Glutton Abroad: The last of the BBQ, part 4

"Coarse chopped" pork BBQ and slaw at Lexington Barbecue

“Coarse chopped” pork BBQ and slaw at Lexington Barbecue

It seems like just yesterday when Karen and I were headed to the airport to start off our barbecue trip in Nashville. Now it’s been nearly 10 days and we are already headed into North Carolina, self-proclaimed home of American pork (read: real) barbecue.

If there is anything culinarily-related to inspire heated debate among Americans, it’s barbecue. And while Midwesteners may sing the praises of tomato-based sauce and Texans proclaim their barbecue to be superior to anything the Southeast may produce, it’s North Carolina I’ve been most excited about. Here, it’s not only about the sauce (vinegar-based, with a hit of chili to cut the grease — a similar approach to how Thais prepare fatty meat). It’s also about the wood — usually white oak with, maybe, the addition of some hickory — used to gently cook the pork over a low heat, perfuming the skin with its scent. This, more than anything else, separates the “genuine” barbecue from the arriviste poseur to the average North Carolinian.

There is a lot of tradition in North Carolina barbecue. Sometimes, it is baffling to the meat-loving outsider. For example, carnivores expecting a mountain of ribs that can be gnawed on, caveman-like, will be sorely disappointed. North Carolina’s barbecue is positively “dainty”, the pork served in tiny take-out containers called “trays” (aka the paper take-out containers you usually see holding fries) or on plates either sliced or “chopped” (local-speak for “shredded”). The typical accompaniment is cole slaw, the cabbage simply minced with maybe a bit of onion and typically dressed in a mix of vinegar and mayonnaise. And, like the IRS, there is no escaping this side dish, whether you want it or not:

North Carolina-style hush puppies

North Carolina-style hush puppies

Saying “no” to this makes you either different or a Communist (both of these things are very bad). Just accept a tray of these deep-fried curlicues as your due, the perfect vehicle for taste-testing the battery of sauces on your table.


Lexington Barbecue

Lexington refers to itself as the “world capital of barbecue”. So it’s no surprise that there are several well-known BBQ places here, sparking a brief debate on where exactly we should go. Of all the BBQ joints in town, Lexington Barbecue — known among locals as “the Monk” or “Honeymonk” in honor of founder Wayne Monk — is the most famous. So that seals the deal for me.

Lexington Barbecue has been around for more than half a century, and it’s easy to imagine that the menu has changed little. There is your sliced and chopped BBQ, as well as a “coarse chopped” variation that is basically shards of pork. Everything comes with slaw and hush puppies, of course, but you can also get a “side” of beans or chicken tenders or pork rinds, or if you are one of those healthy people who insist on greenery, a salad topped with cheese and more BBQ.

Out back, where all the chimneys are, 34 pork shoulders are cooked a day — unless it’s the week before Christmas, when 3-4 cooks work night and day to make enough BBQ for people to enjoy at home for the holidays. In Lexington, the meat cleaves to the typical barbecue ideal, flavored with a tomato-based sauce (as is the slaw). And of course, all meat is cooked over oak or hickory coals for half a day. The meat is left alone to cook and absorb the smoke, and is not basted. The end product, while meaty and magnanimous in spirit, reflects this. It’s a traditionalist’s kind of barbecue, as long as that traditionalist lives in Lexington.

Barbecue Center

Full of pork from Lexington BBQ, we still thought we’d be thorough and try out the rival Barbecue Center, even if only for a chopped BBQ sandwich. This probably did the Barbecue Center a disservice. Arriving late, we shared one sandwich between the three of us and were rewarded with a dry, tasteless heap of meat shoved into a cold bun and smeared with a small dollop of cole slaw. Probably not the best idea.

Chopped BBQ sandwich

Chopped BBQ sandwich



12 Bones

If Lexington is a traditionalist’s kind of BBQ town, where different generations break bread over paper take-out containers holding shredded pork topped with ketchup-y cole slaw, Asheville is earmarked as the southern preserve of the city slicker. Meaning, those hipsters who have fled Brooklyn en masse, decrying it as “too popular”? They are now in Asheville.

And 12 Bones is their kind of barbecue joint. Please don’t get me wrong: it’s a great restaurant. Any place worthy of President Obama’s patronage is A-OK by me. Take, for example, all the “rib flavors” on offer here, a first for any of the BBQ places Karen and I have visited, and definitely the only in a state awash with “take it or leave it”-type eateries.

What was available at 12 Bones when we visited

What was available at 12 Bones when we visited

If you haven’t guessed already, ribs are the order of the day here. You don’t have to make do with plain old beans, slaw and/or hush puppies either: there’s an entire blackboard of sides for your pleasure, enough to fill the deli counter at a Whole Foods. Have some issues with gluten or lactose? Don’t worry, 12 Bones will let you know what’s up. Worried your beer is not local? There’s a whole passel of local craft beers in the fridge!

We punk out and get a “wedge salad”, which is half a head of iceberg lettuce topped with deep-fried onions and drenched in ranch dressing, sided by “four bones” of “twang”-flavored ribs. You don’t even have to stick with that flavor: the four sauces available to drown your ribs in include tomato-based, mustard-based, and two kinds of vinegar-based, one green-y and vaguely Mexican-like and the other traditionally clear.

