Aside

Thumping the melons in the BBQ capital of Texas

Barbecue arguments are like political arguments, only less objective. Which is to say they’re infuriating and unresolvable. For example, every time I hear someone say Oklahoma Joe’s or Jack Stack is the ultimate Kansas City barbecue joint, I want to stab them with a rib bone.

Barbecue is personal. 

So I know that a barbecue argument is an inevitable outcome of this post, and I accept that, but that is not the goal here. I am not going to try to convince anybody of anything one way or another.

Having said that, I don’t think I can in good faith not write that the best brisket I know of in the world is made in central Texas. If you are at a barbecue joint in Texas and you don’t order the brisket, you have committed a cultural crime equal to that of driving past the Grand Canyon and not stopping to look at it or going to the Kentucky Derby and not betting on the race.

Texas barbecue is brisket, brisket is Texas barbecue. Anything else is a neat little sideshow. And how can I describe it? Well there is something about the smoke itself down here. I assume they’re all using at least some mesquite wood but I didn’t ask. When you walk into Smitty’s in Lockhart, you are greeted by an open flame burning on the floor.

You think I am embellishing.

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And that, sirs and ma’ams, is why they can’t make good barbecue in California. Too many codes. In Texas, you can build a fire on the floor right next to the cash register and you don’t even have to put a little rope around it.

Oh, has somebody gotten burnt up? Well then this was a good lesson for them about fire being hot. Bet they won’t make that mistake again.

If you don’t know, Lockhart is sort of the barbecue capital of Texas, which would put it high in the running for barbecue capital worldwide, up there with Kansas City and Memphis and whatever part of North Carolina you want to choose. It’s a small town with one of those Main Streets that remind you of the 50s. On Sundays you can see Al Dressen and the Barbecue Playboys play at Black’s Barbecue.

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I was with my wife, Abby and my friend, Jacob. In Lockhart, we visited Kreuz’s, Black’s and Smitty’s and near as I can tell the whole operation doesn’t differ much from place to place. At Kreuz’s and Smitty’s, you walk into a hot smoky room to order. You tell the guy at the register what you want — One rib, a 1/4-pound of brisket and a sausage link? Sure. — and then he tells another guy who reaches into a giant black metal box and stabs a slab of meat, pulls it out and carves it up to order. I didn’t pay close attention to the prices, but that hypothetical order I just made would probably be something like $7. It’s not expensive.

Other than the smoke and the brisket itself — it really is different — the primary distinction between Texas barbecue and all other styles of barbecue is that Texans have developed what I consider a strange and silly kind of pride regarding barbecue sauce — they seem to think of it as cheating .

Only one barbecue place I have ever seen was so pretentious as to not only disallow sauce, but to preemptively warn you not to order it, and that distinction belongs to Kreuz’s.

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Pretentiousness is something not usually found in barbecue restaurants or small towns, but by golly there it is in the warning palate of black and yellow.This was our first stop and we went with brisket, turkey and sausage. All of it was good, in particular the brisket, some of which was served chopped and some of which was served in the slices you’re used to seeing. I thought the slices brisket was better, but that wasn’t unanimous. However you got it, it had a robust, salty bark on it with that burnt pink smoke ring on the inside.

On the way out, we evaluated.

“That was great, but you know what would have made it better?” Jacob said in the car. “Some barbecue sauce.”

Thankfully all the other places we visited offered sauce, but none of them seem to be real proud of it. It’s an afterthought, a garnish, offered with a reluctance that says, “You’re the customer and we guess that means you’re always right, but we’d really like you to try it without the sauce first.”

Well OK fine but I’ve done that plenty of times and I like sauce, all right? IS THAT OK? I especially like sauce when there’s been some real effort put into it, the way it is done in Kansas City, but that is uncommon in these parts. I have to say, though, that my compulsion to have my meat swimming in it like buffalo wings has been eliminated. Its best usage is probably closer to the way you use Tabasco on your eggs or honey on your biscuits. You’re not mopping it, you’re not slathering it, you’re not trying to drown this velvety meat in sugar and acid. You’re just drizzling it. It allows you to taste all that wonderful, delicate smoke and just complement it with a touch of tang and some sweet.

There is something magical about Wonder bread, barbecue sauce and smoked meat all dancing together (to the BBQ Playboys, most likely), and I say this as a guy who places high importance on bread quality. It’s just that, quite simply, cheap white bread is the most ideal bread medium for barbecue. I submit that if you are in a barbecue place that is offering something other than Wonderbread with its barbecue, you are in a barbecue place that is missing the point. That is a combination that cannot be improved upon and should not be messed with. It’s like a buddy cop movie about a young rule-breaking hot shot and an old vet who’s one day away from retirement. It is tried and true.

