
Bobcat Bite Menu
While waiting I had a chance to read the back of the old-timey menu and get the story behind the unusual name at Bobcat Bite which is currently owned by John and Bonnie Eckre. The building for Bobcat Bite was originally a trading post (see the original beams in the photo below) on the Old Las Vegas Highway (Las Vegas, NM not the other one), and then a gun shop, of all things. The highway became part of Route 66 and Bobcat Bite was launched as a family run restaurant in 1953 by Rene Clayton, who owned Bobcat Ranch, to service the hungry motorists.
Originally Founded by the Owner of Bobcat Ranch
Rene Clayton’s daughter Mitzi Panzer was the first operator in 1953. It has been a Mom & Pop place ever since. The Eckres took over in 2001. The unusual “Bobcat” name stuck because, before I-25 was built, Bobcats came down from the hills (no doubt drawn by the smell) and were given treats at the back door. As the menu states, “it was one of the few local dining spots that was friendly to Bobcats at the time.” I love that line because it presumes that many more places are bobcat friendly today.
So still waiting. What else can I share? Oh, they don’t take credit cards. There are no reservations either.
Interior and Customers at Bobcat Bite
So still waiting. What else can I share? Oh, they don’t take credit cards. There are no reservations either. I already knew I was visiting for the Green Chili Cheeseburger, which was voted best in New Mexico, a time or two. It is hard to think about the Menu with so many tasty looking burgers being hustled, right past you, to their proper tables. It was like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, but more the Rhyme of the Ancient Hamburger: “Burgers, Burgers everywhere and nary a bite to eat.”
Finally, I was called up along with “Rus Party of 2, a nice couple from San Diego. The tantalizing was ratcheted up a notch as the fans shot the warm kitchen air, carrying the wonderful smell of grilling onions, down along the counter. We ordered Green Chili Cheese Burgers. The neighbors to our left got theirs. More orders walked up our way only to turn left or right and head to other tables. It was a perfect storm of burger teasing. Finally, the server came our way. She must have had our burgers. She did….sort of.
The Rus Party is served.
She put down 2 lovely burgers on the narrow counter for The Rus Party of 2. The Pavlovian Response was kicking into overdrive now.
Great Presentation of a 10 oz, Choice Chuck, Green Chili Burger
It did arrive. 6 of us in the corner all high-fived. The presentation of the 10 ounce Cheeseburger made from choice-grade Chuck, freshly ground each day, was spot-on. They have used the same recipe for decades. The Beef is also natural and hormone & antibiotic free. It was a grown up burger (not gimmicky or gooey) showcasing the fresh ground beef. It was juicy (ask for napkins early) and flavorful without being too spicy; then the thick-cut bacon kicked in adding extra punch.
The only issues I had were the thickness and the Green Chili. I have a big mouth, but just not that big. I could not get my chomp on and had to bite around the edges, rotating the burger as I ate. It was both messy and not fulfilling. The Green Chili is diced and a bit tame. You don’t get the hot hit of the proto-typical New Mexican green chili, which is something I was seeking.
For me it was a very good burger, and worth the wait. It was maybe even worth a 50 mile drive, but for me it was not the holy grail. Its like horse racing though, everyone has a favorite. Regulars and tourists keep the small kitchen (150 square feet) pumping out 400 to 450 burgers a day at hefty prices. My check was $16.15 for a Green Chili Cheeseburger with Bacon, home fries (resistable) and a tea. A lot of people love it. Apparently, they ran out of burgers (remember fresh ground daily) the week before.
As I was getting ready to leave, I asked the server about some snippets I had over heard in the dining room but did not credit. It turns out that the snippets were accurate. Bobcat Bite is going to close at this location on June 9th, 2013. They are having a disagreement with the landlord. They are looking for a new spot, but don’t have it yet. They may even change the name.
So for the day I was skunked early and anti-skunked at lunch. A few days later and I would have had another miss.
One of my favorite things about the Summer Food Drives is imagining and anticipating how the place will look and feel. I try not to see too many pictures or videos of the place beforehand. Good Pie Cafe was no exception. I imagined it sitting out by itself in a dusty declivity in the middle of a big, high-desert plain serving diner fare and Pie to colorful locals. Finally, at 3:00 AM it was time to find out.
