Saturday, July 30, 2011

Blues BBQ

Inside Blues BBQ and a peek at their pressure smoker.

According to what I've read, Blues BBQ is the best bbq in Charleston. But read through the reviews and the comments and a bit of a controversy erupts. Evidently, Blues BBQ pressure cooks their ribs. To bbq purists this is akin to an uncircumsized Semite running through 1942 Berlin wearing a pig meat outfit.

Putting that controversy to the side, I decided to check out Blues - especially since one of the commenters assured that Blues was not pressure cooking their ribs. As for myself, I'm a firm believer in wood smoked bbq but I certainly can appreciate the virtues of boiled ribs (looking at you The Corner Stable in Cockeysville, MD) - though stating that might be grounds for the KCBS to revoke my BBQ Judge status.

Samples of their Williamsburg and Blues style pulled pork.

Located in a simple building on Jefferson Road outside of South Charleston, it's easy to drive past Blues without noticing but once inside, it's true bbq style. Inside, Blues is old and a bit worn and rundown. Formica booths and old posters share the patina of wear that's reassuring in a bbq joint. There's even a large ice cream dipping cabinet sitting in the middle of the seating area. Odd and disjointed, it's kind of what bbq joints are all about. Fancy dining this place ain't.

The lady with the black hair is friendly and takes me on a tasting tour of the two types of pulled pork they offer. There's the original Blues pulled pork that's sweeter with hints of molasses, then there's the Williamsburg style that's acidic and vinegary with some spice. There's also two choices of cole slaw - a sweeter one with mayo and a spicy, vinegar based without mayo. While I like the Williamsburg style better on its own, I decide on the Blues style to balance out the vinegary spice of the non-mayo cole slaw for the pulled pork sandwich.

The pulled pork sandwich with baked beans and spicy cole slaw.

BBQ purists desire to shame all those who disagree (or merely have different) with their viewpoints and preferences. So rabid these purists can be that I'm surprised they aren't protesting outside Blues door. Inside, the very nice lady is more than happy and proud about how they cook their bbq: it's pressure smoked and she's happy to point out the pressure smoker that's in plain sight from the front counter.

A little Internet research showed that a small box of wood chips is placed in the bottom of the pressure chamber, then the meat is hung inside the chamber before being sealed and cooked under pressure. It's kind of weird to think about but I'm open to different as long as its good. The lady is proud of her cooker but it looks small to me and I wonder how many ribs they can cook. Four at a time and it takes just over an hour to cook.

Inside the pulled pork sandwich.

I think back to my summer making commercial bbq and four at a time seems like lunacy. You'd kill yourself trying to produce enough ribs when you can only do four at a time. Of course, it only takes about an hour and in the time that it would take me to smoke ribs the traditional way, you could run 16-20 racks in the pressure smoker.

The people at Blues BBQ are so friendly that it's no wonder they've been in business for ten years and have gone through three pressure smokers. I depart with a large bag stuffed with ribs, pulled pork, cole slaw, baked beans and fries for a late afternoon meal at the hotel.

A rack of ribs with dinner rolls.

I find the pulled pork to be very tasty. Deep, dark and lusty, I note spices, hints of dark chocolate and sweet molasses that's contrasted brilliantly by the spicy cole slaw. The sesame seed bun is soft and chewy. The baked beans are more of the same. Deep, smoky and molasses sweet. I like.

My brother is a big fan of the boiled style of ribs. Tender and falling off the bone is his style of ribs and he would be a big fan of the Blues rib. Fork tender and falling off the bone, you could easily suck the meat down Extremely tender and bathed in a sweet bbq sauce, I found the ribs to be a bit lacking.

Closeup with the pressure smoked ribs.

As much as I may try, I guess deep down inside, I'm a wood smoked rib lover. My palate is searching for that deep luster of wood flavor but can't find it. Visually, I'd like to see that reddish smoke ring but instead find an even color of pork grey under the sauce. The pressure smoker may add smoke but even under pressure, with such a short exposure time, it seems that the meat doesn't have enough time to meld its flavors with the smoke.

Where I would hope to find depth and complexity, the ribs come up short. I'm hoping for complex ribs but they're a bit one dimensional. I wonder if bathing the ribs in bbq sauce then charring them on the grill would develop greater complexity and that sugary Maillard reaction that might give these ribs that extra ooomph.

Of course, Blues has been around ten years and is very popular with the locals. The staff is very friendly and welcoming and the pulled pork is certainly worth the effort.

Blues BBQ
1109 Jefferson Road
South Charleston, WV 25309-9780
(304) 744-8335

Bridge Road Bistro

Sesame Fried Calamari - tossed in spicy sesame garlic sauce.

