We have now lived in Abilene Texas for over five years, and we have yet to find a barbecue place that’s good. When we first arrived in this town, late November 2004, I looked through the yellow pages to find a good barbecue joint. I even went as far as calling the local newspaper, and they told me Joe Allen’s Barbecue is what they recommend. Joe Allen’s is supposedly known for having catered for one of the Presidents – President George W. Bush, I think. So we took the advice and went to Joe Allen’s. When we got to the place, there was only one other car on the parking lot. And we noticed that it was close to being a ‘hole in the wall’ kind of place. Probably not a good sign, but we went in anyway. I think I ordered ribs and brisket; which were both dry and didn’t have any sauce as is typical with Texas Barbecue. I thought – fine. I’ll just have some sauce on the side. The green beans were overcooked and the potato could use some seasoning. I think my husband had brisket and sausage. I forgot what Ramon ordered. But to cut this story short, the food wasn’t anything to brag about. We won’t even come back to give them another try. We were highly disappointed. We were staying at the hotel at that time and have been surviving on microwave foods for over a month; we were so looking forward to eating something good. But too bad it wasn’t. Maybe we just came in on a bad day. Or maybe he just cooks well for dignitaries. But we were unforgiving.
Square’s Barbecue Pit & Grill. We all came here one late afternoon for dinner. I thought the ribs were okay, at least they were seasoned. And I had the peach cobbler; and it was good. But then it’s kind of hard to mess up a peach cobbler. Still I liked it. But Willie didn’t care much for what he ordered. He had ribs too but thought that the barbecue sauce tasted as if it was just poured over the ribs and wasn’t allowed to cook in with the meat. This might have been true. I think what they’ve done is cook the ribs, sliced them, and then pour the sauce over them. We haven’t been back since.
Betty Rose’s Little Brisket. One afternoon, Jed – the maintenance guy, was over at our condo fixing an electric outlet. He’s lived in Abilene all his life, so we thought he might know a place or two. He might even know the best place… NOT! He told us, “You might want to try Betty Rose’s Little Brisket. It is pretty good. That is where we get our turkey and ham during Thanksgiving. And their ribs and brisket are good too.” Of course we are suckers on the idea of maybe finally finding the best barbecue place in Abilene. So I went and ordered their brisket, ribs, and sausage for three people; with sides of green beans and potato salad. The food was bland; and tasted as if it’s been under the warmer all day. The potato salad was more like watery mashed potatoes; and the green beans were overcooked. Another disappointment.
And then finally, it looks like we really might find the best barbecue place in town. In 2008, they began construction for a place called “Famous Dave’s.” Supposedly known for the good barbecues. We were excited on the prospect of finally finding a good barbecue joint. The whole town waited in anticipation for the opening. After almost one year of construction, it finally opened. The first month they were opened, the parking lot was packed. Looked like the whole town and their extended cousins and grandmas from neighboring towns, came to see what the hoopla is all about. So we decided to wait until all the crowds died down. By the third month, the place had less than half the crowd when they first opened. But then we also started hearing from people who’s been to “Famous Dave’s” that their food – their barbecue is not as good as people had expected them. Undeterred, my husband had me ordered three combo plates, all for “take outs.” We ordered the usual: brisket, ribs, and sausage; with baked beans and fries on the side. They gave us great servings for each order. But when I finally got home, and got to taste the food… What a bomber. Other than the French fries, and the sausage, the food was cold and had no flavor. The brisket and ribs tasted as if they have been cooked one day before – and had been in a warmer all day. It was stale and barely lukewarm. The only item that was decent was the sausage. But how can they mess up cooking the sausage? Disappointed again!
Harold’s Pit Barbecue. My husband recently hired a new guy on his team. And of course, my husband asked if he knows a good barbecue place in town. He said, “Yeah man! Harold’s Pit Barbecue. That’s a good place. That’s the place I always like to go.” OK… so we took his words for it. My husband and I drove by the place during lunch time. The parking was a bit crowded, so I went in – while he waited in the car, to order slices of brisket and ribs – all to go. Oh, and “hot water cornbread” which all the reviewers on the internet seems to brag about. So we got home and ate the food. The briskets were dry and needed seasoning, and the ribs were nothing special. The only item that my husband thought was good was the “hot water cornbread,” which I did not care much for. I thought it was hard, and really couldn’t appreciate it. We’re disappointed yet again!