But, as often happens, the city fathers of Pie Town forgot to call the folks at Garmin and get their town listed. I did not even have a latitude or longitude to work from, so it was head east on US 60 and hope for the best. Eventually, after crossing into New Mexico, I saw a sign: Pie Town 40 miles. That was encouraging. The city father’s must have known about the New Mexico State Highway Department. From there it was a simple pleasant drive to my first glimpse of Pie Town.
Pie Town, NM ahead on the horizon.
It was almost as I had pictured it, except it was elevated and not in a low spot. It was an exciting start. By the way, if you need the coordinates for The Good Pie Cafe, they are N 34° 19.997′ , W 108° 08.076′ .
The Good Pie Cafe
Good Pie Cafe 1, P Chef 0
The bad news was that, even with a phone call to check on their hours, I had muffed it. I did not ask the right question. I asked “Are you all open on Monday,” assuming that they would be open Friday and knock off early for the holiday weekend. Wrong! I should have asked about Friday. My punishment was no pie sampling. Given how interesting the location and town was, I was OK with that.
This is “Pie-o-Neer” Also Closed for Holiday
I debated making a pivot and going to a replacement destination in Pie Town but I was spared my weakness (I only eat at my declared stops on the Summer Food Drive) because “Pie-O-Neer” above was also closed for the holiday. All was well, it was only 223 miles more to go to Bobcat Bites.
We have been working on Smart Kitchen culinary content quite a bit lately but the temperatures in Arizona are creeping up there and The Summer Food Drive 2013 just snuck up on us. Luckily, we have been keeping a wish list of favorites to visit and filing away recommendations for years. Quite a lot of the wish list is continually missed because they are right in the middle of the country. This year’s list was designed to visit those often missed central spots and so the list came together quickly. Mapping the stops, finding directions and scheduling took a few more hours, but it all got done early this morning. It is a good thing that the dieting has been in effect all spring. It will be blown out for a few days, even though sampling rules will be in effect.
This year the Summer Food Drive is not all the way to the East Coast but only to the South, which means we won’t have to split the difference between a “northern” route and a “southern” route. Finally, those 2 or three places in Oklahoma and Tennessee won’t be too far away and we will finally get a visit, assuming we play our scheduling and travel time right; and that the SmartKitchen Mobile has another couple thousand miles in her.
The Summer Food Drive trip will go through NM, into the Pan Handle of Oklahoma (how appropriate is a pan handle), across Arkansas and into Memphis, TN for a slower holding pattern of 6 legendary BBQ joints and a lot of gym time. We will be missing Martin’s BBQ and Siler’s BBQ in Tennessee just now, but there is hope that we can pick them up before we turn around for home.
As with every year, there is no eating except at the stops which are listed below. :
So last year, I had heard about this new place in Austin called Franklin BBQ. Apparetnly, it had graduated, “with a bullet,” from a food truck to a Roadhouse / BBQ Joint. As I heard it from my local Austin friends, they sold out everyday. Sure they did, I thought. It may have been sold out on the Saturday when you went, but not everyday is a Saturday. I am a blogger and can go on a weekday. The number of times I have been skunked, you would think I’d learn that “pride goest before the fall.”
Deaf to their advice, I pulled into Franklin’s around 01:00 PM on a summer weekday after visiting Louie Mueller’s BBQ in Taylor, TX. I was perfectly expecting to squeek into Franklin’s just under the gun and sample this BBQ that everyone was raving about. I got the gut-punch visual instead: “CLOSED / SOLD OUT.”
Practically, their being closed was a bit of a mini Godsend since we had already overdone it at Mueller’s, but still! The burn of punctured pride hurt. To this day, that darn closed sign still stings. What hurt more was that “I told you so” from the pundits playing in my mind. The truly audible “I told you so’s” of my Austin friends were not so good either. The only saving grace, was that I did not know what I was missing. I vowed then and there to get into Franklin’s on my next trip, no matter what. I had planned my road trips with Excel spreadsheets before (to make sure I got to the places with exotic hours [like Snow’s BBQ and Zion’s BBQ] during their limited hours). I could do it again.
