For those of you that follow me on Instagram (@learningtosmoke), you may have seen my IG story back in late April/early May when I made the trip to Wooster, Ohio for the BBQ Summit at Certified Angus Beef® headquarters. To be honest, initially I was indifferent on going to this event. I’m traveling to Ohio in April? I’m going to tour facilities? Yay.
But then I spoke with my friend Christie Vanover at www.girlscangrill.com and she filled me in on some of the details I was missing: 1) we get to go in their lab and get hands-on with butchering a quarter cow, and 2) the lineup of folks coming to this event. I thought it was just a few social media folks, but that was the tip of the iceberg. Big names in barbecue such as Kent and Barrett Black from Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, TX, Chris Lilly (Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q), Amy Mills (17th Street BBQ), Anthony DiBernardo (Swig & Swine BBQ), Ray Lampe (Dr. BBQ), and John Lewis (Lewis Barbecue, previously from La Barbecue in Austin) were gonna be there. So, I GET to travel to Ohio in April? YAY!
The event was a blast! Not only do I get to hang out among these legendary pit masters and fellow BBQ bloggers such as Christie, Mikey May (www.manmeatbbq.com), and Malcolm Reed (www.howtobbqright.com), but we get to eat some of the tastiest meals served up by some chefs who are passionate about their craft. Tomahawk ribeye? Check. Prime rib? Check. Cowboy fondue (sirloin steaks cooked on pitchforks) with doughnuts for breakfast? Check. Braised beef with bone marrow and Asian-infused split shank on steamed bao buns? Check. They had salad too, but whatever.
Another highlight was going to the meat lab and being instructed by meat scientist Diana Clark on how to cut up a quarter cow. We were divided into groups and each of our groups were given a quarter cow (front quarter), some boning knives, and a saw (as well as lab coats and gloves to stay sanitary) and taken to school. Doing this helped me better understand where certain cuts come from, why they get their tenderness (or toughness in some cases), and which cuts I should definitely try out when I get home (such as the chuck eye steak).
I feel I should also note that we went back to the meat lab the next day and learned about some cuts in the hind quarters of the cow. Some I am familiar with (such as the tri-tip), and some I need to try (such as hanger steak and ball tip steak).
Another thing we did in the meat lab was make beef sausage. I teamed up with the likes of Greg and Kristina Gaardbo from Chicago Culinary Kitchen and Kent and Barrett Black (Black’s Barbecue) to make a “hamburger sausage” using a blend of ground brisket, ribeye, and chuck. We also had cheese, pickles, and onions in there to make it taste like a classic cheeseburger. It. Was. Awesome!
On the last day we headed out to a Certified Angus Beef® farm and got to meet the farming family, see their Angus cows, and hear about how their practices to help the cows grow and live healthy lives. This is also where we were treated to the Cowboy Fondue and doughnuts all cooked in their cauldrons on site. Hot and fresh and oh so delicious!
I can’t believe I was able to be in attendance to learn so much about the many cuts of beef and rub elbows with some of the best in the world of barbecue. Many thanks to the folks at Certified Angus Beef® for inviting me!
Ever since I first laid eyes on a Santa Maria style grill via the Internet, I’ve wanted to see one in person. The long, rectangular open air grill with the suspension grill surface that can be raised and lowered using a wheeled lever (or pulley depending on the grill) during the process of a cook is fascinating to me. However, finding a grill like that outside of the central coastal region of California, where Santa Maria is located, is a tough find.
Fast forward to present time when I was given the opportunity to visit the region and attend a BBQ Bootcamp at the Alisal Guest Ranch to learn about Santa Maria style grilling. I jumped at the opportunity and counted down the days til my trip. This was my chance to see these grills in action, learn from the experts in the area, and oh yeah, have an excuse to visit Southern California again!
Remember how I said I was going to a ranch In Southern California? Did you think that area was too crowded to have space for a ranch? You’re not alone if you did. While LA and the surrounding cities are one big urban/suburban sprawl that goes for miles on end, there’s a side to Southern California that you don’t see on the TV and movies. There are smaller coastal communities and even wide open spaces where ranches and wineries are aplenty. Simply take the 101 North, drive along that beautiful coast line, and once you get to Santa Barbara and north of it you are in for an experience you wouldn’t expect.