Though there are steakhouses in Abilene that I liked. My favorite is Texas Roadhouse. I like their steaks, and I love their sweet dinner rolls – freshly made in-house. Off all the times we’ve eaten here, my steaks have been seasoned well. Though I can’t speak for my husband. He’s had a “hit or miss” experience at this place. And their booths are tight and cramped, which makes it uncomfortable if you are a man size. Of all the places here in Abilene, “Texas Roadhouse” is always packed. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Monday or Tuesday, and they’re only open for dinner on weekdays. It’s worst on weekends. I often wonder what makes all these people kept coming back to this place? I know they’re grilled steaks are good in my experience. Like I said, my husband had a “hit or miss” experience at this place. He enjoyed his meals twice out of seven visits… Still I wonder why are they always packed? Maybe it’s the free – all you can munch roasted peanuts…? Or maybe it’s their steaks and dinner rolls… I may never know.
There’s another place that I like – Lytle Cattle & Company. I’ve been here three times. The first time was good, and I remember liking the small loaves of bread. But the next time we went, they didn’t serve me the bread. I don’t remember asking for it either. And my third visit was when we attended a going away party here for a Lieutenant Colonel. They had the food catered to one of their party rooms. I thought the grilled ribeyes were well seasoned. And the green beans and mashed potatoes we’re not bad either.
Still, this doesn’t answer our search for a great barbecue. Both Texas Roadhouse and Lytle Cattle & Company are not barbecue joints, they’re steakhouses.
The only barbecue place we have ever been, that is truly worth revisiting, since we’ve lived here in Texas is “Hard Eight” in Brady, Texas. We’ve stopped by there while we were on our way to Fredricksburg, Texas back in May of 2006. Someone from my husband’s work told him about this place. So we made a point to stop there. The place is a typical ranch style barbecue joint with a barn like building with long tables and benches inside. Outside at the entrance is a covered barbecue pit, where they slow cooked their brisket. We were greeted by a tall and lanky elderly man, who looked like he’s worked there all his life. “What can I get you folks?” asked the man. I was first to place my order. So I ordered two slices of brisket. As the knife runs smoothly through that big, tender, mesquite smoked, big piece of meat, clear and brown juices oozed out of it. My senses were swept by the sweet, mustard spiced, charcoal, grilled, aromatic meaty flavor that burst out into the open air… Ramon ordered the same thing, and Willie ordered 3 slices. I can’t remember what side items we had. I think they only had small containers of green salad, and slices of bread. But we didn’t care about the sides; we cared most about the brisket. It was so tender, so juicy, well seasoned and freshly out of the pit. The best brisket we’ve ever had, ever! But they are three (3) hours away from Abilene. And then, there is this fear that “what if we just got lucky that day? What if we drive the three-hour drive, and then when we get there their brisket won’t won’t taste the same…?” We’re afraid to go back. We are afraid to be disappointed again.
There’s one thing we’ve discovered from our search for a good barbecue – barbecue joints are highly overrated. “Good” is subjective. And it depends on who you are asking. People become attached to a place, a lot of times not because of truly great food, but more likely the experience they’ve had in that place, the feelings they’ve felt while eating there with their love ones. So they’re biased on their opinions. They have convinced themselves that the food is good, when in fact it’s not the food. It’s the psychological impact the place has on them and they don’t even know it…
So… since having a good barbecue in Abilene seems to elude us. I decided to just cook them myself. Though I wish I could have cook this ribs slowly in a grill, but cooking them in the oven is the next best thing. They came out juicy and tender all the way to the bones. The keys to these ribs are the marinade and the glaze.