Near to Lockhart is a town called Luling, which we learned is best known for something called the “Watermelon Thump.” It is the kind of event where you can ride rides and get a funnel cake. Teenage girls compete to be voted “Thump Queen,” which sounds more like an insult than a social decoration, but nonetheless it was clear Luling is big-time watermelon country. Unfortunately the Thump Festival didn’t begin until a couple hours after we left.

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We ate more brisket, sausage and pork ribs at Luling’s City Market, the ribs being the best of the trip. Luling’s offered little bricks of cheese for 75 cents (which is uncustomary) along with dill pickles and raw yellow onions (which is). I have a bit of a ideological (and, given my stance on sauce, possibly hypocritical) objection to adding cheese to barbecue, but I can’t say I didn’t quite enjoy folding some brisket, cheese and onion in between that Wonder bread.

Because you’ve been so nice to read this far, I feel I should come with a STRONG TAKE about some of this. So here you go: If I had to stop eating meat forever, I still think my last pile of it would be the beef sandwich from Arthur Bryant’s. The best pulled pork sandwich I have ever had was at B-B-Q Shop in Memphis and there is no doubt about this: Nobody does brisket better than Texas.

I just ate fast food and I feel terrible

I just ate a cheeseburger from a popular fast food chain, and let me tell you, I feel terrible.

It’s not just the vomiting, either. I gained 13 pounds while sitting in the drive-thru. My doctor says I am “post-diabetic,” which means the diabeetus has grown into my body like an extra appendage. There is like a mini me inside my body and if I kill him, I kill myself. What’s worse is, my body has already adapted to the cheeseburger and will accept no substitutes. I just tried to eat an apple, and my body rejected it like I had swallowed gasoline. There is apple splatter all over the kitchen, but I can’t clean it off because during the short time it was inside my body, the cheeseburger transformed it into kind of a polymer-based glue, much like that stuff you spray inside your tires to fix a leak. Fix-A-Flat. Yeah, that stuff. That’s what it turned the apple into.

This all happened within the last 25 minutes. It should be no surprise fast food works fast. It’s right there in the name.

I shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. I know that. But the trouble is, I like cheeseburgers and I especially like them when they cost less than $4. I am not a wealthy man. I cannot afford wagyu or whatever.

I just wish somebody had stopped me. Or stopped them. I wish somebody had arrested me and thrown me in jail for thinking about a cheeseburger. That way there wouldn’t be apple glue all over my kitchen right now. Either that or I wish it was illegal to form animal flesh into patty form, cook it on a grill and serve it between two pieces of bread. Don’t they know what they’re doing to us?

The government should step in.

Maybe, if we’re going to get real libertarian about this, people should be allowed to make foods I like, but they certainly shouldn’t be able to tell me about it on TV. What am I supposed to do, see a cheeseburger on TV and not buy it? Who thinks like that? Who has that kind of willpower? What, I’m supposed to be able to think for myself and make my own decisions?

I think the government should pull together a collection of really smart people. Like, the people who know the most about food and nutrition, and they should come up with the ideal human diet — something that will work for everybody. And three times a day, they should ring a bell and we could all go to our nearest trough for the feeding. There would be a community trough in every neighborhood. That way we would all eat the right things and nobody would be fat or malnourished.

The freedom to choose a lifestyle seems like a good idea in theory, but that’s an antiquated idea. What are we, cavemen? I can’t handle freedom, and I bet you can’t either.

Gratuitous predictions for 2012 (and beyond, if you like)

Some director will create a scene, probably in a television show, in which a character is caught dancing and singing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” while doing something that is only slightly embarrassing and not at all controversial.

It’s going to be a loud crash back to earth for both Lil Wayne and Zach Galifianakis.

You will start hearing people say things like, “…back when Zach Galifianakis was funny” in the course of normal conversations. The truth will be that Galifianakis is no more or less funny than ever, but that won’t matter. It never does.

Someone will develop a musical instrument that imitates the sound of a human voice, and is capable of pronouncing and singing approximately 75 words with enough clarity that an untrained ear wouldn’t be able to tell it was a machine. The machine will collaborate with Kanye West on a song called “ones and heroes,” which will peak No. 7 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

Intelligent life discovered in New Jersey.

Citing the cost and concerns about protecting its original content, a major metropolitan newspaper will terminate its relationship with the Associated Press.

A 22-year-old Orlando woman will contact the editors at Deadspin claiming to have photographic evidence she had sex with Tim Tebow. The photos show a man who looks like Tebow engaging in sexual acts with a young woman, but they are of poor quality and were taken from an angle at which it is not possible to see the man’s face directly. Deadspin will run the photos under a headline that reads, “This lady says these are picture of Tim Tebow having sex with her.” The majority of the public will believe the photos are authentic until it turns out the 22-year-old Orlando woman is really a 41-year-old male programmer from Atlanta.

Metta World Peace will change his name to Chad Johnson.

The makers of Axe Body Spray will intentionally get their Super Bowl ad banned.

