Wednesday 30 July 2014

American food is just burgers and pizzas?

[White Pie with Spinach, Home Slice, Austin]
When I'm at home in England, talking about American food, there are three words I love to say - 'biscuits and gravy'. It always gets a shudder.

Here in the UK, a biscuit is a small cookie, like a digestive or a hob-nob. Gravy is always brown and very meaty. The idea of mixing the two - and even my American readers will agree here - is quite repulsive.

I then explain that in the US a biscuit is a type of scone, and that gravy can also be pale - that it's basically what we call 'white sauce', with some meat pan juices and pepper added. It's still a bit strange - scones are really meant for cream and jam - and a good illustration that there's more to American food than just burgers and pizzas.

Then I'd say 'shrimp and grits' (prawns with small stones to us English) and off we'd go again.

[Pizza frisbee, Home Slice, Austin]
But although American food isn't all about pizza and burgers, we must admit it is something you do seriously well - and I love to seek out the best examples when I'm over there.

This year I made a pilgrimage to Home Slice Pizza in Austin. Now, they claim to be authentic New York pizza, and I claim to not to really understand what means. I just know it's some of the best pizza I've ever had.

It's not just that it's a perfect thin crust pizza with a range of imaginative toppings (including white pizzas, without tomato, which I'd not had before). It's also got the buzz right. The place is small, dark and noisy. The staff are friendly, cute and tattooed. They gave my daughter a ball of dough to play with, and she's been in love with the place ever since.

It's also pizza you eat with your hands - they even give you a guide on how to fold it (take a triangular slice, and fold in half from centre to edge - insert pointed end into mouth), and that too makes it a more sensual experience. Just thinking about it makes me happy.

[The Porter Burger, Porter's, Austin]
To illustrate what a difference the atmosphere can make to the enjoyment of food, I also went to Porter's Ale House Gastropub on South 1st St. I'd agonised about this place recently, as it was a long walk from my hotel but I didn't want to drive (in the end, I caught the bus). I had some rather nice beer, and their signature burger with brie, pancetta and kettle chips. A bit rich, but what do you expect?

Now, I could get a bit cynical here. Let's say you're a new restaurant, in an area that's outside the main food districts. How do you get discovered? Well, one good route would be to a design a burger that's going to get noticed by the food writers and burger blogs. Like one with unusual ingredients. That perhaps gets you mentioned in the list of the 15 most splurge worth burgers in America on Zagat for example? Which lands in the mailbox of an Englishman who's off to Austin soon?

Well, I'll never object to a bit of publicity and marketing - the burger was tasty - but what I needed was a bit of buzz and atmosphere to make it a truly incredible burger. And I didn't get that being the only diner in your restaurant. I know it's not your fault.

The next night I walked to Guero's, just up from my hotel. It's standard Mexican fare, in a big fun restaurant with plenty of people watching opportunities.  I hate to say it, I had a better evening.

Monday 28 July 2014

City Market, Lulling - and the end of the line!

[City Market, Lulling]
Well, it's a sad moment, I've just had my last Texas barbecue - for this year at least. Alas, I didn't entirely go out on a high. City Market in Lulling has a top reputation, and is certainly popular - they had by far the longest queue so far. Like Smitty's in Lockhart, you queued for your meat first, served in butcher's paper, then queued again for sides and took a seat in the busy dining room.

However, like Smitty's, this brisket was too lean, at least to my tastes. The flavour was fine, but it just wasn't the unctuous  experience I've had elsewhere. A little bit of a damp squib for my last lunch.

So, in conclusion, how's my Texas Barbecue Adventure been? Well, I've enjoyed it hugely, and feel I've really only scratched the surface. I chose to only eat brisket, as that's the quintessential Texan barbecue meat, but I know this means I've missed out on a world of sausages, chops and chicken.