The Alisal Guest Ranch, which hosts this BBQ Bootcamp, is located in the quaint, Danish town of Solvang. While most people who are familiar with the town know it for all of the Danish themed shops and excellent Danish food, one needs only to drive a mile or two away from the town center to experience the rolling hills and vast spaces the area has to offer. This ranch is only two miles away from the city center yet feels like you’ve taken a journey far out yonder. The ranch style guest rooms have that authentic rustic feel, from the brick fireplaces to the exposed wood beams on the ceiling, and not to mention no TVs in the room to encourage getting outside and spending time together. I could go on about the history and amenities (really, I could because I just deleted another long paragraph about it), but let’s get into the experience, shall we?
All of our classes were outside on the property with four Santa Maria style grills, an XL Big Green Egg, and a large cylinder smoker with a rotating grill. The Santa Maria grills were all fueled with red oak wood. Have you ever burned or smoked with red oak before? The smell is intoxicating. And that’s what the whole place smelled like. You could say I was drunk on BBQ.
Anyway, our first class was taught by Chef Anthony Endy and Frank Ostini, owner of the Hitching Post II restaurant in Los Alamos, CA (his restaurant and winery gained international attention when it was featured in the movie Sideways). One of the things Frank said that stood out to me was the method of flipping steaks more than once. If you’re like me, you’ve been taught to only flip meat once. Frank said he flips more than once because the beading juices on the surface that start to show on top of the meat are juices leaving the meat and drying it out. Flipping the meat over more than once, according to him, keeps more juices locked in.
Chef Anthony Endy, executive chef at the Alisal Guest Ranch, prepares some Wagyu tri-tip from Snake River Farms. These massive cuts of tri-tip were SIX POUNDS EACH! To put that in perspective, the average size of a tri-tip is between 1.5-2 lbs. These cuts of meat were rubbed with Santa Maria seasoning and a homemade chimichurri.
What exactly is Santa Maria seasoning? It mostly consists of kosher salt, garlic powder, black pepper, and dried parsley. I’ve been using it for a few years now and love it! If you’re looking to get a bottle of your own, companies like Susie Q’s sell it online.
If you want to cook smaller items like veggies, shrimp, scallops, etc. on the grill it’s best to use a cookie sheet with small holes in the bottom to let that red oak heat and smoke flow through while not seeing your food fall through the grates and onto the ashes.
We were offered some of the local fare of beers, wines (reds and rosés) and mixed drinks. The award-winning beers from the nearby brewery Firestone Walker featured the popular blonde ale 805 Beer, among other selections. If I drank then I’m sure it would’ve been pleasing to my tastebuds.
With that said, that night we were fed with tri-tip, filet mignon, bacon-wrapped scallops, chicken wings with Alabama white sauce, shrimp, and halibut. All of which were cooked on the Santa Maria style grills. All were cooked to perfection. There were also some veggies, but they weren’t important enough to remember. I was here for the friggin’ barbecue!
The next day was the only full day of the event and it was packed with some fun classes. To start off, we learned about blending spices and were provided with a table featuring over a dozen different spices to blend.
We weren’t told what to do, but advised that most rubs consist of 40 percent kosher salt. With that knowledge, I grabbed a bowl and mixed about nine different spices together and made my own rub. I mixed kosher salt, ground black pepper, Hungarian paprika, ground cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, brown sugar, ancho chili pepper flakes, and ground mustard. I may have annoyed the chefs conducting the class because I kept asking them to sample my blend and see what I needed to make it better. Overall, I think I did a decent job. Can’t wait to try it on food when I get home!
Next, we had a class on sausage making. I’ve been intrigued by this for quite some time now and was excited to learn the process. To keep from getting too deep in the woods here, just know that ground up pork shoulder was the main ingredient, that the number associated with the casing is the size in millimeters, poke small holes in the casing while pushing meat into it to help the flow and keep air bubbles from forming, and to twist every six inches for bun-sized links…or down twist at all and make a five pound sausage wheel. The sausage was grilled up soon after and we were eating them within minutes.