The difficult part of visiting any city is finding someplace good to eat. Truth be told, I'm really just like everyone else - I'm scared of finding something bad. This is the same mentality that drives the masses to eat at Applebee's, Cheesecake Factory, Panera Bread and Burger King, no matter where they are in the world.

With the advent of the Internet, we now have resources like Yelp!, Urbanspoon and the like to help guide us. The biggest problem of these sites and their reviews is the same as following any critic - it takes awhile to learn if your tastes are in line with those of the reviewer. And the real threat with Urbanspoon and Yelp is that they could be populated by people with more, say pedestrian aka "normal", tastes.

Classic Caesar - hearts of romaine, garlic crostini, aged parmesan, oven roasted tomatoes.

Because of this, it's difficult to accurately gauge which place is great and which isn't. Even in my own hometown of Baltimore the top ten listings aren't the typical places I find on my regular dining retinue. But we have to try.

Pluses and minuses, I decided to give Bridge Road Bistro a try. A peek at their website suggests that farm-to-table kind of mentality and their Urbanspoon writeups run sporadic. Situated in what seems to be the "nicer" part of Charleston: South Hills, the bistro is known for okay food and high prices. In retrospect, I'm starting to wonder what possessed me to try the place.

The bistro is located in a relatively non-descript building in the heart of the Bridge Road shopping district. Reading about the area, I expected some sort of expansive shopping road, probably at least a half-mile long bustling with shops and activity. The reality is that it's about 200 yards of shops in a relatively sleepy, suburban setting.

Fried Green Tomato BLT - apple smoked bacon, lettuce, roasted garlic mayo, toasted sourdough.

We arrived around 11:30 in the morning and the place was almost empty. It's a Saturday and they're offering a breakfast buffet. And it's nearly empty. Maybe that should tell us something.

So much of the hoopla online about the bistro talks about how expensive it is, how fine dining they're trying to be, giving me the impression that this is going to be some fancy place where I might feel a little out of place wearing shorts and a t-shirt (it is a Ralph Lauren Polo t-shirt though). Not in the least. The bistro strikes me as a fancy clad Denny's. Rows of booth seating clad in wood with muted color schemes make it slightly upscale but it still feels very much like a diner, with lovely wood tabletops.

And how truly lovely those tabletops are. Solid wood tables in a deep, thick lacquer really were my favorite decor detail. Otherwise, the bar is about the only section in the place that kind of lives up to the hype with it's wood chairs and tables. Had they done the entire restaurant like that it would have truly given the place an upscale edge.

Inside with the fried green tomatoes.

I have to admit, I was a bit off put by the decor. I was expecting something thought out, not a nicer version of Denny's. Then there was the menu. Decent, if uninspired offerings. I usually don't do this, but I ended up quizzing our very nice server about some details. Is the calamari fresh or frozen? Delivered every other day. Are the fries battered? No, they're made here.

To my eye, the only interesting item on the menu was the Fried Green Tomato BLT. Something probably locally sourced, fresh and light. We decided on the calamari, caesar salad and the BLT.

I really want to rave about the places I visit. I really do. But this time, I just can't. The food was typical and perfunctory. The calamari was thickly battered and covered in a sticky sweet sauce with a hint of spice. The caesar salad was on the bland side and just average. So far, the best part of the meal was our servers friendliness and the iced tea.

The Other Half.

I was holding out hope for the BLT. When it arrived it looked promising. Nicely toasted sourdough bread, a cup of cole slaw, a wedge of pickle and some fries. The pickle was soft and lacked crisp. The cole slaw could have been really good but lacked the acid to punch it up and salt to pronounce its flavor. Then there was the fries.

I certainly hope that our server was simply mistaken that the fries were made in-house because homemade fries these were not. Frozen, commercial with skins - yes. Freshly made? No way. In fact, with a little time I could probably find the Simplot product number.

As for the BLT, it was pretty good. Definitely the highlight of the meal. Crispy bacon piled high with slightly greasy fried green tomatoes and lettuce. Quite enjoyable. Add the chewy interior texture and crusty crust of the bread and it was darn good. The biggest problem was the other half. A nearly empty restaurant and the bacon and tomatoes are lopsided onto one half of the sandwich? Obviously the kitchen is not paying attention to the details.

I wish I could rave about Bridge Road Bistro, but I can't. Sadly, they're not really trying to give a reason to rave, they're just going by the numbers, and maybe that's good enough for The South Hills, but it's a darn shame.

Bridge Road Bistro
915 Bridge Road
Charleston, WV 25314