I know I've also missed some great joints - of the famous places, I've missed Kreuz's and Chisholm's in Lockhart, Franklin's in Austin and the pits along the road to Llano. There must also be hundreds of little joints that weren't even on my radar from all the way in England (although the internet means that nowhere stays a secret for long).

[City Market, Lulling]
Where would I go back to? Wild horses couldn't stop me eating again in Louie Mueller's in Taylor, Blacks in Lockhart or Cooper's in Llano. Even thinking about those places gets me salivating.

I've also learned that that no two briskets are the same, and that I much prefer the fattier end when I'm given a choice. I also know I'm sucker for atmosphere and experience - as much as I love a smart restaurant, barbecue somehow tastes better when eaten off paper with your fingers, on a long table with kitchen roll and sliced bread in front of you.

But this year's food adventure doesn't stop here. Next stop is New Orleans - quite literally, as I'm heading there at high speed on the Amtrak as I type. Time to learn a whole new food vocabulary. What's the difference between Cajun and Creole? Jambalaya, gumbo and bouillabaisse? What, exactly, is a roux? Watch this space!

Sunday 27 July 2014

Beer and Barbecue in San Antonio

[San Antonio River Walk]
It's very hard to judge a city's restaurant scene - or anything else about it for that matter - by one night in its tourist district.

I wouldn't want you to judge London by Leicester Square, or damn Amsterdam based purely on the Leidseplein. So know I shouldn't have expect too much from the River Walk.

Things started very promisingly. My hotel was a little way from the centre, and the walk alongside the river was charming indeed. To my London readers, imagine the Regent's Canal, but with tropical planting and another ten degrees of heat!

But as I approached the central loop, things took a turn for the worse. The crowds got thicker and thicker. The restaurants, when they did appear, were of the branded, mass catering kind. Huge barns of places, run by managers, not chefs. I just knew they had laminated cards in the kitchen tell them what to defrost when.

All I wanted was a quiet drink and a simple dinner somewhere cosy. Whereas here, as a table of one, I would be lost among the families of seven, the hen do's and the work outings.

So I head back up the River Walk to a bar I'd spotted on the way down - it had had the right sort of vibe, claiming to be the oldest tavern on the walk. But at the time I didn't want to stop at the first half decent place I'd seen and decided to carry on. Of course, now, it looked like the best option.

Well, the place I ended up was called The Esquire Tavern, and it had actually been recommended in the comments on an earlier post. It apparently has the longest bar in Texas, and it served me a welcome cold beer and some delicious tacos. It was also, quite possibly, the darkest place I have ever eaten in, and none of my photos came out. I'm sorry! But trust me, it's cool, atmospheric and possibly the most charming place on this end of the River Walk.

[Granary Brew and Cue]
The next night I was going to break with tradition and eat barbecue for dinner. Normally, barbecue is a lunch speciality - in fact, it's often seen as a sign of quality how quickly a place can sell out. Franklin's, in Austin, is famous for selling out before lunch.

Things are different at Granary Cue and Brew however. They do lunch, but for dinner the food is modern American, with a barbecue influence. I had the most traditional option, the market plate, a selection of the day's barbecue. Today it was pulled pork and brisket, along with bowls of beans, potato salad and sauce for the pork. I also had a few glasses of quite delicious beer brewed on the premises.

This was probably most like the barbecue I'd had in England - served by and sold to hip young men with smart beards, on plates, with cutlery. There was none of that rough and readiness of the small town barbecue joint, this was a smart, up market restaurant. I wasn't surprised to hear they'll be coming to England for the Meatopia festival.

[Granary Cue and Brew]
If I were an old cynic, I'd say the modern twist involved serving me half the normal amount of barbecue for twice the price - but I'm not in a cynical mood. I'd enjoyed the balmy walk along the river to get here, I'd enjoyed my beers and a quick chat with the owner. The brisket was as good as anything I'd had this trip, and there's always room for upscale barbecue. Not everyone wants to eat with the good-ol-boys with kitchen roll and white-sliced bread on the table.

