Sunday, January 30, 2011

E & L Barbeque - Jackson

I remember the first time I had E & L Barbeque. I was 16, maybe 17, and my friend Ronnie and I were looking for a bbq lunch. It wasn’t until we walked in that I realized just how out of place I was. It was one of those situations you only see on a sorry sitcom; the needle literally jumped off the record. Blissful in my ignorance, I followed Ronnie’s lead and let him do the ordering. It was only after we had finished feasting on rib tips that I learned the gravity of the situation. Apparently kids from Madison aren’t supposed to go get lunch on Bailey Avenue.

Well, some people never learn. I suppose that’s why Sam and I were standing in line for E & L one chilly Friday afternoon in early January. Once again, I stuck out like a sore thumb and once again, I didn’t care. I was waiting for good BBQ, social stigmas be damned.

There’s always a long line at E & L, a real testament to its popularity. With that single file of humanity snaking around the restaurant, we had plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and the menu. With walls covered in a mix of striking colors and a few odd pictures of smiling kids with faces slathered with BBQ sauce, I have the feeling that the interior of E & L has rarely seen a revision. More important the interior of a BBQ joint is the menu and E & L has a lengthy one. It’s your usual assortment of BBQ; ribs, rib tips, chicken, hamburgers, wings, and even the odd pig ear grace the menu at E & L.

After soaking up the atmosphere, it was finally our turn to order and since I’m averaging a decade between visits, I tried to run the gamut. Not a single menu item was safe as I rattled off an order of ribs, rib tips, hot links, pork sandwich and even that odd pig appendage, the ear.

With the staff running to fill our order, Sam and I had plenty of time to discuss the intricacies of BBQ. Amidst the discussion of walk in freezers, I couldn’t help but notice the odd smoker they have at E & L.
Instead of a pit or an electric smoker, E & L stores all their meat in an offset smoker with sliding glass doors. Whenever the pit master slid open a door, I could see the oak wood smoke pouring out of the smoker. It looked like there was a fan pulling smoke from a firebox in another room or even from outside the building.

An interesting trend at E & L is that everyone gets their food to go. Not wanting to stick out any more than I had to, we skipped eating at the Technicolor booths and shuffled out to the parking lot. With our arms full of oak imbued pork, Sam and I took our bounty back to my office.

Back at the office, I covered my desk in paper towels and newspapers and we started opening the bags.
This is just a rack of ribs and rib tips. E & L certainly doesn’t skimp on the sauce.
Maybe I should have asked for the sauce on the side.
Seriously, these ribs were swimming in that sweet, smoky sauce.
Fresh from the smoker, each rib was hot and painted a beautiful pink from the oak. These ribs may not have a pronounced smoke ring or an overbearing smoke flavor but there was a subtle smokiness to the meat that only accented the hearty pork flavor.
It took a little effort to get the meat off the bone, but nothing excessive. These ribs were well cooked and nowhere near the fall off the bone nonsense that so many BBQ joints try to achieve.

Good sausage goes hand in hand with quality BBQ and I thought the Hot Links would be an excellent choice.
It’s a tray of sausage and French fries in a pool of BBQ sauce and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Actually there was plenty else wrong with these hot links. Each sausage was large, hard as a rock and well beyond overcooked.
Doing my best to look past the incredibly mealy stuffing, there was an actual heat to Hot Links, but nothing that would overcome the miserable preparation and texture.

When I first heard about E & L, it was about the wonderful flavor of their rib tips. Even when I had the audacity to bring E & L to Brent’s years ago, the staff behind the ice cream counter knew exactly where those rib tips came from. I don’t know if the tips are E & L’s most popular item, but they seem like they are. True to form, nearly every person in line that day ordered rib tips. Of course, Sam and I had to indulge.
Served with a side of soggy French fries and drenched in BBQ sauce, these trimmings from the spare ribs are fatty and unctuous.
With a bark that only comes from long smoking, the rib tips are a beautiful mix of tender pork fat, crispy bark, and oak smoked meat. It’s no wonder that the rib tips are E & L’s best selling item.

As much as I love ribs, rib tips, and sausage, it’s hard to visit a BBQ pit and not try their pork sandwich.
Consisting of nothing more than meat, bread and sauce, this is BBQ simplicity.
While each bite was sweet with a little spiciness, there was no prominent smokiness to the taste.
Instead of mixing in the bark to the meat for smokiness and texture, this was just a sandwich of silky chopped pork and sweetness.

Maybe I like to get weird looks from other customers; maybe I like exploring odd parts of the menu, but for whatever reason I ordered a pig ear sandwich.
As if a pig ear isn’t odd enough, I ordered it plain.
Perhaps the pig ears from Big Apple Inn spoiled me, but this was a peculiar pig ear. Without any dressing, this was just tender and gelatinous. There was no real pork flavor and I wasn’t a fan of the taste. Even doused in BBQ sauce, this just wasn’t for me.