To finish up the morning, we had Chef Clark Staub from Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos, CA come and teach us about cooking with a wood-fired oven. This was mainly about pizzas and flatbreads. Very, very delicious, eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-your-head pizzas and flatbreads. Chef Staub, who just might be Stephen Colbert’s doppelgänger, reminded me that quality, local ingredients matter and can taste amazing.
After a relaxing break of sitting in the shade and enjoying the breeze (and charging my phone), we had the last class of the day: desserts. Chef Valerie from the LA-based bakery Valerie Confections taught us how to make caramel in a Dutch oven on the grill. Since it was on a ceramic grill, which I love to use, she definitely had my attention. Did you know that caramel is basically melted sugar and butter? No wonder why it’s so good! We also learned how to make bread pudding and cook it in a cast iron bundt pan, drizzling the caramel on top. I’m not a bread pudding fan, but I was a fan of this.
Dinnertime was epic time! We had smoked beef ribs and smoked salmon (both over red oak), locally caught lobster, tomahawk ribeyes, chicken, quail, and oysters.
Once again there were sides, but all I remember was that there was salad. Seriously, I wish you, the reader (yeah you), could’ve been here to help me eat all of this. I almost felt guilty that I couldn’t eat seconds or thirds because I loaded my plate with samples of everything. I even tried oysters for the first time. Always been nervous to eat them because they are all slimy and remind me of little snot-filled cups. I braved it and it wasn’t bad. Just wish I knew to separate that muscle from the shell.
The last day was a morning event. I took a horseback ride across the hills on the ranch and had breakfast at this old adobe out in the middle of nowhere. Haven’t ridden a horse in years and my butt sure felt it. Totally worth the experience, though.
We were treated to a great spread of pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs, potatoes, and pastries. All you can eat and a pancake as large as Captain America’s shield. Ron Swanson would’ve been jealous.
We had another class from Chef Valerie on making jam in a Dutch oven. Seriously, all of this dessert making in Dutch ovens has inspired me to get into that style of cooking. I’m planning on expanding my horizons and work on making some killer sides and desserts to complete my barbecue meals.
I was seriously bummed to leave the ranch. It was a nice escape from civilization and was had a relaxing, laid back feel the entire time I was there. It was the most chill schedule I’ve participated in and they gave you time to relax and enjoy the experience. I’d love to return someday. In the meantime, I’m not going to wash my clothes just so I can have that smell of red oak smoke there to take me back.
Ever since I got into barbecuing, I’ve wanted to travel to central Texas. More specifically, Austin. It is widely considered one of the barbecue havens of the world. Some folks consider it to be Barbecue Mecca. Either way, I kept talking of going but did nothing about it. That is, until one day I was hanging out with a couple of friends at work who also barbecue and I brought up this trip. We were sitting at our desks at work when one started looking up flights and the other checked hotels/AirBnB and the next thing I knew, we were headed to Austin!
We landed in the late afternoon and we were starving. We had a few places in mind to hit up and first was to drive outside of Austin and go to Driftwood to visit the famous Salt Lick.
SALT LICK (Driftwood)
This place is out of the way and sits on acres of land. It’s pretty much a ranch about 20-30 minutes outside of Austin. You pull up into a big gravel parking lot that has no problem filling up, especially on a Friday night. Between the two indoor dining areas (old side and new), there is an outdoor seating place with benches and a stage for live music. All in all, the place can seat 1,000 people at once!
They have outdoor areas on site for people to have picnics, playgrounds for kids to play on, grass to run around and plenty of trees to take shade on those hot Texas summer days. They also have enough outdoor space to hold events such as weddings.
We sat in the old building where there iconic indoor pit is located. The employees were kind enough to let us come behind the counter and take pictures. Just ask and they will let you back.
The seating, from what I observed, is mostly long wood benches. The walls are made of rock and cement with both normal ceiling fan lights and white Christmas lights draped throughout. This place holds true to their heritage and gives you an authentic experience.