However, I do love the authentic places -  I can eat clean and shiny barbecue in London any time I want (and I must go back to see how they compare), but places like Mueller's, Blacks, Smitty's and Cooper's are quintessentially American, an experience I'll never get the likes of in London.

So, after a shaky start, I had two great meals in San Antonio, and I look forward to meeting Granary Cue and Brew on my home turf!

Saturday 26 July 2014

Getting saucy in Llano! Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.

[At the pit in Cooper's]
Have I mentioned before that I don't like the I35? Yes, it's the backbone road through Texas. Yes, it's part of the Pan America Freeway, the road that allows you to travel from Alaska to the tip of South America (and what a road trip that would make).

But it's also 6 lanes of yawn, and there was no way I was driving it to San Antonio.

Instead, perversely, I started by driving west, to Llano. Now, there's a road paved with good barbecue. There's the Schmidt Family BBQ in Bee Cave and Opie's in Spicewood. But I was strong, and held on for Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano.

[A Cornucopia of Meat!]
Now, every place does it differently, and at Cooper's you get to stand at the pit, admire the cornucopia of meat, and choose what you want. I've heard that some people get barbecue paralysis at this point, unable to choose, but I was focussed. Yes, I wanted brisket. And then something strange happened.

The lovely chap above asked me a question I didn't quite make out, and as I often do when I don't want to admit I don't understand, I said 'yes' (one day this is going to get me into trouble). So he picked up my meat and dunked it in a large pot of sauce on one side of pit. Sauce?! I'm no expert, but I thought the whole point of Texan barbecue was that it didn't have sauce?

[Brisket - with sauce!]
Well, no, it doesn't have sauce in the sense of the sticky, ketchup and brown sugar sludge that you tend to have poured over cheap pork ribs. But this is special sauce, this is mop sauce, and I did a little research.

Because of the continual opening and closing of the pit, it can run a little hot. So a mop sauce is used to moisturise and cool down the meat. You can learn  a lot more about this over at AmazingRibs, but it's basically stock, vinegar and bits and bobs of fat that have fallen off the meat.

Not knowing all this, I was worried that I might ruined a delicious looking lump of brisket - so after having it sliced for me, I sat down with a degree of nervous anticipation in the main dining room.

[Cooper's Dining Room]
Well, I shouldn't worried, these guys know what they're doing. The sharpness of the vinegar just cuts through the fat and complements it perfectly, and adds just a little more moisture to an already melt-in-the-mouth brisket.

Cooper's easily joins my completely unscientific list of best barbecue in the world! Oh, and their potato salad was the best so far too.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

More of the best - Black's BBQ and Smitty's Market, Lockhart

[Black's BBQ, Lockhart, Texas]
Okay, it's time for some excuses. After all the bravado about eating at all the Lockhart barbecue establishments, I only managed two.

Perhaps it was the vast cinnamon roll I had with breakfast. Maybe it's the heat, which does sap my appetite. Maybe I needed some company to egg me on. Maybe I'm just an English lightweight who can't take his barbecue.

That said, the barbecue I did have was fantastic. First stop was Black's BBQ. They've been owned by the same family since 1932, and are definitely a 'must eat' stop on any Texas BBQ tour.

[Brisket at Black's]
I'm sure all these places put a lot of effort into looking like they make no effort at all - part of the experience is how rough and ready these places are. They give you the feeling you've stumbled into a forgotten, locals only haunt. Yet chatting in the queue (which was all men of my age and above), no one was from Lockhart. Everyone was here on pilgrimage, mostly from the big cities of Dallas or Houston. I'd come the furthest, unsurprisingly.

So what was it like? Well, now I'm regretting the hyperbole of yesterday's post. It was every bit as good as Louie Mueller's. Just the right amounts of fat, crust and meat. If my first trip had been here, I would have been loudly proclaiming that this was the best barbecue in the world. I would hate to choose between the two, but luckily I don't have to, and nor should you. Try both. Now.

