Friday, June 5, 2015
When I go looking for barbecue I somehow feel cheated if I don't land at a roadside trailer, dodgey neighborhood or woodyard shack. I search out the picture book "authentic," roadfood unrefined and well, gritty outposts as some sort of personal test merit badge of procurement.
Pecan Lodge is exactly the kind of place I generally avoid. Its new purpose built, well designed restaurant in the hipster filled Deep Ellum area of downtown Dallas is the domain of owner and pit master Justin Fourton (and his crew). Not the product of family generations of wood smoke bathed grizzled, sleepless meat cooks but a refugee from corporate America who started a catering company out of the Dallas Farmers Market that quickly grew to a sensation.
Staring down at Pecan Lodge's massive beef rib I think about my stereotyped view, perhaps more rooted in the past than the art of barbecue itself. Barbecue -- as I have always felt -- should be about the food and only the food. The smoke, the flavor, the piles of juicy meat. Not the atmosphere. So why do I so often object to pleasantries and assume a brick and mortar restaurant can't offer the true flavor of the pit?
Like all the best places you can smell the wood smoke from Pecan Lodge well before you can see the line, usually out the door. Following the lunch only tradition (though PL is open for dinner Friday and Saturday), they sell their long cooked meats by the pound until they run out. You order at the counter and pick up your tray before finding a seat. Get there early to get your first choice.
I think of Austin's Franklin Barbecue, the undisputed, world renowned king of Texas Barbecue and it's clean modern building and young James Beard award winning pit master chef.
Old stereotypes die hard in my heart but with the first bite of Pecan Lodge's meltingly tender, fatty, smoke filled brisket my romanticized visions of glorious Texas beef barbecue start to grow dim. The ribs are good but Pecan Lodge for me is all about the brisket. The sides are okay. I always try the sides but remember Anthony Bourdain's sage advice in barbecue to save room for the meat and meat alone. Pecan's macaroni and cheese is good -- very, very good. The cole slaw and okra are no better than the versions I make at home. The pickles are from a jar and the not plentiful (one of the online complaints about PL -- along with the prices) rolls (not thick slices of white bread here) are appropriately doughy and slightly sweet but nothing too special. But oh that brisket. Some the best ever and doused, if you choose from squirt bottles at the table, with the very untraditional (in Texas at least) Carolina style vinegar based sauce (I like it better than PL's more regionally familiar Texas style sauce) it's slightly spicy, puckery sweet perfection. The noise of the raucous dining hall fades away in between bites.
And yet brisket is not the Fourton's only triumph. In general I would never think to order anything but smoked meat in a barbecue place but so many online reviews raved about Pecan Lodge's fried chicken I had to take a bite. The pit master's wife, Diane, offers up her "Mamaw's" recipe. It is juicy and flavorful and better than mine. This is chicken that could capture area diners' attention if not for the tremendous brisket and barbecue theme of the Dallas restaurant.
To think I might have missed it all. I'll strive to be more open minded. It's so much easier to be open minded when your mouth is full.
After all, it's all about the food.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Walking in, the dining room is some sort of Texas stereotype Disneyland covered in barnwood, branded panels, massive steer horns and a glowing rattlesnake that crowns the row of tables closest to the bar. It is, as D Magazine described, " A yeehaw assault on the senses."
I was seated at a "rusty" metal table, oddly oval making it uncomfortably far from the banquette no matter where I sat. Patrick, my ebullient server, immediately greeted me with such charm I soon forgot about the table shape and turned to fried chicken. The reason for my journey.
As Patrick described the mission of the restaurant by local celeb and 5th generation Texan chef Stephan Pyles is to honor the traditional home cooking of the Lone Star State with modern cooking techniques. If press releases are to be believed the chicken recipe came from Pyles' grandmother which the chef improved by injecting the meat with Texas wildflower honey before coating in seasoned flour and buttermilk.
At dinner the chicken comes out with homemade tatter tots and buttermilk biscuits which I probably would like better. At lunch propped in a cute little galvanized bucket the "seasoned fries" were limp -- I assume they had waited for the chicken to finish cooking -- and heavy with I think cumin that had a slightly earthy, even muddy flavor. If Patrick had a flaw as a server it's that he didn't ask why I hadn't touched the fries. Even during a busy lunch service he should notice and let the kitchen know how guests are reacting the food.
The chicken was fine. Not the best I've ever had but certainly better quality meat than generally served at the mom and pop joints I love. The breast was big and meaty and though it seems the batter was a tiny bit over cooked (I think the oil was too hot so the crust shattered and separated from the meat as soon as I bit in) the meat was moist and tender and cooked all the way through -- no small feat when frying a piece that large. Very impressive frying.
The flavor again carried that hint of cumin that seems just a touch muddy (even the little jar of pickles, my favorite part of the meal had that same spice). Fine but not great. I didn't eat it all.
Overall I don't think Stampede 66 would be on my 10 best list -- especially if the fried chicken is, as reported, their best dish. Fine but not stellar.