excerpted from the bluegrass region section of Wes Berry’s The Kentucky Barbecue Book, University Press of Kentucky (excerpt also appears on pages 12 and 13 of the April 11, 2013 print issue of Ace.)
BY WES BERRY
From the Introduction:
I’ve wanted to write a book on Kentucky’s best barbecue since moving back to the green rolling hills of cave country in 2005, having sojourned for a while in the barbecue wastelands of the Midwest. My goal was simple enough: eat at every barbecue place in the Commonwealth and write a travel guide to direct readers to the best, describing and rating the food along the way…
In business since 1978, Billy’s has earned a reputation for being one of the best places to eat barbecue east of Interstate 65. Part of that success should be credited to the western Kentucky roots of the originators, Billy Parham and Bob Stubblefield, who learned their trade from friends in Murray, Mayfield, Paducah, and Owensboro—four of the best per capita barbecue towns in the state. Billy’s is a full-service restaurant with a laid-back, fun atmosphere.
My cousin Jason and I walked into the air-conditioned comfort of Billy’s for lunch on a hot summer day. The lighting was nicely dimmed, and strings of small, clear bulbs, like holiday lighting, crisscrossed the ceiling and paneling along the booths. Many posters decorate the walls from musicians who have played in Lexington. A boar’s head is mounted on the wall (and also serves as Billy’s mascot, featured on the menu and on the sign outside).
We took a booth, and before you know it I was sipping a draft Kentucky Bourbon Barrel ale from a tulip glass—kind of frou-frou for a barbecue place, but I liked it. A sweet server took our order and the food came promptly. Billy’s menu is extensive. You can fill up on all kinds of goodies not usually found in barbecue shacks—“appeteasers” like spicy beer cheese, deep-fried pickle chips, catfish strips, or a cup of burgoo—but you better save room for Billy’s smoked meats and side dishes.
We split a pork plate—a whopping bunch of pulled and chopped pork, probably three-quarters of a pound of it, and also a jumbo mutton sandwich, with meat heaped on a big sesame seed bun with dill pickles and red onions (I removed these before eating). The pulled pork had a lot of bark and smoke flavor. It was a little dry and chewy, but the flavor was good. The hot sauce was a thin and vinegary pepper sauce that worked nicely with the pulled pork.
I was happy and surprised to find mutton in Lexington. I prefer mutton naked off the pit, but for sauced and sandwiched mutton this was good. It was chopped less finely than at Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, a place famous for mutton, and I prefer Billy’s coarser chop. The “ho-made” onion rings using fresh onion slices (they cut the onions there) were fabulous—crunchy and lightly breaded. We both loved the garlicky, buttery cheese grits that came heaped up in a bowl. The cornbread was really sweet. They smoke baked beans for three hours. They grind cabbage for the slaw. They cook and mash potatoes for the potato salad. In short, we were both impressed with the homemade quality of Billy’s food. I saw servers carrying platters of heaping plates and bowls, so it seems to be Billy’s custom to give plenty of food for the money.
After eating, I went back to talk with the young men doing the smoking. They gave me the rundown. Whole shoulders and beef briskets smoke for twelve hours in a gas-wood hybrid cooker using local hickory wood for smoke. The gas heats the unit up to cooking temperature, and then they throw on the wood, and the gas kicks on when the wood burns low to maintain a constant temperature. They slather pork fat on the wood, letting it soak in overnight, so when burning it they approximate the drip flavor you’d get from shoveling coals underneath the meat in the old-fashioned way—a clever way to add flavor to meats cooked in a gas-fired oven. The meaty slabs of St. Louis‒style ribs, smoked three-four hours, had a beautiful rosewood color from the dry rub and smoke, and the flavor right off the pit was wonderful. They hold the ribs in a walk-in cooler and reheat them in a steam tray on their stovetop. I can’t say how good the ribs are after being held a while, but if you get them fresh off the pit, oh, have mercy. The chopped brisket was good— smoky and tender.
When driving away, Jason said you could go back to Billy’s and make a great meal of dry-rubbed ribs, cheese grits, and onion rings. Agree. I’d also like to try the deep-fried pickle chips with horseradish sauce and mustard style potato salad.
101 Cochran Road; 859-269-9593
Ky. Butt Rubb’in BBQ (“Ain’t No Fancy Gas Smoker Here!!”)
Don’t let the strip-mall surroundings deter you; I had a good time and a great meal at this barbecue-and-more restaurant. I lucked into Butt Rubb on a Saturday afternoon when the University of Kentucky Wildcats were playing the University of Tennessee and got to observe customers, employees, and coowner Leigh Pence (a Fayette County native) watching the game—that crazy Wildcat fervor rampant all over the state, but of course especially strong in Lexington, home of the Big Blue. I used to hear Ole Miss fans call UK the “Big Poo.” They’re just jealous. I sat at a high-top table near the bar for a good view of the television and spoke with New Jersey native James Myers, a University of Kentucky student and part-time barkeep, who talked me into a sampler platter with burnt ends (not always available but, lucky for me, were on this day) and potato salad. I chose the three-meater and rounded out the platter with smoked sausage, four bones of St. Louis‒cut spareribs, and onion rings cut and breaded in house. I also sampled the beef brisket and pulled pork—they do call themselves Butt Rubb, after all. Garlicky Texas toast rounded out the meal.
Ky. Butt Rubb’in BBQ has been open since June 23, 2009. I asked Leigh what they do best, and she said, “My husband does all this marvelous food. This is all he’s ever done since he was fifteen, was cook. It’s all good. Everything smokes sixteen to eighteen hours. All hickory all day.”