[The pit at Smitty's]
Next, off to Smitty's Market, a short walk across Lockhart's rather charming square. My first impression was that it was closed, but no, I pushed against a darkened door to find myself in a corridor leading up to the pits. How anyone can work in those conditions amazes me - the sacrifices they make for us barbecue lovers!

Smitty's had the ambience and authenticity spot on - I took my little parcel of brisket, wrapped in butcher's paper, through to the dining room. There I picked up a soda and some potato salad, and took a seat. I took a bite, and I hate to say this, I was disappointed.

Compared to Black's earlier, this was drier, chewier, less succulent. There was a good smoke flavour, but the texture wasn't working for me. Now, Smitty's didn't get to be an institution by serving bad brisket, so maybe the mistake was mine. Maybe I should have ordered a fattier slice (as that's definitely to my taste). Maybe they just had a bad day. But after two sublime barbecue moments, this was a disappointment. It was just, well, okay.

[Dining room at Smitty's]
Now I had a dilema. I was full. Kreuz Market, my third stop, is a huge barn of a place just out of town. I'd enjoyed the three places I'd visited so far for their charm and history, and I didn't imagine I'd get that from Kreuz's. I was also too full to want to go for the meat alone.

So I decided to quit while I was ahead and drive back to Austin. Kreuz's, I apologise, I might have missed the best barbecue of the day, but I don't think I would have appreciated it. I'll come back another year. I promise.

Ps. You can see more photos from here, and my travels in general, at my Flickr account.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

The Best Barbecue in the World? Louie Mueller's, Taylor, Texas

[Brisket at Louie Mueller's]
Well, I have beside me the Blogger's Hyperbole Handbook, The Big Book of Restaurant Review Cliches and the Spotters Guide to Superlatives, but I don't know if I'll need any of them.

Yes, it's probably the best barbecue in the world. Yes, the melt in your mouth brisket is to die for. Yes, it was astonishing, incredible, sublime and delicious. Yes, I did enjoy my lunch, thank you.

But really, I'm not a restaurant reviewer or a food critic. In fact, I was feeling a bit of a fraud on my drive to Taylor yesterday. Would I actually know good barbecue if I met it? I'm English, and barbecue for us is burnt value brand burgers and raw chicken. I've only had American barbecue a handful of times, and yes, I enjoyed it. But I'm no expert. Am I even qualified to judge?

I knew when I pulled up in Taylor I'd reached the right place. Even on the street you could smell the woodsmoke. Step inside, and it's even more intense. The whole building is stained dark brown by nearly 70 years of cooking (apparently, it used to be green inside!). The queue was short - by barbecue standards, I was late for lunch at nearly 1pm.

[Inside Louie Mueller's]
I kept things simple - a couple slices of brisket and an original beef sausage. I was given a tiny chunk to taste at the counter - oh, I'm going to need to reach for my books. It tingled my tastebuds. It melted in my mouth. That tiny lump encapsulated everything I wanted from barbecue. A crust that contained all the dark, salty flavours of the smoke, a layer of fat that dissolved in my mouth and meat that tasted intensely of beef.

So I took my seat, took my photographs (still feeling a little self conscious about that) and hoped that these slices would live up to the morsel I'd had at the counter. Oh boy they did. As for the sausage - well, it was no pork bender. Succulent, smoky and delicious.

[It's so hot in there!]
After lunch I went back to the counter to try and sneak a few atmospheric photos, but as they'd finished serving for the day I was invited back to meet the guys that created this wonderful food and take some pictures in the kitchen.

It was a great opportunity to see behind the scenes - I felt honoured - and as I chatted about barbecue I didn't feel the imposter anymore. However, I did start to feel seriously hot - how on earth can these guys work in those sorts of temperatures? I had to leave before I passed out - oh, that wouldn't be cool.

So, if you know about barbecue, you already know all about Louie Mueller. If you don't, I can't imagine a better introduction. Now my only worry is that I've had the best barbecue of the trip already!

