Note: Another birthday, another perplexingly ordinary trip. Last year, I hit up Oklahoma City for some bitterly cold fun along the old Route 66. This year, I managed to make my first visit to Lubbock, Texas and some surrounding West Texas metropolises. First of all, I must communicate something of utmost national importance: West Texas is flatter than Kansas. Really, I swear! Even with the landscape that surely inspired Head East’s epic 1974 album, Flat as a Pancake, a nine-hour driving tour of Lubbock, Abilene and Midland left us entranced and perplexed. Inspirational and thought-provoking findings included:
- The world’s largest wind farm, and its “large” economic impact on the region
- Abilene’s barbeque deliciousness, which inspired the impromptu development of a barbeque evaluation matrix
- A small city of abandoned mega high-rises (i.e., Midland)
- A treasure trove of abandoned mid-century buildings and thriving malls in Lubbock
Abilene, Texas:A starting point forbarbeque haven discussions
Back to the West Texas trip, after moving through the land of a thousand turbines, known as Roscoe, we arrived in Abilene, Texas. When I think Abilene, I think spurs and boots, and perhaps a hitching post, since it was founded by cattlemen as a stock shipping point. The city of 120,000 wasn’t cowboy-esque at all, except for meat of the barbequed variety.
We hit Abilene around lunch, which is about 10 am road-trip time. Where to eat? We kept seeing barbeque places along the way, and decided that Abilene was as good of place as any to find one. A quick search on Google, (our phones had data capabilities all throughout this remote trip) we found a place that was loved and hated: Harolds Pit Barbeque. I squealed in glee as we approached the perfectly decorated restaurant. The worn-out cinderblock building had one small window with metal grating coating it. We went inside to find low, ceilings, poor fluorescent lighting and tackily bright-red booths. We ordered at the counter and had difficulty understanding the mumbling folks serving us. We gnawed on meat in paper trays. It was perfect.
After the delightful barbeque joint, we hit the road for a three-hour drive to Midland. It was the perfect opportunity for discussing the finer points of barbeque restaurants. With that amount of time, we were also able to develop a rudimentary barbeque rating matrix.
The key inadequacies of current barbeque reviews are that there are huge variations in barbeque styles, which is nice, but people seem to rate them based on their favorite style. So you end up getting divided reviews on almost every barbeque place. It makes it difficult to truly judge the quality of barbeque joints based on online reviews. So we developed a simple, but completely unbiased (that’s sarcastic to a certain extent) way to judge barbeque joints.
Meat: Many people are rib people, but there is a whole other wonderful world of pure meat dishes that can be slopped on bread. Whether you prefer pork or beef versions, (sorry, chicken and sausage don’t really count) there are some key things to gauge:
- Ribs: 1. meat tenderness, 2. meat per rib ratio, 3. price
- Sandwich: 1. bread/meat complementariness, 2. meat tenderness, 3. fattiness (less fat globs = better)
Sauce: There are so many different styles, it is difficult if not impossible for inter-style comparisons. You must compare between sauces that are the same style.
- Sauce tastiness (good sauce for style = better, obviously)
- Sauce availability (sauce bottles at table = better)
Ambience: It just doesn’t feel right to be sitting in a super-clean, brand-new restaurant. A little bit of grease, out-dated furnishings and odd building structures add some seasoning to the barbeque experience.
- Ordering (counter = better)
- Smoker (seeing the tools they use to smoke the meat = better)
- Restaurant age/condition (older/dingier = better)
- Gas station-based (bonus)
Service: It doesn’t matter. These people are masters of the pit, not customer service representatives.
Sides: While the focus is always meat and sauces, sides are important because they can become tasty toppings for the main meat and sauce show. Barbeque joints can serve a wide variety of sides, but there are three critical sides: beans, coleslaw and potato salad.
- Beans: 1. sauce to bean ratio (saucier = better), 2. other tasty things in beans (meat is a bonus)
- Coleslaw: 1. Freshness, 2. no overwhelming flavors, 3. other tasty things in it (more = better), 4. coleslaw/meat/sauce complementariness
- Potato salad: 1. no overwhelming flavors, 2. bacon (presence = better, always)
Drinks: Not vital, but restaurants can get bonus points for good root beer, and the availability of strawberry pop (yes, pop) and beer.
Dessert: I’m a dessert fiend, but for some reason it doesn’t matter with barbeque restaurants. Again, these people are masters of the pit, not bakers.