Tender to the Bones – Baby Back Ribs
2 racks of baby back ribs (about 3½ pounds each) – washed and cut in half along the rib bones
Glaze – see recipe below
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup teriyaki sauce
1 can soda (I used 7-up)
½ cup apple cider vinegar
6 TBSPs. brown sugar
4 TBSPs. 100% maple syrup
3 TBSPs. honey (I always use clover honey)
4 TBSPs. spicy brown mustard
2 TBSPs. kosher salt
2 tsp. fennel seeds (ground or smashed)
1½ tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. liquid smoke (I use hickory)
Juice of 3 limes (medium or large)
8 garlic cloves – smashed, peeled and chopped
2 inch piece ginger – peeled and grated
Combine all ingredients for the marinade in a large glass mixing bowl. Stir until sugar and honey are dissolved. (If you are using 2 – gallon freezer bags, pour half of the marinade over the ribs in one bag and the other half in another bag.) Otherwise, pour all the marinade over the ribs placed in a large non-reactive container.
Marinate the ribs for 6 hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
Preheat oven at 325°F.
Line a heavy duty baking sheet with a heavy duty aluminum foil. Place the marinated rack of ribs, meaty part down on the lined baking sheet. (Keep the marinade in a bowl to baste the ribs if necessary.) Cover baking sheet with another piece of heavy duty aluminum foil. Bake ribs at 325°F for 3 hours – using the center rack of the oven. Check after 3 hours. Use a fork to test if the meat is tender. The meat should easily full off the bones, if not, bake another 45 minutes or up to one hour longer; covered with aluminum foil. Be sure the baking sheet and ribs are not dry, otherwise, generously baste the ribs with the marinade before baking for 45 minutes to an hour.
Once the ribs are fork tender… remove the foil cover. Liberally baste the ribs on one side, with the “Apricot White Wine Glaze.” Turn on the broiler and broil the glazed ribs for about 7 – 8 minutes. Turn the ribs over and liberally baste the other side (meaty side) and place under the broiler again for 6 – 7 minutes. The glaze on this side usually sets faster. Be sure to keep an eye on the ribs to avoid burning the glaze.
Remove ribs from the oven and let them rest for 5 minutes before slicing.
Serves 4 people – half rack each. Serve with potato salad.
Apricot White Wine Glaze
1 – 18 ounces jar apricot preserves
4 ½ TBSPs. white wine or medium dry sherry (I use soft and fruity wine)
2 tsps. ground fennel seeds (fennel seeds are available whole so I grind my own)
¼ tsp. Chinese five spices (see recipe below)
Combine all ingredients in a medium size mixing bowl. Stir until apricot, wine, fennel seeds and five spices are well incorporated. Use this glaze to baste the ribs as directed above.
NOTE: If it’s too much hassle, you may decide to omit the five spices. The taste is going to be a bit different but that’s OK. These ribs are still going to be well seasoned and tender.
Combine 1 tablespoon of each: ground star anise, ground anise seeds, fennel seeds, ground cloves, and cinnamon. (A typical Chinese “five spices includes schezuan pepper. But I have not been able to find this here in Abilene, Texas so I use anise seeds instead.)
Store these “five spices” in a tightly closed glass jar for future use. You need only a very minimal amount of these spices to give a dish that aromatic flavor.
3 pounds red potatoes with skins (about 9 medium large) – sliced to ½ inch rounds
1 TBSP. sea salt
1 tsp. olive oil
4 garlic cloves – unpeeled
Potato salad dressing (see recipe below)
Fill a large pot, half full, with tap water. Add sea salt and bring pot to a boil.
Scrub potatoes under cold running water to remove sand, and slice off imperfections. Cut potatoes into ½ inch rounds. Once the water starts to boil add the olive oil, sliced potatoes and garlic cloves. Boil potatoes for 35 minutes or until soft. Remove garlic and set aside. Strain potatoes and place in a large bowl. Peel garlic, mince and add to the potatoes.
Add the dressing to the potatoes. Mix and chill. Garnish with boiled eggs and serve.
NOTE: I understand some people like their potato salad without mustard, and that’s fine, because in our home, my husband loves his potato salad with mustard while Ramon cannot have mustard in his food. So I’ve also made this potato salad with and without mustard. Without the mustard, the taste is slightly different but it’s still good, though I prefer mine with mustard too.
Potato Salad Dressing
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons French style mustard
3 tablespoons sweet relish
¼ cup minced red onion
1 TBSP. fresh chives – chopped or 1 tsp. dried
¾ tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
¾ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. fresh black pepper
In medium size bowl, combine all the ingredients, stirring until smooth, creamy and well blended. Pour dressing over the potatoes and mix.
Enjoy and Happy Cooking!