Ps. You can see more photos from here, and my travels in general, at my Flickr account.

Monday 21 July 2014

I'm here at last! How y'all doing, Texas?

[A margarita at H3,  Fort Worth Stockyards]
Howdy from Texas! Okay, I promise, that's the last cowboy reference I'll make. Well, we got here, and it wasn't too painful.

The journey wasn't without incident - but nothing too serious. My GPS threw a spasm when we arrived and refused to navigate us, so we got completely lost coming out of DFW. It's amazing how quickly it goes from urban sprawl to country backwater. I'm sure we could hear banjos ...

But eventually, like we have for the last 6 years, we got to Fort Worth, Stockyards. Now, it would be too easy to pick holes in the Stockyards - it's obviously designed for a certain type of American tourist that likes to dress cowboy style at the weekends - sharp blue jeans, smart tucked-in shirt, big belt and stetson. But hey, I'm a sucker for all that so I love the place.

[Beef ribs at Riscky's, Fort Worth Stockyards]
We're creatures of habit at the Stockyards - after a day travelling, recovering from jet lag, you don't want to make too many decisions. You want cold, alcoholic drinks and comfort food.

So each year, it's a frozen margarita at the H3 saloon, where you get to sit on bar stools with saddles on (yeehaw! sorry, I said I wouldn't do that anymore). Then off to Risckys for all-you-can-eat beef ribs. Problem is, I can't actually eat more than the first plate - I always order one more out of politeness rather than hunger. Note to all of you English BBQ joints - note the presentation, or lack of it. That's how it should be done!

[Joe T Garcia's]
Next night it's Joe T Garcia's - a Fort Worth institution dating backing to 1935. Now, I know I had a little rant about TexMex a while back, but it's a hard man who's not charmed by this place, with its outdoor hacienda style eating. And the fajitas are really good. But note - the portions are vast. My daughter and I shared one portion, and even then we were stuffed.

Fort Worth is also famous for its steak houses - Cattlemen's dates back to 1947, and is a quality, reliable steakhouse. Personally, I favour the johnny-come-lately H3 in the Stockyard's Hotel. We ate in Cattlemen's this year, and I'll get to eat in H3 at the end of the trip - I'll try and compare them for you later.

[Fajitas at Joe T Garcia's]
Finally, we got to try the burgers in both Riscky's and Love Shack this year, purely in the cause of research - the things I do for you, dear reader(s). I'll tell all about that later too!

We also got me my cowboy fix. Two nights at the rodeo this year, which had me a hollerin' as loud as any Texan (much to the embarrassment of my daughter). Plus the usual Stockyards rituals of the cattle drive down the main street (a few, slow moving longhorns enjoying a pampered retirement, and no risk of a stampede), and a shoot out between a few old boys in costume that keeps the kids (and me) amused.

[Rodeo at the Cowtown Coliseum]
Now it's time to leave the land of the erstatz cowboy. Time to take my daughter at camp and drive the ever so exciting 339 miles up and down the I35 between camp and Austin (with a stop for a kolache or two!). Austin, here I come!

Ps. You can see more photos from here, and my travels in general, at my Flickr account.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Making plans for BBQ (pt4) - San Antonio and Beyond

[Auntie Skinners Riverboat Club, Jefferson, TX]
Someone pointed out recently that I'd left you all in suspense, that I hadn't said what happens in San Antonio - and beyond.

Well partly, that was because I didn't have any photos to illustrate the post - so now I'm just using a few personal favourites. And also, I hate to admit, I simply wasn't as well planned for the second leg of the trip.

The excitement of the triple lunch barbecue in Lockhart is a hard act to follow.

But I can't leave you hanging, dear reader, so here's the next stage of the plan. In San Antonio, I'm staying in the Hotel Havana just off the famous River Walk. Every Texan I've spoken to goes misty eyed when I mention the walk, so I do hope it lives up to its star billing.