Wedge salad with cornbread and ribs

Wedge salad with cornbread and ribs

It figures President Obama is willing to shut down traffic for a little while to get here. It’s good food, gussied up with all the right things to make it irresistible to Gen X-and-younger foodie types who are willing to slum it for a little while between meals at sushi bars and raw food cafes. Of course, I am talking mainly about myself.

Does it have anything to do with NC barbecue, other than the fact that it’s in NC? Well, not really. The real stuff is coming up …

… here.


Skylight Inn 

Barbecued chicken and "pork BBQ" with slaw and cornbread

Barbecued chicken and “pork BBQ” with slaw and cornbread

When we pull into the parking lot, an entire tribe of bikers is just getting ready to leave. “Yay, bikers,” says Karen, who views the patronage of bikers the same way I see Bill Clinton’s photo: a sign that there is good food to be had. Another harbinger of goodness is the prominent Skylight Inn sign, which reads, “If it’s not cooked over wood, it’s not barbecue”.

Skylight has been in business since 1947. This is something that the elderly man in line behind us wants to share, his memories of having Skylight as a little boy. Today, the counter is manned by the type of young men who look like they could be cast in any movie about Hoosiers or high school football players. This includes the guy chopping up pork shoulders with two butcher’s knives — the only BBQ here is chopped —  and seasoning the meat with what looks like a vat of chill sauce and a vat and a half of vinegar. This meat is all about the seasoning, while the chicken (available only on Thursdays and Fridays) is a tender, melting hunk of flesh daubed in ketchup-y barbecue sauce.


Wilber’s Barbecue Home

The presidential endorsement here, shown in a framed photograph in the entrance, might say all you need to know about Wilber’s. It’s of George H.W. Bush. And while I don’t know much about Bush 41’s foodie credentials, I do know that Wilber’s is a true NC institution, around since 1962 and still overseen by octogenarian owner Wilber Shirley, who is at the restaurant on most days.

Unlike most of the other barbecue joints in the state, Wilber’s is a sit-down-and-order kind of place. They also have a big coterie of sides, many grown on the land right behind the restaurant: simply sliced tomatoes, green beans, corn. Here, also, there is no need to specify what kind of BBQ you want: there is only one, the pit-cooked barbecue pork plate, which arrives to the table chopped. They specify the wood is oak. Also recommended: the barbecued chicken, which is slathered in gravy instead of barbecued sauce, and accompanied by a pitcher of … more gravy. It is as fork-cuttingly tender as anything we’ve had.

Pork BBQ with chicken and gravy and sliced tomato

Pork BBQ with chicken and gravy and sliced tomato

When we ask where the chimneys are, the waitress simply tells us they are “behind” (if it’s not cooked over wood, it’s not barbecue, right?) Once she finds out about our BBQ tour, she asks the manager on duty, Gary, to show us around. It turns out pit-cooked really means that there is no need for freaking wood-burning smokestacks. It’s out in the open, like a campfire.

Burning oak in Wilber's backyard

Burning oak in Wilber’s backyard

It turns out very few BBQ places are still allowed to leave their wood out in the open like this, but Wilber’s — beloved by the local authorities — can do whatever it needs in pursuit of the best barbecue.

The oak coals are then moved to the cooking shed, over which shoulders and whole hogs are placed to cook slowly overnight. This is hard on the cooks who have to tend the fires and meat in the wee hours of the morning, as well as on the shed — it’s burned down a couple of times because of sleeping attendants, Gary tells us.

What's cooking at Wilber's

What’s cooking at Wilber’s

Besides its chicken and pork, Wilber’s is also proud of its beef (when it’s available, as it was when we visited). This is first on my list the next time I find myself in NC. I might just head to NC especially for it.


Hog Heaven

Skylight is for the old-timers and Wilber’s is for the pit-cooking enthusiast. Hog Heaven, on the other hand, is for the type of person who reads “Herman” comics, has dinner at 5:30 and thinks signs reading “Dad’s dream: to be able to have the same lifestyle as his wife and children” are funny. Nothing against that, of course. But Karen says it best: “This is hospital food”. It’s barbecue for the Boca Raton crowd.

Case in point: there is a “vegetable of the day”. Our day was squash day. There is also something called “granny potatoes” on the menu, which end up being boiled peeled new potatoes. Like everywhere else we’ve been to lately, there is only one option for barbecue: simply denoted “Bar-B-Q”, it is a chopped pork plate. The meat is also cooked over electrical heat, something that seems mildly scandalous in NC. I can imagine Gary’s disapproving face now.

Bar-B-Q with turnip greens and granny potatoes

Bar-B-Q with turnip greens and granny potatoes

Is it something to make me return? No. Nor was it like the disappointing barbecue we’d had earlier in the day, a sandwich of dried-out pork floss at a “barbecue” restaurant that had mutated like a deadly virus into a drive-in, buffet restaurant and convention centre. That place is a cautionary tale, pointing to what can happen to your product when you’re in it for the money. We need not mention that place.

Hog Heaven was the last barbecue we had, and the last plate of shredded pork I’m likely to eat for a long, long time. Not to say I’m breaking up definitively with barbecue. I just think we need some time apart.

I think I’ll be a pescatarian for a while.