A Sign of Good Texas BBQ!
So roughly a year later, nearly every BBQ FAN has heard of Aaron Franklin and Franklin’s BBQ in Austin and that they sell out everyday. Aaron is a judge on BBQ Pit Masters, Forbes Magazine listed Franklin’s as one of the Top 10 BBQ Joints in the U.S., etc. Needless to say, I planned my arrival with a ruthless precision.
I even arranged to meet my local friend Birgit there at 8:00 AM, ON A WEDNESDAY to catch up while I waited in line. Thank gosh I did. Birgit arrived at 8:00 AM and was granted the exhalted position of 6th in line. The place did not open for 3.5 hours yet and 5 people beat her in line ON A WEDNESDAY MORNING. I was not much help here because “Girl Pretty Smart” (the pet name for our Garmin G.P.S.) was very dumb for once and got me lost on the other side of downtown. I swear it was all her fault and had nothing to do with me or my being fuzzy-headed while programming in the address at 4 AM in BW Texas (technically Navisotta, TX). BTW, you may ask “what is BW Texas? With apologies to any of you who live in Navisotta (which was very nice but far away), think “BF Texas” for “bum-fudge” Texas, where fudge would rhyme with “truck,” and you are heading in the right direction. This is a family blog though, so we prefer “BW” for “Backwoods” over BF.
So when I finally turned the SmartKitchen Mobile into the lot, it looked like a line for a club show by a great underground band. Maybe 20 people were there by 08:30 AM with umbrellas, coolers, tablets, iPads, camp chairs etc. Dragging a camp chair and water, I made my way up to Birgit in 6th position. We caught up and marveled at the scene.
The guys in front of us really had it down. While one guy waited, the other went for a run in the humid Texas air. He returned and hydrated from a giant cooler before breaking out a large downy towel and drying off. They switched and guy number two hit the bricks for his run. The rest of us sat there sweating and salivating due to the Pavlovian power of the aforementioned smoldering chords of hickory wood.
As more and more people showed up, it really became like a “Woodstock” for BBQ nuts, if the “wood” in upstate New York had been all Hickory. There were BBQ shirts and BBQ caps from lots of good spots.
At somepoint, lawn chairs became the norm because, if you forgot one, an enterprising fellow set up across the street would rent you a bright pink model for $5. He did a landbank business. I couldn’t help thinking of those similar symbiotic relationships in nature. Think lamprey setting up shop around the Shark and you will get my meaning.
Ultimately, the standouts in line were the people bringing gourmet picnic baskets and coolers to wait FOR THE RESTAURANT TO OPEN. Everyone eyed them with envy as they sat in living room chairs and toggled a small blender into life. All those rounds of Bloody Mary’s looked very good on a hot Wednesday morning. Around 10:00 AM, Birgit had to leave for work, and the male / female ratio (already a low 6 / 47) took a dive. I took solace in the cool breeze, chatting with my fellow BBQ nuts, and the knowledge that only an hour and a half remained.
Some Creative Line-Gating.
Around 10:15 some stirring was seen inside, almost like the gates opening for the first time at Mr. Wonka’s factory in the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. An attractive young lady came out and took our orders. She also handled the crowd with aplomb and provided information such as “You can use the restrooms” and “they guys will be around selling soda & beer in a minute.” Only in Texas. If possible the anticipation ratcheted up a notch. I was actually getting giddy that I had been starving myself since the Cajun Crawfish Hut in Gulfport, Miss. / Long Beach, Miss.
The young guys behind me had driven over from San Antonio. One of their dad’s had gotten skunked at Franklin’s BBQ the prior Sunday. Dad had offered to pay for lunch for his son, and his buddies and for their gas, and for the big new cooler, if they would just drive over (a good 2-3 hours) and return with 10 pounds of smoked, beefy heaven. Something to note if you plan to wait in line at Franklin’s BBQ, there is a CVS around the corner if you arrive and find yourself needing a cooler or a drink or sun tan lotion, etc.