Now, Don't Drive to Dinner rules apply here, so I'll spend one of my two evenings at Granary Cue and Brew, at the north end of the walk. I don't think this is a compromise by any means - they're highly rated, and they're also on the bill at Meatopia (think Glastonbury for Carnivores) this year, so I hope to be able to say hi.

[Neon sign, Risckys, Fort Worth, Texas]
I've only got one day in San Antonio, and this means just one lunchtime. I'd like to do the tourist trail, visit the Alamo and explore the river area, so I'd rather not travel too far out of town in search of lunch. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know!

Next day I'm driving out to Galveston, so I'm definitely detouring to Luling for the famous City Market. Often mentioned in the same breath as Taylor or Lockhart, and personally recommended to me by food blogger Simon Majumdar (swoon, starstruck name drop moment), it's a 'must visit'.

From there it all falls apart a bit. Galveston isn't exactly known for BBQ, but perhaps (blasphemy), after seven barbecue lunches in a row, a bit of fish might be good for me. As for Houston, my inner geek wins, and I'll be eating lunch at the NASA Space Center.

But before you give up on me, you need to know what happens next. Then I'm on the train to New Orleans, meeting my wife, and we're spending two weeks exploring all the food that city has to offer. Watch this space!

Sunday 13 July 2014

Why is life never simple? Kolache confusion!

[CC Image courtesy of Nick M from Flick] - it's your fault.

Up until an hour ago, the plan was simple. I'd break my drive from Dallas to Austin, down the oh-so-dull I35, at two places - West, for a quick sweet snack, then Waco for lunch.

If you drive between Dallas and Austin, you'll almost certainly know about the small town of West, and the Czech Stop bakery.

West (named after the first postmaster, not the geographical location apparently) is known for its large Czech community, and the delicacies they make - most famous of which is the kolache. These are a sweet dough bun, usually served tart fashion with a fruit filling. They're also quite addictive. I'd planned to stop there in the morning, munch a couple with a coffee, hide a few more in the car and then drive down to Waco.

It was Waco I was interested in - I normally stop at a Panera Bread just off the I35, but given the foodie nature of this trip, I thought I could do better. So I was hoping that might come up with some ideas. Alas, it couldn't, but it did suggest I stopped at one of the three Czech bakeries in West.

Hold on a second there. Three?

Oh no, this is information I can't un-know. Apparently, there's the Czech Stop, just off the I35, certainly the best known, but possibly not the best (although I've always loved it). There's the Village Bakery, where the locals buy their kolaches, and Geriks, which has a little more of a restaurant vibe, and also does great savoury kolaches.

Obviously, the first thought that jumps to mind is 'taste test'. I'm not alone - Shelly Tucker experienced a similar dilemma on her blog. She gives me some very sensible advice - "don't eat six kolaches at one sitting."

But when did I start listening to sensible advice?

So I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm glad I now have something to liven up an otherwise dull stretch of my travels. I'm worried that I'm going to absolutely stuffed just hours into my road trip. Tune in next Sunday to find out!

Thursday 10 July 2014

Making plans for BBQ (pt3) - Planes, trains and automobiles (and hotels)

The photo on the left was taken 20 years ago in Jordan, my first ever truly exotic holiday, with my dear friend Niall.

There's a lot of things that amuse me about that picture. The fact I still had hair. That I still wear exactly the same make of DMs. That we'd managed to get quite a stash of alcohol for an Islamic country. But most of all, what amuses me today is how lightly I packed. Just one small holdall.

I'm convinced things were simpler in those pre-internet days. The flight was booked through a travel agent (remember them?), plus we'd arranged accommodation for the first night as we didn't land until late. That was it - and even that we nearly got wrong, as it wasn't until we were in the taxi to the airport we realised we'd forgotten to pick up the tickets.

We had one guide book, a rough idea of itinerary (Petra looks nice, let's go there), and beyond that we'd work it out as we went along, finding accommodation and arranging transport as we went.