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Glutton Abroad: Still with the BBQ, part 3

Brisket and pulled pork with beans, slaw and a pickle at Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur, Alabama

Brisket and pulled pork with beans, slaw and a pickle at Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama

We are on the verge of being barbecued out. So far we have dipped a toe into the vast pool that is saucy St. Louis barbecue (the kind we get back in Bangkok), worked our stomachs through the tomato-based charms of Kansas City barbecue, and taste-tested our way through the dry-rubs and spice mixes of slathered on Tennessee pork. We’ve even given in to the South’s implicit encouragement to let loose our inner Lindsay Lohans and indulged in a tipple or two, getting gently soused at the Grand Ole Opry and absolutely plastered at an Alamo Drafthouse showing of “Guardians of the Galaxy”. We have been as thorough in our “research” of the region’s meat and mead as our digestive systems could possibly allow.

But it’s the “white barbecue” of northern Alabama that I’m curious about the most. Unlike the red, sweet and frankly ketchup-y sauces of the American Midwest, white barbecue sauce is based on mayonnaise, tarted up with cider vinegar and pepper for a bit of kick. Because it’s mayonnaise-based, this sauce is either applied at the very end of the cooking process, or served on the side like, well, mayonnaise. It’s something most Asians — and, I’m willing to bet, Northerners — don’t know much about, and it’s served in the tiny patch of land between the northern Alabama border and Birmingham. There was no way we could miss this.


Big Bob Gibson

Big Bob has several locations, including a brave outpost in the rival BBQ land of North Carolina. The one we head to is just off of Highway 31, and like every BBQ place we’ve been to before us, it is packed. This is also a proper restaurant, with the feel of a BBQ-based Denny’s. Recommended: the ribs and brisket, and we get a bit of pulled pork to go with it. Of course, Karen also wants the cole slaw, since she appears to be intent on taste-testing every slaw that crosses her path on this trip. And there are the beans, which seem to be properly cooked instead of the doctored beans-in-a-can that have been one of the mainstays of our diet for the past two weeks. Most importantly: set on every tabletop in the place is a big bottle of Big Bob’s white barbecue sauce, as well as their more traditional “award-winning” tomato-based sauce.

Verdict: For the first time, the ribs feature meat that sloughs off the bone. How wonderful to see gravity work on something that doesn’t involve a part of our bodies. Portions are substantial, the slaw is chopped finely and simply dressed (we have been at this enough to develop a preference for this kind of slaw), and the beans are oomphy and well-seasoned. BUT THAT SAUCE. That white sauce — a mix of the sweetish, faintly chemical taste of commercially-made mayo married to the burning-rubber acerbic tang of vinegar — was almost orc-like in the majesty of its sheer awfulness.

So I guess I’m not a fan. In fact, traumatized by our encounter with white barbecue sauce, we have beer for dinner in Birmingham.


Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles 

You might already know how I feel about fried chicken. And waffles are okay too. So when our friend Dwight Turner of recommended this chicken and waffle place, we made sure to include it in our itinerary. In fact, it might be the biggest reason why we are in Atlanta.

There are two kinds of chicken and waffles. One is the Amish version, which involves piling shredded, stewed chicken meat on top of a waffle and covering the lot in gravy. You don’t see too much of that in restaurants, probably because it sounds a little gross. The second is the kind that we are all familiar with: fried chicken set alongside a waffle with butter and syrup. In other words: dinner and breakfast, all on one plate. The most common myth on the origins of this dish rely on its dual nature: when jazz musicians in Harlem in the 1930s finished their gigs in the wee hours of the morning, they couldn’t decide between breakfast and dinner, so combined the two. And voila, chicken and waffles was born.

Gladys Knight (yes, THAT Gladys Knight) offers a dish fittingly called the “Midnight Train” (an original waffle with four fried chicken wings), but we wanted leg, thigh and breast meat instead. We also wanted to try their other waffles (we tried both apple-cinnamon and pecan, along with original because of course). The combination of crunchy hot fried chicken with sweet, buttery waffle is just as you would expect it to be. In a word: DELICIOUS.

Fried chicken with original and apple-cinnamon waffles

Fried chicken with original and apple-cinnamon waffles

South Carolina

Page’s Okra Grill

We had only one night in Charleston, so we were in danger of not doing our BBQ work that thoroughly (and we all know how vitally important our BBQ work is). In fact, the closest we had gotten to the area’s popular mustard-based barbecue sauce was this:


But that was before we got to Page’s Okra Grill. Now, we have had almost uniformly great experiences at all the places we’ve been to on our trip, ranging from pleasant to heartwarmingly friendly. Okra Grill actually goes beyond this to such a degree that Karen actually became a little suspicious, hypothesizing that maybe they were fattening us up to serve us later for dinner. Don’t worry, they don’t really do that. We are still alive, you guys. I know you were worried. It’s just that these people are so “OMG! BFF” nice.

There is a lot to choose from here, but the menu item that Okra Grill is most proud of is the shrimp and grits. Unlike the usual congee-like soup topped with a few grilled shrimp, the grits here are “lightly fried” into a cake, topping a creamy “stew” studded with cooked shrimp. It’s good, and so so fatty. I can still taste it three days later.

Okra Grill's shrimp and grits

Okra Grill’s shrimp and grits

Once they found out about our barbecue tour, they made sure to give us a little sample of their pulled pork and mustardy BBQ sauce. And you know, it’s … just like sweet mustard. Mystery solved! Mustard-based BBQ sauce tastes like mustard. Go figure.

Next up: North Carolina, what many consider the mecca of American barbecue. We are on the tail end of our trip! It’s hard to believe.

