Friday, July 03, 2015

Battling Barbecue: A Hungry THG Tackles Some Chain 'Que

Happy Fourth of July to all our American readers and I hope you're getting ready to enjoy a long holiday weekend filled with doing patriotic stuff like grilling, wearing too much red, white & blue and overindulging the way we Americans do. Just don't blow any fingers off with illegal fireworks. My guess is this column will get lost in the holiday shuffle but it has been rattling around in my head in one form or another for months now, so I felt like it was time to do a brain dump. Enjoy!

I've often found that food – no matter the preparation or pedigree – almost always tastes best at the end of a long day when your hunger is gnawing at your gut something fierce.

For example, my Mom made a wicked simple tuna and macaroni salad and nothing, I mean NOTHING satisfied my hunger more after a night at Philly punk clubs like The Khyber Pass or Dobbs than a heaping bowl or three of that mass of elbows, tuna and mayo.

So I must admit that we were a little surprised by the polar opposite reactions we had to a couple of barbecue chains during our recent travels.

Readers of this blog are well aware of my fondness for Andy Nelson's, a Baltimore County-based barbecue restaurant just up the road from us. Pulled pork, smoked wings, slabs of ribs, creamy slaw, piquant redskin potato salad... it doesn't matter, Andy Nelson's has delivered the goods as long as we've been going there.

So when they started building a Famous Dave's across from the local State Fairgrounds I looked upon the rising edifice with a mix of guilt and optimism like I was some sort of adulterer. I'd never actually been to a Famous Dave's, but it had received grudging recommendations from friends and I'm always up for giving a new place a try.

Even a chain.

While I'm not sure how the topic of visiting Famous Dave's came up, I'm not surprised since we were in the midst of driving the 8 hours from Maryland to Virginia and back to pick up a new car and, well, we like to talk about food.

The wild card of the trip was that our daughter, then age 7, was in that "pukey car ride phase" that I guess curses a lot of kids. Car trips to and from Florida were met with quick shoulder pullovers and equally quick recoveries as she shook it off and smiled away, next destination on the horizon, puke-filled grocery bag left by the roadside. Sorry, Florida highway workers!

But with one Pukey McGee incident already "in the bag" on the ride to VA we decided that a stop along the way home from the car dealership might be a bad idea. Especially since she was riding with her mother. In the new car.

After arriving home and debating our options we ended up at Famous Dave's, outrageously hungry and somewhat optimistic that we'd made a decent – if not perfect – choice to satisfy our barbecue-loving bellies.

Barbecued Nachos at Famous Dave's
I had a feeling things were going to be a bit rocky when the platter of something called Barbecue Nachos arrived at the table (see picture). A wholly unsatisfying mix of lettuce (?!), nacho chips, chili and other "stuff" (I think there was some sort of meat buried under there), it looked like two servers carrying separate platters had crashed into one another and the resulting monstrosity landed on our table. Granted, I'm not above enjoying an abominable looking appetizer every now and then but this looked and tasted all sorts of wrong, setting a rather disappointing tone for the start of the meal.

I'm still not sure what that sauce on top was supposed to be.

And, please take into consideration that we'd eaten nothing more than a breakfast bar and bottled water in the car dealership waiting room since the wee hours of that morning. Famous Dave should have been able to slather cheese and chili on a slab of wet cardboard in order to satisfy us.

Unfortunately, we hadn't set the bar quite low enough.

I prayed the entrees would be met with a better reception, downed another beer (I recall the selection being equally forgettable as the rest of the meal... spoiler alert!) and hoped for the best. Especially since a friend, knowing my affection for chicken and familiar with my above average homemade ribs had suggested I lean toward the poultry when making my selection.

Alas, it was not to be. Chicken was fortunately forgettable but the ribs were a nightmare that will linger on my palette for years to come. (Come on, I was at a barbecue place. I had to get the rib and chicken combo.) Caked? Coated? Lacquered? I'm not even sure what the right word is to describe the application of the super sweet, cloying sauce that instantly masked any flavor the ribs may have actually had. Even my wife and daughter – card carrying lovers of sweetness – were equally turned off by what they found as our platters were picked at and pushed to the side with a collective wrinkle of the nose.

The Chicken & Rib Platter at Famous Dave's
But, as Ryan said, "at least the cornbread was good". And I'm going to trust her on that because I've blocked out most of the finer details to the point that I almost feel like I should pop in one day for lunch just to make sure it wasn't better than I remember. And judging from the almost always empty parking lot I don't think I'd have trouble grabbing a table.

Fast forward a few months and we're on our way to Florida for one of our whirlwind Sunshine State excursions. Along with everyone in Maryland, Virginia and North and South Carolina who had the same damn idea, resulting in hour upon hour of bumper-to-bumper roadways.

But we're road warriors and we're determined to make it to Georgia so that our second day of travel can be a little easier, meaning that we continue to forge ahead in the face of a sea of brake lights, hoping that each easing of the traffic pattern will mean clear sailing ahead.

It didn't.

Upon arriving at a Brunswick, GA hotel that had decent looking accommodations (and, uh, available rooms) we quickly surveyed the dining options that didn't require anybody getting behind the wheel of the car. Winn Dixie? CVS? Scary Looking Chinese Place?

Or we could literally walk through the parking lot and end up at Sonny's BBQ.

Ignoring the feral cat and its glowing red eyes we made our way to a booth, ordered some ice cold Yuengling Lager (the closest Sonny's comes to craft beer it appears), forsook appetizers due to our raging hunger and dove into plates of ribs and chicken.

"Holy crap," I thought. "This is actually pretty good."

Quick glances at the appreciative looks from my wife and daughter confirmed that despite its chain roots and slightly trashy ambience, Sonny's was a hit with our family. Ribs had a slight give when pulled from the bone, mac & cheese received a thumbs up from Ryan, and even the waitress charmed us by asking to see some ID. (I hope I left a big tip.)

And with that we retreated to our hotel rooms, slipped on some comfy pants and drifted off to sleep under the power of Sonny's BBQ, another day on the road awaiting us.

While I'd rather support an independent place like Right on Q, at least we know Sonny's delivers when weary travelers beckon. – Dan Taylor

Dan Taylor (aka The Hungover Gourmet) is a barbecue aficionado and the editor/publisher of The Hungover Gourmet. You can follow his exploits and eats here at the blog as well as on Twitter and Facebook. Back issues of the award-winning THG zine are available from the webstore.

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