Much like the pig ear, I had no real impetus to try a side of baked beans. I suppose it’s like potato salad and white bread, baked beans seem to be a natural part of the BBQ experience.
These beans were really just a mix of sweet sauce and tender beans. However, without any meat for flavor or texture, this was a small bowl of syrup with a few beans for filler.

Despite Jackson’s proximity to Memphis and its dry rubbed claim to fame, E & L is the perfect example of a Jackson BBQ. While the ribs may have a subtle smokiness, it’s the ocean of sauce that really defines both the E & L and Jackson style of BBQ. Keeping that in mind, with the combination of a sugary sweetness, smokiness, and a slight tinge of heat on the tail, it really is the BBQ sauce that makes E & L what it is today. While I may prefer the pepper laden vinegar sauces of the Carolinas, I can make room for the sweeter side of barbeque. Just heed my advice: skip the side of baked beans, the pig ears, and the Hot Links, E & L is all about the ribs and the rib tips. Cross the tracks, brave the lines, and get your own Styrofoam box. This is one of the few times that soggy French fries and white bread are useful. So get plenty of napkins and once you’ve prepared yourself, open the box and soak up that goodness that is E & L Barbeque.
E & L Barbeque Address and Information
1111 Bailey Avenue, Jackson, MS 39203 // 601.355.5035

E & L Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Peter Chang's - Atlanta

If you’ve taken the time to read any part of this site, you’ll see a common theme: I love Asian cuisines, particularly Chinese. It seems that regardless of city, my first instinct is to seek out the best dumplings, dim sum, or noodle house. Of course, with my regular visits to Atlanta, I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of what Chinese food the city has to offer. So, like everyone else, I read about Peter Chang’s new restaurant with anticipation. The man behind the legend was going to settle down at his own restaurant and Sichuan goodness will flow from the heavens. Well, that least bit may be a bit of hyperbole, but it seems appropriate.

Having only opened on the 18th of December, I knew there would still be some new restaurant jitters, but that wouldn‘t be enough to deter me from enjoying high quality Sichuan food. So on the 31st, before I began driving back to Jackson, I convinced Aaron and Jennifer that we needed Peter Chang’s for lunch.

As is the case with most Chinese restaurants, there’s a fairly expansive menu at Peter Chang’s. I love to go into detail about the sections and the variety of dishes, but the truth is I really don’t remember. Of course, a take out menu would be very beneficial, but Peter Chang’s was unprepared in that category. That being said, the three of us still ordered a multitude of dishes, regardless of category.

The first dish to make it out of the kitchen was the Hot & Dry Beef.
At first glance this looks like a plate of sticky beef jerky that’s been covered with chili peppers and sesame seeds.
I suppose, in some respects, that’s not too inaccurate. This was a plate of very dry but highly seasoned and highly flavorful beef. Each piece was covered in a slightly sweet sauce surrounding a piece of dry meat with a highly compounded beef flavor.
With each bite, there was a growing, lingering background spice. This plate was sticky, sweet, and packed with a nice chili laden kick; I really enjoyed it.

Dan Dan Noodles was the next dish to appear at our table.
There’s something ethereal about a good bowl of Dan Dan Mian.
Once mixed and dished into a small, more user friendly bowl, I was surprised at the flavors in this version of Dan Dan Noodles.
These noodles weren’t particularly spicy nor did they feature an overwhelming numbing effect from Sichuan peppercorns. The combination of pork, peanuts, and chili flakes wasn’t overpowering but satisfying. What was in the bowl was a rather oily batch of noodles that was simply delicious.

Even though they’re a little out of a place on a Sichuan-centric menu, we had to order the soup dumplings.
These xiao long bao are just what you’d expect, a doughy wrapper holding a pocket of unctuous broth and pork filling.
I still haven’t developed an eye for judging if soup dumplings are premade or homemade but these were quite tasty regardless of origin.
All the dumpling needed was a spoon and a little bit of chinkiang vinegar.

Ever since I first made my first plate of Cumin Beef or zi ran niu rou, I’ve become mildly obsessed with the dish, ordering it every time I see it on a menu.
This is the most beef I’ve ever seen in an order of zi ran niu rou.
Immediately, I was amazed at the cumin flavor to this dish. It was fresh, not the odd dusty flavor that I usually associate with cumin. In addition to the cumin, there seemed to be three notes: chili peppers, beef, and heat. It’s a simple chord, but an oh so tasty one.