The servers were friendly and fast with bringing out our food, even with it being a busy Friday night. My buddy Corey inquired about their sweet tea and a server named Dixon came and brought him a medium sized cup filled for a sample (not one of those tiny, smaller than Dixie kids cup types). He then asked about lemonade (to make an Arnold Palmer) and Dixon said they didn’t have any but that he would make him a fresh batch because “all I do is mix water, lemons, and sugar.” Excellent customer service!
We had brisket, pulled pork, sausage, Burnt Ends, pork rib, and turkey for meat. The sides were potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, pickles and onions. The potato salad stood out because they used their signature yellow sauce in the mix. It was divine and I don’t like potato salad that much.
Have I mentioned the place smells like barbecue inside and out? This ambiance, food, and customer service made it feel like barbecue heaven. I would fly back to Austin just to come to Salt Lick!
Us BBQ enthusiasts know all about Franklin Barbecue: the meats, the long lines, the reputation of Aaron Franklin himself. For those who aren’t familiar, Franklin Barbecue has quickly become the Mt. Everest of BBQ joints. It’s quality of barbecue, the limited, four hour window of time it is open (11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Tues-Sun), downtown location, and coolness of the pit master himself all drive the demand and make people wait outside in long lines for hours for this stuff.
Being from out of town and connoisseurs of fine barbecue ourselves, we’ve been chomping at the bit to try this place. To ensure we had a chance of getting to eat here, we showed up at 7:30 a.m. and there were already over 100 people in line! The people at the front of the line said they got there at 5:30 a.m.! Remember, this place opens at 11:00. I felt good about our chances of eating here and that was confirmed when an employee came out and starting sizing up the line, giving estimates as to when we were anticipated to eat. Our spot in line was given a 1-1:30 p.m. window. That will make SIX HOURS of waiting! Man, this place better be worth it.
Most people in line were smart and planned ahead by bringing camping chairs and coolers full of drinks. We, the out-of-towners, brought comfy shoes to stand in. While we couldn’t magically produce chairs for our wait in line, if you need a drink there’s a little coffee shack on premise and the inside of Franklin Barbecue opens for beverage and souvenir sales at 8:30, so you can get your drinks and swag while you wait. There are also port-a-potty’s outside and you can use the bathrooms inside before lunchtime.
A little later in the morning the same worker came out to ask people in line what they planned on ordering so they could set expectations. We said brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork, and sausage. She didn’t shoot us down, so I think we have a shot at getting all the stuff we want.
Our time in line was quite enjoyable due to the local folks waiting around us. We talked for hours about everything and even played card games with them. Maybe it’s that Texas hospitality, maybe the bond of barbecue, maybe both. Either way, the long wait wasn’t that bad.
Once we got inside the door, we had another 25 minutes to wait before our turn at the counter. You order your food and you get it right there. Then you pay and find a table. Wasn’t hard to find a table because some folks just took their food and left. The seven of us found a table just fine (we sat with the new friends we made in line).
Here it is: the moment of truth! The years of hype, the 1,400 miles traveled, the six hours of waiting in line, and now we get to FINALLY sink our teeth into the glorious barbecue we’ve been hearing all about. Truth be told? It was worth it! The brisket was the best I’ve ever had, both the point and the flat! In fact, their flat beats out other BBQ joints’ point. The pulled pork was incredible, too. I also think this was the best I’ve tasted. The ribs were fall-off-the-bone style and very juicy. The turkey and sausage were okay. Same with the sides. But their key lime pie was excellent!
Turns out I have a follower on Instagram named Bin who works at Franklin Barbecue and even though he wasn’t working during lunch hours he alerted one of his fellow pit crew that I was there. Braun was kind enough to give me and my friends a tour behind the scenes! How cool is that?
They have three 1,000 gallon propane tanks that have all been repurposed as offset smokers. They are already working on the meats for the next day, so these bad boys keep pumping out that white oak smoke around the clock. Braun told us they do 72 briskets a day! Serving up that many briskets in a four hour window is insane (especially when you remember they sometimes run out sooner than that).