Nowadays, the Internet makes it possible to research, plan and book every little element of a holiday in advance. Tripadvisor (not always to be trusted) allows you to read reviews and see pictures of almost every single hotel and restaurant, regardless of how obscure the location. Google streetview allows me to check out the walk from every motel to the nearest diner. Every site and attraction is blogged about, dissected and debated.

Online booking means no more awkward international phone calls to people who don't understand a word you're saying - and it also allows you to be more ambitious in your planning. Why stay in one hotel when you book a different one for every night? Why not build a complicated network of interconnecting flights, trains and hire cars to get you to every place you read about in the travel blogs?

When this becomes a hobby, like it is for me, when you're prepared to spend a couple hours every week reading and researching, your only constraints are imagination and budget. I've never been lacking in the former, and fortunately this year, the latter is less of a problem too - a lucrative contract with a law firm has allowed the plans for this year to grow into a holiday of quite dizzying complexity.

I'm sitting in the pub looking at the master spreadsheet, checking and double checking every stage, and it occurred to me to count it up. Eight different interconnecting flights. Twenty one different hotel bookings. Three different hire cars. One train journey. One summer camp. Oh god, I hope I haven't forgotten something!

Sunday 6 July 2014

60 Years of British Burgers - We like them Wimpy!

[It all started here - Lyon's Corner House]
Hands up if you've had a pork bender.

My American readers might be looking puzzled, but UK readers of a certain age might be awash with nostalgia (or at least have a strange niggling memory). The bender (a curved and crenelated hot dog) was one of the delights on the menu of Wimpy, the UK's first burger chain.

I was inspired by a recent article on Burgernerd about the history of the burger to do a little digging on its history here in the UK.

 It all seems to point here, to a new item on the menu of a Lyon's Corner House in Coventry Street in London's Soho, in 1954. The 'burger'.

Now, let's put this in perspective.  The name 'Corner House' might imply something cosy and local, yet at their peak they were a huge business - open 24 hours, 250 branches across London, serving thousands of customers daily. The Coventry Street branch, the first to open in 1909, served 5,000 covers, had four floors and employed 400 staff.

[Original Wimpy UK logo]
Britain was changing in the 1950s - the end of rationing meant we were becoming more adventurous with our food. America's influence was becoming stronger, especially among the younger generation.

And in 1954, with the end of beef rationing, Eddie Gold came to Britain with an offer for the directors of Lyon's - the UK rights to his Chicago burger chain, Wimpy's Grills. Named after the character of J. Wellington Wimpy, from the popular Popeye cartoons, the name was already synonymous with the burger on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although there was a little initial scepticism among the more traditional members of the board, there was no doubting this new dish was a huge success. On the 18th May 1955, the first standalone Wimpy Bar opened, just a month after the first 'Ray Kroc' McDonalds in Illinois. (Pedants will point out the first ever McDonalds was opened by Dick and Mac in San Bernardino in 1940, but Illinios' was the first with the brand and business model that was to go stratospheric).

There was no doubt Wimpy was a huge success - by the 1970s there were over 1,000 restaurants in 23 countries. And it's in the late 70s that I would have experienced my first burger, in the branch in Henley-on-Thames.

Wimpy wasn't like the fast food restaurants of today - some of the tradition and conservatism of the Corner Houses remained. They had waitress table service, china plates and cutlery. When I visited with my parents, we'd have the grill (with the pork bender, snigger) - my mother would never let us eat the burger. We didn't eat with our hands - oh no, we weren't that sort of family. I only went for the desert anyway - the knickerbocker glory, the banana boat - such exotic delights for a ten year old boy. My first burger would have been had after a trip to the cinema one of my friends and their more modern parents.

[The site of the original McDs in San Bernadino]
It all changed in October, 1974, slowly at first, but an unstoppable tide. The first McDonalds opened in Woolwich and had reached my home town of Reading by the early 1980s. McDonalds didn't have waitresses, plates or cutlery - and that meant my mother would never go there. And there sounded the death-knell for Wimpy - the teenagers deserted en-masse to the new restaurant their parents didn't approve of, the cheap, shiny and unashamedly all-American McDonalds.