With 45 minutes to an hour to go, we all played “Have you been here? / Whatcha think of this one?” Having written as many blog posts about BBQ as I have, and as many places that I have visited and failed to churn out a blog yet (I will, I will), I felt in my element with my people. It was what I imagine diehard football fans experience speaking about legendary games and players from years gone by. I also met Robert Owens, from Grand Champion’s BBQin Atlanta, Ga. (the link goes to their site) who was an encyclopedia on BBQ. I vowed to visit. I also learned that Aaron Franklin came by his pit mastery honestly. He grew up in a BBQ shack owned by his parents. I was surprised to find out that when he first opened the window on his first BBQ truck, no one came. It took weeks before a line formed.
We also swapped recommendations. Apparently, Laguna Reef Restaurant in Corpus Christi, TX is supposed to have good seafood. Dinosaur BBQ in NYC is good too. Both were noted and I hope to visit them.
Then the doors opened and all was forgotten. It was like Christmas morning. Nothing mattered except staring at the at the pretty BBQ “presents” and trying them all out. Visiting Franklin’s was an experience punctuated by a pile of exceptional Texas-Style BBQ. Luckily, Birgit’s husband Hugh dropped by (the magic of social media) and helped me devour my haul of smoked Texas treasure.
Last year on our Summer Food Drive 2011, I was super excited to visit Gorat’s Steakhouse in Omaha. We were writing our Beef Topic (it ended up running 800 pages in doc format) and Gorat’s was voted one of the Top 10 Steakhouses in America by Saveur Magazine and they had a reputation for a great dry aging program and it was one of Warren Buffet’s favorite places. Wouldn’t a man who can buy everything, (I mean anything) get the best steak in town?
One would think, but the problem was that whenever I mentioned my excitement to Nebraska based foodies, they invariably said “oh,” like they were talking to their slow cousin Norman. An “oh” wasn’t promising for a once-in-a-lifetime, steak- visit to Omaha, NE the home of the nation’s feed-lots.
If you can believe it, the 3 Nebraska folks I spoke to before the trip were not raging fans of Gorat’s. They all spoke of this other place in Omaha: The Drover.
Even While visiting cattleman Dan Morgan who runs Morgan Ranch in Burwell, Nebraska, which is one of the leading Wagyu Beef operations in the country (Kobe Beef is made from Wagyu Cattle), The Drover came up. Dan was gracious enough to show us around his ranching operation and to cook some steaks with us in 2011. Dan’s favorite steakhouse in Omaha, NE was The Drover. In fact, everyone I bumped into and spoke to about Omaha steaks mentioned The Drover as their favorite for corn-fed Nebraska Beef. They felt that Gorat’s had passed its prime (no pun intended) and was a bit long in the tooth.
In 2011, I was booked and still excited for Gorat’s (had a great visit) but had to footnote The Drover so it could on the agenda for another Summer Food Drive. This year, 2012 was the year.
From my earlier conversations, I imagined The Drover as a sprawling, country-style ranch property near the stockyards. All of the pictures of the Drover on the Internet (even ours) seemed to confirm the ranch motif. I fantasized about big burly butchers in their spattered white coats and construction helmets, just walking over with the best cuts; a Filet here, some Sirloin there. “Oh you say there was run on Porterhouse? Just pop over next door and re-load the larder.” It was some fun imagery and I have to contain myself to stop from going on and on.
As I headed down Mercy Road with its malls and strip centers in Omaha in the ‘Smart Kitchen’-mobile I wondered where they were going to hide a ranch amid the urban landscape. My “Culinary Sense” wasn’t tingling that a stockyard was near.
You Can't Take a Picture of the Homey Entrance and the Office Park
It turns out that they do sprawl but not on a spread. The Drover is a wide-open, sprawling ranch house on about a half a block of land surrounded by office buildings and very near a hospital. The Internet illusions, seen above is really just a fortuitous real estate development history and a bit of photographic framing. No stockyards, no butchers rushing to and fro. I was a bit disappointed after all of the raves from first hand, knowledgeable, sources. I bucked up though when I saw a major hospital across the auspiciously named “Mercy Road,” in case my set-to with so much beefy cholesterol went horribly wrong. In this day and age, beef eaters probably need mercy more than they need proximity to a stockyard.