This had already been one of the greatest barbecue experiences of my life, but what made it even better was that I go to meet the man, the myth, the legend: Aaron Franklin!
Aaron was very down to earth and easy to talk to. He’s a busy man but still makes time to come out from behind the scenes occasionally and chat up customers (and even agree to photo ops with fans who geek out like myself).
Was it worth waiting in line for six hours? Yes. Not sure how often I would do that, but you must experience the greatest brisket and pulled pork at least once in your life.
After hanging out on 6th St for a little bit, I convinced my friends we should eat barbecue again and this time try Stiles Switch for dinner. When we first pulled up, it was dark in the parking lot and didn’t seem well lit by the restaurant, either. There were plain, rusty metal doors labeled “ENTRANCE” and my buddy Corey said it looked like the entrance to a strip club. We were a bit skeptical going in, but the inside ambiance was the total opposite of outside. It was a lively, down home rustic feel with wood walls, some neon lights, and the aroma of smoked meats.
The line wasn’t too bad and we got our food quickly. It is the same style as Franklin where they give you your food at the counter and pay there. My buddy and I decided to split a three-meat plate of brisket, ribs, and pulled pork…and a jalapeño sausage on the side. With two sides to choose from, the guy in front of us recommended one called corn casserole. We got that and the pinto beans w/ brisket.
The brisket was pretty solid and the ribs were the best I’ve had. The pulled pork was pretty good. While I appreciate the concept of the different flavor of sausage, it was a bit too spicy for me.
The area where Stiles Switch really shines is their sides! That corn casserole was by far the best side I’ve had. Unlike the usual sides of potato salad, beans, and cole slaw, this corn casserole stands alone and had me scraping my plate for every last morsel I could find. My buddy Matt had the potato salad and he loved it. The pinto beans w/ brisket were pretty good, too.
Unlike most BBQ joints that offer sauces that all look and taste somewhat similar, Stiles Switch goes out of their way to offer flavors unique from each other in style and appearance.The sauce they give you at the counter for dipping your food in is excellent. It’s a little runny, but pretty good flavor. They have a molasses sauce that was really good in small dosages. The mustard sauce was definitely mustard tasting. They had a peach habanero sauce that I wasn’t in the mood to try, but can appreciate that they were going for sauces that stand out from each other.
My buddies and I decided that Stiles Switch is a great place to go for an overall great barbecue meal.
BLACK’S BARBECUE (Lockhart)
While documenting this barbecue trip on Instagram, I received a lot of recommendations to head to Lockhart, TX which is about 30-40 minutes away. It’s a small Texas town with authentic, rustic charm and is known for its barbecue. There are more than a few barbecue places in this town and we decided to go to Black’s. We chose Black’s because it is the oldest barbecue joint in Texas and has quite the reputation. It’s in an old building on an old Main Street looking road, probably been there since they opened.
You walk in and it feels like a barbecue dining establishment that hasn’t changed much over the years. They have the red checkered picnic cloth table tops but covered in old plastic (kinda like how your grandparents cover their furniture in plastic covers, you know?), stained wood walls with pictures of family and celebrities who’ve come by, and traditional country music blaring. I loved how authentic this place felt and almost felt like a true time warp to 30-40 years ago, but in a good way.
As far as the food goes, the brisket was really good (which seems to be a common theme down here in central Texas). The ribs were okay, pork was good, and the chicken (I got white meat) was flavorful but a little dry. We only had one type of sauce on our table, which was good. The pecan pie was also good, not great. Sides were pretty good (potato salad, mac n cheese, beans, slaw). Overall, it might have been my least favorite barbecue place to eat in central Texas, but still better than most places that aren’t in central Texas.
To sum things up, this was a dream trip for me. Austin has a ton to offer and wish I could’ve stayed longer than three nights. Also wish we could’ve hit up more places because I received so many recommendations of other BBQ joints out here. For what I was able to experience, I hope I was able to give you all a glimpse of what barbecue is like in central Texas and the places we hit up. I love the passion they have for BBQ there. Til next time, Austin.