Pounds gained: 2,000

Exercise in futile attempt to stave off said pounds: One 60-minute run in Alabama, a 45-minute run in Atlanta, a half-assed 40-minute run in Charleston.

Incidences of heartburn: 2

Pants I can never wear again: 1

Times we have heard Maroon 5 on the radio: 230,357




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Glutton Abroad: On the BBQ trail, 2

Pulled pork at Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City

Burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City

Kansas City

There was a moment when I thought about cutting Kansas City out of our itinerary. It was just so out of the way, and involved a lot of monotonous driving on a two-line highway which ultimately made Karen very grumpy. But I’m glad we came. Kansas City is a lovely city, full of lovely people, and its barbecue somehow reflects this. The pork is porkier, the meat is meatier. And nowhere is the sauce any saucier. It’s a good thing Kansas City is so far away from me, because I would weigh 800 lbs otherwise.

1. Oklahoma Joe’s

I have to admit, I get a little bit of a sinking feeling when I see Anthony Bourdain’s photo on the wall. To me, he is the flip side of Bill Clinton: Bill’s photo=generally good grub. Tony Bourdain=crowded and possibly overhyped and full of insufferable food tourists like myself. I want to be the only insufferable food tourist in the room. I think that is the motivation driving insufferable food tourists worldwide.

But I need not have worried. Oklahoma Joe’s is awesome. This is helped by the fact that they are used to food tourists, and tell you what their specialties are up front. They are also happy to serve ribs a “bone” at a time, for people who lack the stomach to eat the full slab. Because, come on. Seriously. I think I am developing gout, and I am not even a 50-year-old man.

The specialty here: the pulled pork sandwich, which manages to be both meaty and tender at the same time. The ribs, strangely, have a smell reminiscent of Chinese spare ribs on them. They are very, very well-seasoned, on the verge of teetering into Salty Town. When we leave, the line to get a meal inside snakes around the front of the building. I have a feeling it’s not all food tourists.

Pulled pork sandwich and ribs at Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City

Pulled pork sandwich and ribs at Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City

2. Arthur Bryant’s 

The full name of this place is “Arthur Bryant’s Legendary Kansas City BBQ”. I feel like this is tempting fate a little bit. Also: on the wall, not one, but two photos of former President Jimmy Carter tucking into some ribs. Former President Harry Truman is also said to have been a fan. I don’t know if I trust either Jimmy Carter’s or Harry Truman’s culinary stamps of approval as much as I do Bill Clinton. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know.

The good thing: Arthur Bryant’s is quick and friendly, and its slow-smoking oven behind the cooks prominently features several drool-inducing slabs of meat — pork, beef or chicken — cooked over a combination of hickory and oak woods, according to Arthur Bryant’s website. Arthur passed away in 1982 and the restaurant has since been taken over by new owners, but the BBQ is presumably cooked the same way. And the verdict: the burnt ends tender and the ribs are smoky, but that sauce is plenty sweet. I missed the bite of Oklahoma Joe’s or even Pappy’s.


3. Fiorella’s Jack Stack 

Next to the more “DIY” atmosphere of Oklahoma Joe’s and Arthur Bryant’s, Fiorella’s Jack Stack is practically Le Cirque. In fact, it’s the fanciest place we’ve been to in a while, with actual waiters who wear uniforms and pretend you are young-looking enough to warrant an ID check, and tables with booths and menus and everything. Karen and I barely know what to do once we are seated, and pepper our long-suffering server Clint with questions about practically everything we think of ordering. Clint responds by sending over a free plate of deep-fried mushrooms. In one fell swoop, our loyalty is promptly bought.

Karen is no fan of beef ribs (hence our exclusion of Texas from this particular trip — lucky you, Texans!) but the house-specific “Crown Prime Ribs”, said to be exclusively a Jack Stack thing, are so meltingly tender and succulent that she is converted. I became a big fan after the BBQ Bloody Mary, which is probably the best Bloody Mary in the world thanks to its generous use of bacon salt. A little more puzzling: the popularity of something called the “cheesy corn bake”, which is actually a cup of melted Velveeta with a handful of corn kernels sprinkled over it. Karen and I speculate what other similar dishes could win us a similar level of acclaim: a “creamy Caesar salad” made up of a few shredded lettuce leaves atop a river of Caesar dressing, perhaps, or maybe a “saucy pulled pork platter” of … you guessed it. Actually, we already had that, back at Arthur Bryant’s. Haha, JK. Love you, Arthur Bryant’s.

Baby back ribs under an annoying slice of toast at Jack Stack's

Baby back ribs under an annoying slice of toast at Jack Stack’s

Pounds gained: 55

Exercise expended in futile attempt to stave off said pounds: Two 45-minute runs in the Holiday Inn fitness room

Times Karen got annoyed with me: 3.5

Times got lost in Kansas City’s labyrinthine highway system: 2


I won’t mince words. Memphis has better food than Nashville. Maybe this is because it’s a “multi-cultural” town, meaning it’s located at the junction of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Or maybe it’s because of the influence of the King himself, Elvis Presley. We are doing Memphis properly, which means we are staying at the Heartbreak Hotel, situated right next to Graceland. Later we discover it’s basically a Day’s Inn with some photos of Elvis in all the rooms. “At least it’s really far away from everything else,” says Karen.

1. Rendezvous

Rendezvous’ most recent claim to fame is the fact Prince Harry and the other one came here a few months ago. But tons of other people have been here, including our very own home-grown princes, the Manning brothers. I did not see a photo of Bill Clinton, however. Or of the King.