Kung Pao Chicken, it may seem like your quintessential Chinese buffet item, but I was curious to see how Peter Chang would spin the misunderstood Sichuan classic.
Going straight for the chicken, I was amazed at the juiciness and tenderness of each piece.
While there was a pleasant, tolerable level of heat to this dish, this Kung Pao Chicken seemed to have a very Americanized feel to it. I suppose I was expecting more pungency from vinegar or peppers, but that’s a small complaint. What really surprised me was the appearance of asparagus in the dish.
Asparagus is one of those vegetables that I rarely see in Chinese cooking, so imagine my surprise when I found perfectly cooked pieces of asparagus mixed in this chicken. Combined with the chunks of bell pepper and ginger, this was an excellent version of Kung Pao Chicken.

At Peter Chang’s, the next dish is known as Beef and Noodles in Chili Oil, but I first encountered it under the name shui zhu niu rou or Boiled Beef Slices in a Fiery Sauce.
I’m always searching for a dish that will give me a big punch of “ma la” from Sichuan Peppercorns and spiciness from chili peppers, this dish was just what I was looking for.
Loaded to the gills with peppers, there was actually a rich chicken broth in the bowl, but it was almost forgotten in the flood of Sichuan Peppercorns and chilies.
Once I became acclimated to the numbing sensation, I could focus on this excellent bowl of beef and noodles. It was rich, beefy, spicy, really everything I could want in a bowl of shui zhu niu rou, best of all, I was able to enjoy the full force of a proper helping of “ma la”.

As if the boiled beef wasn’t enough of a Sichuan sucker punch for one meal, we finished with an order of Mapo Tofu.
With its big silky blocks of tofu, and a vinegar-tinged sauce, this was the perfect way to end the meal.
Combined with the Beef and Noodles from earlier, my mouth truly went numb after the Mapo Tofu. This was one of the strongest versions I’ve ever tasted. So while it may not be the meatiest, it’s certainly the most potent and that’s worth a second order in my book.

Despite our usual overzealous ordering, we only scratched the surface of what Peter Chang’s had to offer. There are so many more Chef’s Specials and Sichuan Favorites that I’m chomping at the bit to try. I’ve eaten at a Peter Chang restaurant before but after this meal I can see why Atlantans clamor to enjoy his pepper laden Sichuan dishes.
Peter Chang's Tasty 2 Address & Information
6450 Powers Ferry Road NW, Atlanta, GA 30339 // 770.419.9849 // Peter Chang's Website // Peter Chang's Menu
Peter Chang's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Farm Burger - Atlanta

Since its opening last spring, I’ve heard nothing but glowing reports about Farm Burger in Decatur. Working on the premise that a better cow makes a better burger, Farm Burger serves only grass-fed beef that has been dry aged for two weeks. Taking it a step further, the Farm Burger cows are raised in the Southeast and sourced from local farms. What else could you really ask for? People will talk endlessly about the virtues of grass-fed over corn-fed and how locally sourced is superior to produce from half a world away, but it’s rare to see those ideals applied to a burger joint. Of course, every good intention is a waste without proper execution, but every blogger has written about perfectly cooked burgers that shone with a beefy brilliance. Needless to say, I had high expectations the night we made the drive to Decatur.

I’ll have to give Farm Burger credit for their menu. In most burger centric restaurants, you’ll see a few options for building your own burger, but I’ve rarely seen the option to add oxtail marmalade or pork belly to my burger. With six standard combinations and more than 30 topping choices, it was incredibly easy to get lost in the Farm Burger menu.

After designing our burgers and choosing our poison, it was easy to find a spot at one of the large picnic tables. From there, it was just a matter of seeing what emerged from the kitchen first. This time, Aaron’s appetizer was the winner out of the gate.
Fried Chickpeas are the first option from the Snacks section of the menu and they were not what I was expecting. When I read fried chickpeas, I immediately thought falafel, but this was the first time I’ve been served fresh chickpeas still in the shell.
Salty at first, finding a chickpea was more of a challenge than I imagined. It wasn’t until the fourth shell that I actually found a chickpea, but the taste was worth the effort.

In addition to the fried chickpeas, Aaron had also ordered the beer battered onion rings with smoked paprika mayo.
Fresh from the fryer, this onion rings were beautifully fried and very well salted. I wasn’t particularly swooned by the mayo, but the onion rings were just fine on their own.

Even though we had come to Farm Burger for the burgers, I found it hard to pass up an order of the fried chicken livers.
Despite being very well fried, these livers were chalky and incredibly overcooked. While I was hoping the dipping sauce would mask the flavor of overdone liver, it only amplified the chalkiness. Maybe I should have just skipped the livers and waited on the burger.

Before we had time to mull over some of our surprisingly disappointing appetizers, our burgers arrived. In addition to the burgers, my bowl of chili arrived.
I love the idea of a brisket chili, but this one just wasn’t up my alley. While quite meaty and with a nice amount of cumin-laced spiciness, I just can’t enjoy a bean laden bowl of chili. The excessive amount of beans combined with a soupy consistency made me leave this bowl of chili largely uneaten.

