Monday, May 23, 2011

A Trip on the BBQ Bus: Sam's, Vic's and Willie's

On Saturday, I got the chance to ride along on a BBQ bus of epic proportions, courtesy of a contest put on by the good people at Google Places and ManUpTexasBBQ. We hit 3 joints I’d never heard of, ate meats I’d never encountered, and drank our fair share of Lone Star beer on a school bus outfitted with blacked out windows, disco lighting and a stripper pole. Memorable.

We started at Austin legend Sam’s, on East 11th. A massive pit  just behind the register kicks out enough heat to render meats nearly to the melting point, and to bump the ambient heat in the place to sauna-esque levels. The walls are yellow, I think, but so covered in faded peeling photographs, pages ripped from magazines, and record covers that it’s a little hard to tell. We sampled both the brisket and the mutton. Both were as moist as any meat I’ve tasted. If you have no teeth, and you would like to enjoy a meal of brisket, this place is your ticket. I found the brisket tasty, but a little bland – just meat and smoke going on here. The mutton – first I’ve ever had – was better, blackened and crispy on the edges, incredibly tender, and just a touch gamy. This stuff is seriously rich eating - a few bites and I was stuffed.

Perk: we actually got to go back stage at Sam’s and take a peek at the pit. Literally, this is a brick wall with a grate on top and fire underneath. That’s it. Asked how he avoided overcooking the meat, the man running the pit said “this is barbeque, there is no such thing as overcooked” Indeed.

Stop two was Willies, way out at Springdale and MLK. We outnumbered the seats at Willies by a good margin, but thankfully they had the meat, and the bottles of Big Red to handle us. Brisket was good, but unmemorable, with more unrendered fat than I like. The score here was the boudin. I only know boudin from the hundreds of billboards dotting I-40 between Beaumont and Mobile, often featured next to an alligator and promising parts of animals I’d never really planned on eating. I had no idea what it was - alligator foot sausage? Turns out I was wrong - boudin is pork and rice sausage, different than any sausage I’ve ever had, and, as Willie's does it, totally delicious. Texture-wise it’s almost like a Greek dolma, heavy on the meat. But the taste is another thing entirely, starting mild and a little peppery, and ending with a kick (maybe jalepeno?) that just made me want another bite.

Our last stop for  the day was also the highlight. Vic’s, off of 71 just east of I-35, is in a different league than Sam’s and Willie’s – bright, well air-conditioned, and spacious. It’s no Lambert’s, but it's also not a dive. The walls here are decorated with row after row of awards – best pork ribs, best beef ribs, best brisket. We did all three at Vic’s, and each one outdid the last. The brisket was cut thin and brilliantly spiced, tender, but not so greasy that you couldn’t dig in. The beef ribs, glazed with a sweet and slightly spicy crust were monumental and amazing – the meat fell off the bone and the flavor just went on and on. But the final play here, and the best thing I ate all day, hands down, was the pork ribs. These may be the best ribs I’ve ever bit into, even after a day of eating BBQ. The intense flavor in the crust, especially the blackened bits contrasted gorgeously with the slightly salty, tender bites of pork.

Four hours after we set out, in the quiet haze of a meat coma, we arrived back at our starting point. Mad props to Whitney and the gang at ManUp for making this happen. It's a Saturday I'm not going to forget.

More pictures from the BBQ Bus are up on the Grubbus FaceBook Page

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Sushi Hiding in the Strangest of Places: Maru Rocks Okemos

Lansing is a long way from the ocean. And a suburb of Lansing is the last place on earth I expected to find innovative, beautifully executed, piercingly fresh, creatively presented sushi. But I did.

Maru takes up a hidden corner of a non-descript strip mall. You could be in the parking lot and still not find it. But ho-hum disappears the minute you open the door. The ceiling rises a good 30 feet over the bar, the wall covered in an enormous wave-like bas-relief sculpture. The tiny space unfolds in a range of tricky little twists and turns - full of natural light and simple modern lines.

Take your seat, and the wait staff appear. I don't know where they get the wait staff here, honestly. This was my third visit, and each time, the service at this place has run at a different level than anywhere else in town. Crisp, earnest, intelligent, present.

The menu is a bit of a shock as well. This is not a sushi-deluxe+salad-with-ginger-dressing+miso soup kind of a place. This is full on ala-carte, and the carte is pretty wild. Case in point: the best roll I've had here is the Sexy Bacon, featuring ultra crisp thick sliced bacon alongside cucumber, asparagus, crab and shredded seaweed. This last time my little group started with the ceviche. Like the bacon, this is sushi re-imagined - a cylinder of rice, topped with brunoise tomato, topped with creme fraiche, topped with roe, surrounded by tuna, surrounded by enormous wonton wrapper chips. With a lime. It works.

We followed the ceviche with the big-daddy Omakase - bascially carte blanche for the chef to send us whatever he felt like sending us. First: a delicate salad topped with just a little smidge of escolar. Haven't had much escolar? Neither had I, since it's essentially banned from most parts of the world due to some iffy digestive consequences if eaten in large amounts. But it's here, and it's unbelievably rich and silky.

Next round was what I can only describe as jalepeno poppers. Together with the ceviche, it was a neat little riff on what tex mex would be if it were made by sushi chefs. I can't quite tell what all was in these. Definitely jalepeno, definitely something killer tasty and related to cream cheese, definitely something with a little kick. All of this, sparsely tempura battered and fried. Again - lots and lots going on here, and it came together well.

Nigiri and Sashami followed: tuna, halibut, escolar and octopus with little cucumber salads. Excellent, but not perfect. The octopus especially was a little tougher than I would have liked. And word to the wise: go for escolar on the salad, but skip the sashimi. Delicious? Yep. But not worth the pain. Trust me on this one.

Then came the rolls. The first round was a neat little package, mostly veggies with thin strips of tuna and salmon. Beautifully presented, this would have been an ideal way to end. In fact, we ended with round two of the rolls, which was the one place I think the meal really went astray. Oversize, with salmon tempura and a dab of cream cheese, these were an altogether too heavy finish for a meal drenched in light. Still - all in all a brilliant meal, and hands down the most innovative, creative culinary work I've seen anywhere near here. Given that this is virtually the only place in Lansing with a wait at 7:30 on a weekday, I'm not the only one that's made the discovery.

Maru Sushi & Grill on Urbanspoon

More photos of Maru are up on Grubbus's Facebook Home 


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