The special here is the dry-rubbed ribs. I have told you before of my feelings about dry-rubbed ribs. I STILL NO GET. Why get something that you have to basically douse in sauce yourself, when it could come to you already properly sauced? What Karen and I ended up loving more: the lamb “riblets”, barbecued lamb ribs in the same spice rub, which somehow sets off the taste of the meat and keeps the meat juicy. These are delicious. And I don’t even like lamb BBQ.

Dry-rubbed pork ribs at Rendezvous

Dry-rubbed pork ribs at Rendezvous

2. Gus’s Fried Chicken

I love fried chicken. As in, it’s a shame it’s only fried chicken, because we should be married and have little chicken babies. That’s how much I love fried chicken. So of course I would take a break from the unrelenting BBQ and come here. Thank God this place exists.

The chicken is as awesome as you might have heard it to be, especially after a liberal sprinkling of the Louisiana Hot Sauce set on every table. Better yet, the pies — coconut, pecan, sweet potato, and chess (custard, a local specialty) — have a wonderfully flaky, savory crust that sets off the extreme sweetness of the filling (don’t worry, we ordered almost all of them, so we almost know what we’re talking about). Also, there is beer. It was a shame to have to leave, but there was a line of people waiting. The love must be spread.

Gus's fried chicken, with hot sauce

Gus’s fried chicken, with hot sauce

Pounds gained: 100

Exercise attempted: None

Baseball games attended: One

Alcoholic drinks consumed: 100

Elvis songs heard: 144,300


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Glutton Abroad: On the BBQ trail

Burnt ends, brisket and sweet potato fries at Pappy's Smokehouse in St. Louis

Burnt ends, brisket and sweet potato fries at Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis

Nashville, TN

When we get out of the airport, our host — the kind, generous, saint-like Nancy — is already waiting for us with a car. This car will come in handy as we explore “Music City”, a place Deadspin has called “the lamest city in the South”, “a glorified exurb”. I only know it as a place that sure does boast a lot of BBQ joints in a city more known for its music industry. It is also the home of “hot chicken”, which ends up being fried chicken with a lot of cayenne pepper on it. Sometimes this baptism of spice falls on other, equally deep-fried things like fish. But we have yet to move on to an abomination like “hot tofu”. So on the hipster scale of things, we are at Bushwick, not full-on Williamsburg. Congratulations, I guess, Nashville?

1. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish

We head here straight from the airport, and are rewarded with a nearly empty one-room shack reminiscent of a noodle stall on the side of the highway on the way to Pattaya. It has that same abandoned holiday feel, reinforced when we read the sign to knock at the door knocker once we are ready to place our order at the window.

We go as all out as we can, ordering a hot catfish, two filets of hot whiting, and of course, hot chicken. For sides we get mac and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, and greens. Although the chicken is dry, the fish is delicious, blessed with a crackly crust generously seasoned with pepper and topped with a scattering of onions and pickle slices. Wrapped in a slice of white bread, and maybe topped with a little of the potato salad, there is nothing better in this city. That I know of. Rating: Full-on Johnny Cash. (I know nothing about country music).

Hot catfish with potato salad and cole slaw

Hot catfish with potato salad and cole slaw

2. Edley’s

This is what happens when frat-boy types take over a BBQ place. There is the requisite snaking line, there is the requisite DIY beverage station, there are the requisite tables at which to tentatively plant your burgeoning behinds as you attempt to balance your trays of food and drinks without spilling them on anyone. We get a pulled pork platter with greens and mac and cheese. The mac manages to be bland and the greens are too salty. The pulled pork is meh. I would rate this a Blake Shelton.

Pulled pork platter with mac and cheese and greens

Pulled pork platter with mac and cheese and greens

3. Hattie B’s

I cannot go without hot chicken for more than 24 hours, so we find ourselves in yet another long, snaking line, the most intimidating of the lines that we have encountered yet. This is on its way to being a Disney Ride line. In the sweltering heat. Luckily, the chicken is juicy when we get it. Unluckily, it is nowhere near “hot”. Have my tastebuds become calloused from years in the tropics? At least we got to stand in line for a long time. Rating: Is there a country music version of Justin Bieber?

Hot chicken with mac and cheese and black-eyed pea salad

Hot chicken with mac and cheese and black-eyed pea salad

4. Peg Leg Porker

Owned by a man who lost his right leg to an aggressive form of bone cancer, Peg Leg Porker proudly sports the mascot of a pig with a “peg leg”, painted prominently on the side of the building as you pull into the parking lot. Inside, the ambience is that of a Las Vegas hotel lounge full of people on the tail end of a particularly vicious losing streak, but service is nice and prompt, and generously accommodating even though we order more after the kitchen has officially closed. The special here is the “dry-rubbed ribs”, so we order a rack alongside a pulled pork sandwich, baked beans and cole slaw (which is quirky becoming Karen’s own personal barometer of quality). The verdict: I am beginning to think “dry” ribs are God’s way of saying that there are aspects to American cooking that I will never fully understand, and that’s OK. Not everyone gets durian, or shrimp paste chili dip, or stink bean. Maybe we should just let things be, and not think about them too much. Rating: Keith Urban, whom I also don’t get.