Somewhere, at some wedding, somebody will “make it rain” on the dance floor. He will do this with toy $100 bills, and event he had been planning for weeks. He will perceive this as a “hilarious” wedding gag. Instead, somebody’s father will cry. And by “father” I mean “America.” It will probably be the groom.

Tim Tebow will propose to somebody.

The entertainment media will finally figure out that Jay-Z’s retirement announcements are just ways to get himself on TV, but they won’t be able to stop covering them because if they were to start only covering things that are news, they’d be out of a job immediately. Instead, the coverage will take a barely noticeable turn toward self-awareness.

Ryan Seacrest will start to look a little older.

Adele will lose 35 pounds, appear on the cover of every women’s magazine in the world and suddenly  be lauded as proof that “curves are beautiful.” The irony will be lost on 60 percent of the population, and 100 percent of the entertainment media. Her next album “22” will be panned as “downright cheerful” and “a departure from the soul-crushing Adele of ’21.'” It will be a commercial failure.

With sales sagging, Pringles decides to go with tennis balls after all.

On the first waves of popular culture, wine drinking will start to be considered passe and cigar smokers will be considered “sadly clueless.”

Someone you know will buy an all-electric car and never drive it.

Through TMZ, the nation’s women will learn Casey Anthony has begun dating a “creepy but actually kind of good looking” 34-year-old entrepreneur from Las Vegas.

The sports team in your area will win some and lose some.

Allow me to regale you with my dining experience: Giovanni’s

For a while now, Abby and I have been considering blogging about our dining experiences in the Lawrence area. I decided to just go ahead and do it. This will hopefully become a regular thing. The stars are awarded on a four-point scale.

Giovanni’s (Topeka) = ***1/2

The most difficult thing about making pizza is getting the crust right. Abby and I have been working on a pizza for almost three years, now. Our sauce is delicious and unique. But our crust is a constant source of frustration. It always comes out way too dense, almost like a loaf of homemade bread.

Homemade bread is delicious, obviously, it’s just that you don’t want to make a pizza out of it.

Well, Giovanni’s has mastered the crust and I am envious.  It is the difference between pie with a store-bought crust and pie with a crust made by an Amish person or a grandmother who knows what they’re doing. It is the kind of crust that makes you realize you didn’t know what good crust was until now.

Giovanni’s (1001 Se Quincy Street, Topeka) makes New York-style pizza because the owner is a New Yorker named Frank Conti. He moved to Topeka in early 2009 because he wanted his young kids to grow up in a less-expensive place with better schools. He opened a pizza place that serves dinner but is probably best used for lunch or late-night grubbage. The building is small, most of the seating is outdoors, you can order by the slice and Giovanni’s doesn’t serve beer or liquor.

Conti has taken a considerable risk by implanting a restaurant that stays open until 10 p.m. (3 a.m. on Saturdays) in downtown Topeka. For a variety of reasons (most of them utterly and embarrassingly lame) Topekans don’t go downtown for dinner. They instead go to Wanamaker Road, which is a depressing and soulless strip of Chilis, Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens. And any time someone tries to do something to revitalize downtown, a segment of the population pees all over it like drunkards putting out a campfire. It’s incredibly frustrating, and I don’t even live there.

(Sigh)

So perhaps I’m coming at this with some level of bias. I want downtown businesses to succeed, because I root for Topeka. So I suppose it’s possible I could overrate a downtown establishment because of that desire (although in fairness to myself, Giovanni’s is the only downtown restaurant I would recommend).

But, man, that crust.

It’s New York style, so it’s thin. But this is not a wafer. It’s not like Imo’s in St. Louis and it’s not like Pizza Hut’s thin crust, either. It’s slightly thicker than that, and it has a delightful chewiness. Its texture allows you to fold the slice without breaking it, if that’s how you like to do it (and that’s how New Yorkers like to do it). The dough is fresh and homemade. I knew this because it tasted like it was, and because when we walked in at 6 p.m., someone was rolling out some dough right then and there.

When you bite into it, it all holds together. Bad pizza disintegrates. The cheese slides off the crust or the toppings just go tumbling off like you’re carrying a cookie sheet full of marbles.This was harmonious.

I will say little of the cheese and sauce. They were good, but not the stars of this dish. That distinction belongs to the crust, which could be problematic for those who don’t like New York-style pizza. They will just have to be left out, I suppose, in the same way people who don’t like rap music will never enjoy Jay-Z.

If restaurant reviews were just about the food and service, I would have no problem giving Giovanni’s four stars. I am afraid, however, it will suffer because you cannot get a pitcher of beer with your pizza and because the indoor dining area is small, making winter visits a gamble.

That said, I can appreciate a place that isn’t trying too hard. Giovanni’s is not trying to make you think it is anything other than a place that serves a really good slice of pizza. To that end, it succeeds. I hope it survives and expands, and pulls a few people out of the Olive Garden.