In order to get a taste of the variety that Farm Burger had to offer, I ordered two burgers. The first was a somewhat traditional combination of medium rare beef, cheddar cheese, and caramelized onions.
While the initial bite revealed a pleasant sesame seed bun, very tasty caramelized onions and a salty, flavorful exterior, things soon gave way to an extremely underwhelming burger.
Instead of a deliciously moist medium rare, this burger had been cooked well past it. On its own, there wasn’t a particularly pungent, grass fed flavor to the patty, certainly nothing like the grass fed beef I’ve had before; combined with the other burger components, any beefiness was lost in a sea of cheese and bacon.

Hoping to take advantage of some of their more unique menu offerings, I originally intended to order a burger with oxtail marmalade. For some reason unbeknownst to me, when I actually placed the order I said roasted bone marrow, not oxtail marmalade.
I was really hoping the bone marrow would come slathered on the burger like jelly.
Crispy red onions are quite a change from the caramelized onions on the other burger.
Unfortunately, this burger was just as overcooked as the first. With such overcooked beef, crispy onions, and silky bone marrow, it really was an odd combination of textures and flavors. Actually with the crispiness of the onions, the whole burger came across as a beef cracker that only served to deliver the fatty marrow.

As we left, this was one of the few times that Aaron and Jennifer have ever felt the need to apologize for a restaurant. During their previous visits, the burgers had been well cooked and delicious. Like me, they had received terribly cooked burgers and were completely underwhelmed. I tried to think of a reason why things had gone so wrong, but I was coming up empty handed. I hadn’t ordered particularly difficult burger combinations and there wasn’t a huge crowd so there didn’t seem to be any real rush for the kitchen. I quickly ran out of excuses. I’m really hoping that I hit Farm Burger on a bad night. With so many positive reviews and a mission statement I can believe in, I’d hate for this to be just another bad burger.

Farm Burger on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

El Senor Taco - Atlanta

I really have been doing Buford Highway a disservice. For as much time as I spend on that stretch of road, I’ve only paid attention to the Asian eateries. Sure, you can spend weeks going through the Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese restaurants, but then you would be, like me, ignoring half of what Buford Highway has to offer. Thankfully there are things that slap you back into shape. This time that impetus was Aaron’s apprehension to an obscene amount of Asian cuisine. Between my sister and me, we could eat eastern cuisine for damn near every meal, Aaron…not so much. So in an effort to give Aaron a break from the litany of soy drenched dumplings, the three of us decided to visit a little of the other half of what Buford Highway has to offer.

Of course, just as you can get lost in the near endless collection of pho joints, it’s just as easy to lose your senses when trying to choose a taqueria. Thankfully, the reigning queen blogger of Atlanta, the Blissful Glutton had just the place: El Senor Taco.

Even though El Senor Taco is making waves for their fish tacos, I was decidedly more interested in some of their other taco choices.
Working from left to right, there was a tongue taco, then a cheek, and lastly a pastor taco.

It may be relatively benign, but I thought the Pastor taco was an excellent place to start.
Wrapped in a rather doughy, prepacked tortilla shell, this was a juicy meat filling but a little on the fatty side.
On it’s own, the pastor possessed a subtle spiciness, but when dressed with the salsa verde, the spice and flavors were amplified and delicious.

The cheek taco was next.
As you’d expect, this was meltingly tender.
Tasty on its own, the cheek taco was only improved with the salsa.

Tongue is one those meats that doesn’t get enough credit.
Sure, this tongue taco was tender and tasted like an amazing helping of pot roast, but it still gets no respect. As you might have guessed, things only got better with the addition of salsa verde.

While tacos might have been the main attraction to El Senor Taco, I was quite interested in the Sopa de Mariscos.
Outside of menudo, I haven’t delved too deep into the varieties of Latino or specifically Mexican soups, but I wasn’t quite expecting a soup like this. The flavors I associate with Mexican cuisine (e.g. cumin, Mexican oregano), just weren’t really there. Instead this was a delicious soup that I couldn’t really pigeonhole.
Overflowing with plump shrimp, flecks of crab meat, and plenty of small, albeit chewy squid slices, this soup was also rife with tomatoes, carrots, olives, and celery. Combined with all that seafood and vegetation, there was also spiciness to the background, but the real attraction was the sheer depth of flavor. Attention was paid to the construction of this soup and it showed.

Despite ordering a huge quantity of food, it was at the register where the true beauty of Buford Highway shone through. After three types of tacos and a huge bowl of seafood soup, in which I barely made a dent, there was barely a dent made in my wallet. While I may not have ordered the fish taco, Aaron did and I heard excellent things. So while I may still prefer the Asian offerings of Buford Highway, El Senor Taco has given me plenty of reasons to explore the other half. Now I just need to try that fish taco.

El Señor Taco on Urbanspoon