Entering The Drover, is like entering a “speak-easy” for “beef-a-holics.” One step into the dark entry way and I forgot all about the warm summer day outside or anything else. I gave myself over to the cool, dark, Vegas-like home of grain fed beef. The Drover may be the bad boy, newcomer in Omaha, NE (according to my sources) but it still feels like your parent’s restaurant (in a good way). The salad bar (and presumably the whole place) has been there serving customers since 1968 with those magical ice-cold metal plates. I can’t recall exactly what I was eating in 1968 but it was probably made by the Gerber’s Company.
A Bronze Plaque at the Salad Bar Explains that the Drover has been serving Salad this way since 1968
The Drover’s layout and feel is pretty basic by today’s standard but it isn’t tired or played out. Instead it felt like a restored CLASSIC, sort of like the ’57 T-Bird or ’72 Eldorado of steak houses. And it is getting current media attention. It turns out I missed Man vs. Food’s Adam Richman’s visit by only a week. I had met Adam in Scottsdale this past spring and few culinary people are as current as Adam. After my visit, I am looking forward to watching The Drover episode of Man vs. Food Nation to get his take.
To place my order, I had a choice to make. Whiskey Steak or the GrilledPrime Rib. The Drover is famous for its Whiskey Steak (a secret whiskey based marainade), and I had been thinking of an Omaha, corn-fed Steak for over a year, yet I had always thought of Prime Rib as a Roast. I had never considered cooking a big cut of Prime Rib like a hefty steak. Where they on to something here? When you are just passing through it is hard to come back and try both. What to do? I used a lifeline and conferred with Mike “Spike” Sabin (managing The Drover for 38 years) about my options. His years of restaurant experience came into play. He told me that the Wednesday lunch special was the $17.49 Prime Rib Steak, Whiskey Style. I am not sure if he was pulling my leg and artfully bending the rules, but my problem was solved. There is nothing like a true restaurant professional. Thanks Spike.
The Prime Grade, corn-fed, Nebraska Prime rib is Roasted at 225° F for 4 hours and then Held Warm until it is Sliced as needed. The steak-cut slice is then Marinated in The Drover’s secret whiskey-soy sauce a few minutes before hitting the char-broiler and being Finish Cooked like a steak. The Prime Rib is available until they run out.
As I waited for the my order, I observed the lunch crowd. They ranged from an unlikely table of 4 college girls to business men to the old couples that had been frequenting The Drover since 1968. All sorts of business discussions were taking place. I overheard words like “designated agent” and “ROI” along with foreign place names like “Shanghai” and “Frankfurt.” There was a vibrancy and sense of youthful energy here that I did not see at Gorat’s. It feels like The Drover is replacing their aging customer base and actually they are doing better than ever.
You Can't Argue with the Simplicity of The Prime Rib "Whiskey-Steak-Style"
The Drover’s Prime Rib, “Whiskey-Steak-Style” was a dream. All the buttery goodness of Prime Rib with the Browning and Caramelization of a perfect steak. This is not a “Classic” preparation of Prime Rib, but a classic example of good old fashion American ingenuity. I didn’t ask Spike how it came about but I imagined a re-enactment of the argument.
Chef 1: “Why can’t you cook Prime Rib like a terrific Steak?”
Chef 2: “You just can’t.”
Chef 1: “Yeah?”
Chef 2: “Yeah!”
Chef 1: “I’ll show you.”
The Prime Rib masquerading as a steak falls to the char-broiler. “Sssssssszzzzzzzz.”
Chef 2: “Hey its looking pretty good.”
Chef 1: “Just wait until its ready, Sucker.”
Chef 1 pulls the thick, beautifully marked steak from the grill.
Chef 1: “OMG”
Chef 2, his mouth watering, “Can I get a little of that.”
I also imagined a Reese’s Peanut Butter scenario where two chefs bump into one another and one chef’s roast landed on the grill and they decide that 2 great tastes can go together. OK, maybe I was a little punchy after such a long drive, but all I am going to say by way of explanation, is that sitting by yourself, 1500 miles from home, you have some time to day dream about different scenarios.