Wimpy UK got passed from owner to owner throughout the 80s and 90s, before being bought by its South African franchise - who are in the process of returning the remaining 200 branches (still table service!) to their original 1960s branding.

So it looks like a pilgrimage is in order. My nearest branch is in Haverhill (now there's a town that time forgot, so no surprises there), so after the summer's road trip I must go and visit them. Alas, there's no knickerbocker glory any more, but happy to see the pork bender (still can't stop sniggering) is still on the menu.

Wimpy and Lyon's links:

Peter Bird's history of Wimpy and Lyons
Review of Wimpy in the Independent
Pictures of Pork Benders on Google (snigger)
I remember those! Lyon's Corner Houses

Thursday 3 July 2014

Real American BBQ in Cambridge? Let's review Smokeworks ...

[The Dive bar of Smokeworks]
So do we blame Pitt Cue? Like the food truck, American style BBQ is a newcomer to these shores.

I remember sitting in Stubbs in Austin in 2010, feeling amazed that America had kept a whole cuisine secret. Smoked brisket, pulled pork, beef ribs - this was a smokey, intense, grown up food, unlike anything I associated with American cuisine. And I was hooked - the next day we were off to Saltlick, in the evocatively named Driftwood, to try more of this unusual, delicious food.

[Smokeworks. Not Eriana any more!]
That's not to say I couldn't have discovered barbecue in England. Bodeans, in Soho, had been serving ribs, pork and brisket, 'Kansas style', to homesick Americans and adventurous Londoners since 2003. I've since tried it, and it's great - but somehow it didn't quite replicate the authentic American BBQ experience for me. That's not to say they didn't try, but some how it was just too, well, clean. The food came on china plates with cutlery. That's not quite right.

In Texas and the South, barbecue is paper plates and a roll of kitchen towel in the center of the table, plastic forks if you're lucky. It's food, let's be honest, slopped onto plates and shoved in front of you. Bodeans aren't going to send out a plate with beans dripping off one side. Saltlick don't give a damn.

So, Pitt Cue. They arrived under Hungerford Bridge in 2011 with their shiny silver custom-made BBQ truck, a slice of Austin on the South Bank. They slopped messy food into cardboard boxes. And they were a huge hit - and perhaps, there, was Britain's love of American BBQ born.

[Smoked beef short ribs]
Now it's arrived here in Cambridge - yesterday Cambscuisine opened Smokeworks, the newest restaurant in a stable that already includes the wonderful St John's Chop House, among others. This lunch time, we just had to go!

The place has a smart industrial look - all the better to exorcise the memory of the Eriana Taverna (mmm, over 45 dishes all based on mince). The menu was Southern slanting barbecue - alongside beef, pork and lamb(!) ribs there was fried chicken and wings, plus mash, beans and pickles as well as the mandatory (in the UK) fries.

Now, the Texan inside me (y'all) would have liked to see them make a little more of their smoker - where were the brisket, links or smoked turkey? But perhaps Cambridge isn't ready for that - we don't want to scare the natives this early in the venture. Like any new restaurant, they were keen to know if we 'got it' - did we like the concept? (sure do), were we aware that slaw isn't coleslaw? (sure are).

[Southern fried 1/2 chicken]
But all that said, I couldn't fault my beef ribs - not too sweet, not too smoked, served on a paper covered tray with the sides in cardboard pots - so far, so Texas. Not too clean.

My wife had the fried half chicken - succulent meat, she says, but perhaps the coating was over-cooked? Herby fries were, well, lovely but not very herby and the slaw and pickles helped cut through the fat.

Would I go back? Definitely - I want to try the buns, the beef on toast and the bourbon cocktails. A welcome addition to Cambridge's restaurant scene. Dare I say it's smokin?

2 Free School lane