Baked beans and pulled pork sandwich, with dry-rubbed ribs in the background

Baked beans and pulled pork sandwich, with dry-rubbed ribs in the background

5. Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

Is BBQ really spelled that way here? I am too lazy to google. This tells you something about Martin’s. This tells you that it’s the kind of place to pile a bunch of pre-existing components together into one dish, dub it with a catchy name, and trick people into thinking they are ordering something unique and special when really they are just eating a bunch of crap piled up on each other under the guise of something different. What I’m talking about is the “redneck taco”, which takes “hoe cake” (WHAT IS THIS) and ruins it the way all bread-like items are ruined when wet things are put on top of them. In this instance, the wet items are pulled pork, cole slaw, and a generous slathering of sweet BBQ sauce. It recalls all the things I hate about Ethiopian food, without any of the good qualities. Good things: lovely service, and a very efficient ordering system. Rating: Taylor Swift, who is actually a pop music artist and not country

Martin's redneck taco

Martin’s redneck taco

To summarize:

Pounds gained: Maybe 20 each

Exercise employed in futile attempt to stave off said pounds: Nancy’s fitness room is under renovation, so we do Jillian Michaels’ “30-minute shred level 1″ (a lot of jumping jacks) and her mammoth, sadistic “6-week 6-pack abs level 1″.

Pairs of pants ruined: one

Places missed: Prince’s Hot Chicken

St. Louis

The “gateway to the West”, driving into St. Louis really does feel like driving back up into the north. And that is all I have to say about St. Louis.

1. Pappy’s Smokehouse

We have time for one place, so we’d better make that place count. Why not make it Pappy’s, where a line forms promptly at 11 on the dot and diners are already vying for the best tables before the door even opens. Pappy’s, known for its brisket, serves until it runs out — a very Thai concept. To keep track, there is a blackboard of doom listing items that are gone if you get there too late. Happily, the blackboard of doom does not come into play for us. We get ribs, burnt ends, brisket and sweet potato fries. It is, easily, the best barbecue we’ve had so far on our trip. Where have you been all my life, Pappy’s?

Pounds gained: 5

Exercise employed in futile attempt to stave off pounds: Absolutely none.

Places missed: C&K, Bogart’s, Sugarfire






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Bangkok Chili Dog

Stuffed bun, Thai-Vietnamese-style

Stuffed bun, Thai-Vietnamese-style

My friend Janet once said that the worst thing anyone could be to a Thai person is boring. People could be uncouth, or inconsiderate, or even rude, but if they are also amusing, their other sins could be overlooked with ease.

This maxim also applies to food. Once you think you’ve got a handle on all the dishes likely to appear on restaurant menus and street vendor carts, a smattering of new ones pops up. Vendors cannot bear the thought that you might be bored by something they are serving up. So they are always experimenting, adapting, making known quantities like khao gaeng (curry rice) undergo little tweaks, turning what was once mundane into something entirely new.

Foreign dishes provide ripe fodder for this kind of experimentation. Like spaghetti, slathered with green curry at a khao gaeng stall. Or Thai streetside “sushi”, stuffed with canned tuna salad and garnished with deep-fried tempura bits, slicks of wasabi mayonnaise and flying fish roe.

And kanom pang yad sai, a white flour bun that is served across Isaan and in any restaurant specializing in the Vietnamese-inspired dish kai kata (egg in a pan). It’s usually buttered thickly and stuffed with moo yaw (Vietnamese-style pork loaf) and slices of gun chieng (Chinese-style sweet sausage), and meant to accompany the kai kata – perfect for dipping into a still-runny egg yolk dotted with Sriracha and maybe a little Maggi.

At Raan Ee Noi on Fueang Nakhon Road (085-125-4333), diagonally situated from Rachabopit Temple, the kanom pang yad sai comes still warm, stuffed with moo yaw and lashings of what looks — and tastes — suspiciously like sweet chili, a type of nam prik ong for babies. They are Thai-style chili dogs! Kanom pang yad sai are available alone (13 baht apiece) or in pairs (25 baht) and, if you are willing to wait, or take a seat at one of the four tables on the sidewalk in front (there are tables inside, but the fan doesn’t work), they will be yours in roughly 10 minutes’ time.

There is no kai kata to pull focus from these babies. And although it’s the guay jab yuan (Vietnamese-Thai-style, Chinese-inspired  pork noodles — yes, that’s right) that takes pride of place on each table, filling the shophouse with the sweet smell of deep-fried shallots, it’s the kanom pang yad sai that I like most, and the least boring thing I can imagine today.



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Southern Thailand across the river

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

For years, I had heard about a magical neighborhood in Bangkok where southern Thai vendors congregated like college students on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. That is to say, there were a lot of them. The only problem was, it was too far away from me. How to go to this place, so far away, when I was so, so lazy?

Well, it takes another person, obviously — another person who is a friend, but not so close that she knows how much of a total and utter slob you are. That is what Chin is to me, and that is how she gets me to leave the house: a sense of shame, coupled with a underlying current of greed. I am always hungry, after all. And the promise of not one, but a handful of Southern Thai eateries, where curries and coconut milk flow thick and fast, and chilies blanket everything like a Biblical plague of deadly deliciousness, was too heady to be ignored.

Chin tells me she wants to take me to the Wang Lung neighborhood, which requires a Skytrain trip to Saphan Taksin, and then a boat trip to Wang Lung. Now, I know how much fun riding the “river bus” is for visitors to this lovely city, but I can confidently say I am totally over it. Just get me somewhere, quickly. Unfortunately, the quickest way to Chin’s favorite Southern Thai place in the Wang Lung market is on the water, which threatens to make me nauseated even before I take a single bite.