However, they came upon it, Grilling the Prime Rib struck me as a stroke of genius. They were not trying too hard, or loading the steak/prime rib up with bells and whistles, like some places. It was just a simple, epic, eye-opening dining / cooking experience. The sides (thick cut toast, cinnamon apple and cottage cheese) were supporting members of the plate. The dated, but welcome, sides also served to confirm that I was still, after all, in the Heartland of Nebraska.
Perfectly Cooked Rare Prime Rib / Steak
With my visit to Fiorella’s Jack Stack in KC just a few hours down the road, I did not even risk a look at the dessert menu.
Writing up my visit, has me almost ready to point the Smart Kitchen mobile towards Nebraska and drive as far as I need to go. If you are a beef eater and you have a chance to drop in, do. And do say “hi” to Spike.
We had planned a trip to Pinche Tacos (apologies if you are a Spanish speaker. It’s their name) in Denver with our colleagues and friends Chad and Danielle but Chad had already been to Pinche Tacos. Since they are Denver locals and since I had not eaten since Winslow, Az 30 something hours ago, I was persuaded to change the venue. I did insist that Chad pick someplace noteworthy and off-beat. He did not disappoint with Root Down. As he discussed it, early on a Sunday morning, Danielle opened her eyes and exclaimed “I’m up!, I’m up.” She wanted in too.
Even the name is off-beat. With a name like “Root Down” I imagined some kind of eclectic, skater-face-feed where the dudes munch down or root down on great food. It wasn’t that at all. In fact, it was kind of “Duh.”
With an Image the Meaning of Root Down is Obvious
Apparently Root Down is the kind of place where local ingredients like Radishes from the Pecos Street Community Garden are put to good, creative use.
Root Down Aims to Connect the Neighborhood to the Dining Experience
Even the architecture of the building screams creativity.
Comfy & Quirky; and Perfect in Denver
We had a 40 minute wait but were not disappointed with our meals. After a bit of the bottom-less Blood Orange Mimosas (virgin for me), we decided to use a modified Chinese – Family Style dining system and all have a bit of everything.
The Darker Virgin Blood Orange Juice and the Bottomless Blood Orange Mimosa Catch the Sunlight and Shout "Drink Me!"
The first dish out was a unique take on Egg’s Benedict: A Hollandaise & Balsamic Drizzle over Smoked Duck and Caramelized Onion all resting on a cherry waffle.
Smoked Duck Benedict with a Balsamic Hollandaise
It was delicious and a good conversation piece. The next item was another riff on the Eggs Benedict theme: The Root Down. I had never seen a Quinoa English Muffin, and with Mrs. P Chef and Little P Chef being Gluten-Free, I was in on that one dimension alone; but then there was also Iberico Cheese and a Sun-Dried Tomato Hollandaise Sauce. Taking a Mother Sauce to the next level is almost always an interesting idea.
Quinoa English Muffins in The Root Down
Next up was Chad’s Choice: a Pulled Pork Omelette with Smoke Mozzarella, Charred Scallion Sauce, Lime Crème Fraîche and pickled Habaneros. I was very glad we were sharing.
The Pulled Pork Omelette with Greens and Some Savory Potatoes
On the fork, the dish that played well in the mind, suffered slightly. For me, the pulled pork was a bit too sweet and sharp to perfectly compliment the eggs. It was as though it was trying a little too hard to be different and not trying hard enough to be fabulous. Finally, came Danielle’s favorite: The Veggie Burger Sliders.
The Veggie Sliders Did Not Perform as Danielle Remembered Them
At the first bite, Danielle’s look of anticipation turned to disappointment. They had CHANGED the slider of her dreams. And she wasn’t wrong. Apparently, the topping was switched out from a Tomato Jam on her last visit to a jalapeno spread this time. She was very unhappy about it. As for us, the veggie slider was just run-of-the-mill, not day-wrecking. Vegetarian Slider aside, the experience was a good one, as much for the vibe and hip crowd, as for the distinctive food. Thanks Chad and Danielle for the suggestion, the friendship, the visit and the business.