Banana stem curry at Pa Oun

Banana stem curry at Raan Aharn Pak Tai

Located on the market’s main thoroughfare, Raan Aharn Pak Tai (a very no-nonsense name that means, literally, “Southern Thai Restaurant”, 086-664-8472) offers a sprawling selection of Southern Thai curries, soups and stir-fries that dwarf the offerings at any other vendor in the area. We get what Chin likes: pla samunprai (deep-fried fish with lemongrass), kanom jeen with nam ya gati (fermented rice noodles with a coconut milk-based fishmeat curry) and something I’ve never had before: gaeng sai gluay, or a coconut milk-based curry made of banana stems.  It’s unctuous and slightly sweet — not what I expect of Southern Thai food, which is fierce and hot and uncompromising, but it is augmented by some flaked fish flesh, which in itself feels very Southern to me. I also love that it takes an ingredient that would otherwise probably be thrown away — banana stems — and forms an entire dish around it. Best of all, our order comes with a collection of different pickles and fresh vegetables and herbs to enjoy as we see fit, my favorite thing about eating at Southern Thai places.

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Our Southern Thai-oriented explorations don’t end at the market. Next up: Phran Nok Road, which hosts a collection of Southern Thai khao gaeng (curry rice) vendors that have been around for decades. The most famous of these is Dao Tai (508/26 Phran Nok Rd., 02-412-2385), which has a reputation for fearsomely good Southern Thai food despite its relatively “remote” location all the way over in Thonburi.

The day I get there, I am starving, having saved room all morning for this very (series of) meal(s). Chin and I try to pace ourselves, so we only order my favorite Southern Thai dish, gaeng som pla grapong (sour curry with seabass and bamboo shoots), and kua gling moo, a “dry” curry of minced pork  dry roasted in a pan over low heat with a handful of herbs and an entire pantry’s worth of chilies. I find both dishes absolutely delicious, manna from heaven, especially when coupled with the shoots, leaves and cucumber slices that automatically come to our table once we sit down, an offering to the Hot Chili Spice Gods.

Sour curry at Dao Tai

Sour curry at Dao Tai


I am so ravenous I don’t even notice the chilies, ploughing through half of my plate of rice until I see Chin across the table from me, tears in her eyes. She is not verklempt over the beauty of our meal, or from having to watch me shovel rice with so-so accuracy into my mouth hole. No, it’s too hot. And there is, she suspects, an overabundance of MSG. The curries and stir-fries are too “dark”, the “wrong color”, she says. In short, Chin is not impressed with my selection of Dao Tai. It’s time to move, ideally to that place across the street that looks a little better.

That place is called Ruam Tai and it sits kitty-corner to Dao Tai, an arrangement I suspect was set up to accommodate overflow from the more famous restaurant. However, the food here may be just as good. We have hor mok (steamed, rubbery seafood curry topped with a disappointingly icing-like dab of coconut cream) and a far better coconut milk-based curry of snails which have to be plucked from the liquid and their meat extracted via toothpick. It’s far too fiddly for me. I NO LIKE EXTRA WORK! Chin, for her part, is charmed.

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Now I am absolutely stuffed, and contemplating the ride home, after which I will be rewarded by passing out on my couch for two hours while pretending to edit my book. But there is one more place to check out, and that is Chawang, right next door to Ruam Tai. It’s a shame we leave it last, because it’s friendly, airy, and  full of food that is the most restrained (chili-, flavor- and MSG-wise) of the three. Here, I manage a few bites of khao yum (a “salad” of rice with minced veggies, toasted coconut and herbs in a light, sweet-tart dressing), and then groan and make faces while Chin tastes the sator (stinkbean) stir-fried with shrimp paste and shrimp, and gaeng gati, a coconut milk “soup” bulked up generously with shrimp and pakliang leaves.

The trip back home is a doozy.






Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, Southern Thai, Thailand

Glutton Abroad: All we do in KL is eat

A bowl of assam laksa from Penang Cuisine in Publika

A bowl of assam laksa from Penang Cuisine in Publika

Frequently, when one is comparing A to B, it’s always a case of either/or, or this versus that. It is never about both things being awesome. I think it is because we are bred to think of things in terms of conflict. But A can indeed be as good as B, if different, and it would be foolish to choose one over the other. I mean, who would choose between Loki and Thor if you can have both?

So I am here to say that — while I still love Thai cuisine — Malaysian food is absolutely, indisputably delicious. Not everything makes me want to rend my garments with how wonderful it is: for instance, Chinese-style laksa seems like an exercise in flavor layering  that is unnervingly similar to how a 3-year-old puts together a sundae (let’s have that, and then this, and then a little more of the other thing, and while we’re at it, more of that again). At the same time, there are dishes that are tear-out-your-heart, stomp-on-the-ground yummy. Malaysian food is varied and many-dimensional and complicated, sure. And I’ve only just scratched the surface! The verdict, after one short trip to Kuala Lumpur, is the one that I ultimately feared: I cannot believe I waited so long to eat here.

Chinese-style laksa with tofu, fried wontons, egg noodles and cockles

Chinese-style laksa with fried and fresh tofu, pork, fried wontons, egg noodles and cockles

I know our culinary “guide” May means business when she sends us a detailed food itinerary a couple of weeks in advance. She jokes about it being “gut busting”, but it really and truly is. There was once a time when I could eat like this, like when I was researching my first book only a few years ago — a handful of places, three times a day. The trick, you are supposed to tell yourself, is to remember to “graze” so that there is enough room for everything to fit.

This is truly easier said than done. Especially when you are presented with the delectable char siew (Chinese-style barbecued pork) at Restoran Meng Char Siew (13 Tengkat Tong Shin, 012-252-1943). Unlike the other versions I’ve tried, this pork is neither overly sugary nor brittle with glaze; it’s a soft, melting heft of meat lacquered with sweet and bitter from the makeshift drum-like “ovens” in the kitchen.

Malaysian barbecued pork

Malaysian barbecued pork

There is less worry about offsetting greasiness with something cleansing or tangy in Malaysia, so here you have your “oiled” rice (similar to the rice you get with chicken rice) or your rice vermicelli drenched in soy sauce and your freshly sliced cucumber and maybe a stir fry of lettuce or bean sprouts (ideally from Ipoh, because those are the best, says May from Ipoh). Then you call it a day. Or, in our case, we call it an hour, because it’s already time to head off to the next destination. But before we go, May stops to watch the pork meatball vendor at work next door. Unlike the Thai pork pellets that are skewered and then grilled over an open flame, these meatballs are golf ball-sized masses of pig, served with a burning hot pork broth and bits of green onion. They are small enough to trick you into thinking you can eat them in one bite, but big enough to turn that endeavor into a total disaster.

“You should try a couple,” May urges me, but it’s too much, and I am already thinking of the next restaurant.

“Oh no, I will die if we have any more food right now,” I say.

“Two meatballs!” May answers, before I am presented with a small plastic bag of balls that I am free to carry into the car to maybe nosh on later.

So no, I did not die, because I am sitting here writing this right now, duh. And my stomach did settle in time to sample the eye-opening bak kuh teh at Teluk Pulai (Claypot) Bak Kuh Teh (32 Jalan Batai Laut 5, 03-3344-5196). I am used to the Singporean and Thai-Chinese version of this dish, which is referred to as the “peppery” kind involving cooking greens and pork into a sort of vegetal sludge. I absolutely loathe this dish. It reminds me of Italian ribollita, which I also find revolting. Why ruin all the best parts of the vegetables? But here, they specialize in the “herbal” type of bak kuh teh, which means the greens are strewn over the top as the pot of pork is served at your table, alongside rice and cut-up deep-fried crullers (patongko) to soak up all the delicious pork broth.


There is also a “dry” kind of bak kuh teh, which was sort of a revelation for me: no broth, no greens, just a bunch of slowly braised pork bits, heavily coated with bah kuh teh spices, what appears to be the cooked-down broth, and dark soy sauce.


The crullers go with the “wet” bak kuh teh. I didn’t know that when I took this photo.

As full as I was from the barbecued pork, I could not pass up this dish — a dish I had previously dreaded seeing on the dinner table. Another thing I remember dreading: Chinese food, the kind that my parents would drive two hours to Cleveland for. There, at a restaurant called “Bo Loong”, my parents would get their Asian food fix while we kids moped around like mourners at a funeral, eating plain rice and wishing ourselves at McDonald’s.

But even my parents, longtime Bo Loong boosters, would say that Restaurant Oversea (84-88 Jalan Imbi, +603-2144-9911) is a far superior restaurant. In fact, it is now my favorite Chinese restaurant in the world. There are a bunch of excellent dishes: things that are slow-cooked in pots, or freshly plucked from the fish tanks downstairs, or (this being Malaysia) coated in that black sauce that seems capable of covering just about anything edible here. But there real reason I am hoping to go back is this (order 24 hours in advance):

Roast piglet with gravy at Restaurant Oversea Imbi

Roast piglet with gravy at Restaurant Oversea Imbi

Now, I look at this and feel a twinge. This was a baby pig. I do feel bad about that. But do I respond by crossing my arms and not partaking, basically rejecting the gift that this piglet has given us? Or do I dig in and honor this pig’s sacrifice to my stomach as heartily as possible? You can guess my reaction. It is: thank you, baby pig. Your tiny squares of skin, paired with the fluffy Chinese-style steamed bread (man tou), or chunks of fatty, tender flesh drenched in pork gravy. Your sweet little trotters. And then, yes, the head, cleaved in two and presented to my neighbor at the dinner table and me, in an unspoken foodie dare.

I nibbled at the ear as my neighbor exhorted me to dig in with my bare hands, tearing the head apart at the jaw to release more of the meat buried under the cheekbone. “Try the eye,” she said, poking it out from underneath the skull to pop into her mouth. And, well, if she went to St. Andrews with Prince William and could chow down on half a piglet head like it was NBD, then I could do it too. It tasted like nothing, like a crunchy piece of gelatin. I had passed.

This is nowhere near all the food that I had. There are other highlights: fish head curry, Assam laksa (like noodles in a gaeng som broth), various stir-fried noodle dishes, yam rice with a light, slightly sour broth peppered with pig innards. But it’s not even close to the end of the road for all the dishes I want to try. I’m no fortuneteller, but I see … another trip to KL looming in my future.

Pan mee from Kin Kin: noodles with dried fish, minced pork, chili and a poached egg

Pan mee from Kin Kin: noodles with dried fish, minced pork, chilies and a poached egg







Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, Malaysia, restaurant