Leigh told the pure-dee truth. The onion rings were crispy and melted in my mouth like cotton candy. The red-skinned potato salad had flecks of celery seed, boiled egg, and a creamy dressing that was not sweet,
thank goodness, and was one of the best I’ve ever had (thank you, James from Jersey, for steering me toward it!). The ribs were nicely charred on the topside but tender throughout, reminding me of the famous Rendezvous ribs in Memphis. Ribs smoke for six hours, and before serving Greg Pence, Leigh’s husband, “flashes them on the grill to caramelize the sauce a little bit.” The sliced smoked sausage, which comes fresh from Troyer Foods in Goshen, Indiana, tasted like a Polish or English breakfast sausage. The cubed burnt ends from beef brisket flats burst with salt and smoke, very tender and delicious, and I loved them with the Texas toast. This might be the only place in Kentucky serving burnt ends. I hadn’t eaten them since I visited Kansas City years ago and was glad to try them again. They were very salty—so if you are averse to salt, keep this in mind. Finally, the rich, tender, smoky chopped pork reminded me of some of the best in western Kentucky. Table sauces are sweet and thick. The “Hot Like You” sauce has a good peppery kick. They also have “pig wings” on the menu—one of a few places in the Commonwealth smoking these, and also one of the only places outside the Hopkinsville-Owensboro corridor serving burgoo. I also tried the white sauce, which tasted much like the concoction made famous by Big Bob Gibson’s in north Alabama. A lovely young woman taking a break at the bar, Abby Davis from Frankfort, overheard me exclaiming about the basket of fried dill pickle spears she was snacking on, and she shared one with me. I dipped that crispy pickle into the mayonnaise-based white sauce and felt my heart flutter slightly. Abby, one of a few young people working that day, said, “I keep things exciting here. I give good advice on what to get.”
Butt Rubb, like Sarah’s Corner Cafe across town, shows their enthusiasm for University of Kentucky athletics. On the wall by the front door hangs a framed autograph of Joe B. Hall, coach of the 1978 NCAA basketball championship team, who thanks Butt Rubb for the “great dinner,” and posters of UK men’s basketball and football teams plaster the wall by the bar. A playing card of Jay Shidler, “the Blond Bomber” from that 1978 team, is displayed in a frame, next to his words: “I’ve always loved good ‘butt,’ & you can’t beat this ‘butt’ rubb’n BBQ.” An illuminated sign in the back dining room features a pig massaging another’s pig’s hams, next to the caption: “After the Wildcats Kick Butt noth’in Beats a Butt Rubb’in.”
I asked Greg, a Boonesborough native, how he came up with the name. He said, “Well, we use Boston butts and I put a rub on it. It started out as a joke and stuck.”
Greg smokes with hickory wood on big custom barrel smokers out back, and when I asked what kind of species of hickory he used, Greg schooled me in woods, revealing just how much he’d experimented over the years. “I can’t pronounce it,” he laughed. “There’s only like sixteen [species]!” He mostly uses shagbark hickory, but sometimes will smoke with the diamond-patterned mockernut hickory, which is “okay,” according to Greg. He doesn’t like pig nut hickory, calling it “pretty bland, a white wood that doesn’t put out the right kind of smoke.” Someone brought Greg a load of red hickory. “The taste was good, but everything in there looked like you’d been smoking with cherry. Everything was just red. I didn’t want to use that anymore.” In the summertime, business is so good that Greg fires up all three of his big smokers. “It gets nuts as soon as school is out. In four months we’ll be balls to the walls.” By the way, #2-ranked Kentucky pulled it out in the end, beating Tennessee 65–62, to the great relief of a crowd gathered around the bar. The Wildcats went on to win the NCAA championship in 2012. Looks like a good time for a Butt Rubb’in.
450 Southland Drive; 859-277-0099
J. J. McBrewster’s
Business has been cooking at this Lexington eatery since Guy Fieri brought his big personality and posse of cameras into the kitchen of this barbecue restaurant whose owners have western Kentucky roots, the only place in Kentucky I’ve found that serves—get this—goat! (Call me envious of a guy who gets paid to go eating around the country and you wouldn’t be lying.) Guy marked this territory with a signed poster and a spray-painted stamp on the wall of his sun-glassed visage and trademark spiked hair beside the words “Guy ate here,” along with his signature.
No, I’m not jealous. Really.
Located in a strip mall next door to Domino’s pizza and a Chinese restaurant, J. J.’s offers barbecue classics with a suburban twist. For example, barbecued meats are served on ciabatta buns with a side of chips or an apple, or you can get a panini. The pig bark panini is pulled pork, bacon, and provolone served on a ciabatta loaf. The nicely named goatini is BBQ goat and provolone on ciabatta. They also offer several “stuffed spuds” (the phat spud is a potato with pulled pork or chicken and baked beans, topped with cheese), salads, and soups.
But barbecue still makes most of the menu, and I, along with buddy Mark “Action” Jackson (a Memphis native who teaches at Transylvania University in downtown Lexington), tried a range of it: pulled pork, goat, mutton, and brisket. We also tried the creamy slaw, potato salad, “maple glazed baked beans,” green beans, and mac and cheese. Four table sauces allow for sampling. The cutely named melon sauce (which doesn’t have melon in it) ranks highly on my list of clever barbecue sauce creations. You can watch owner Susan Mirkhan make it on the YouTube clip of Fieri’s Diners, Drive- Ins and Dives broadcast.
Of the meats, Mark and I praised the thick-sliced brisket the most, finding it tender and flavorful throughout. They smoke the whole brisket, which means extra-juicy, delicious fattiness for flavor and moisture, on an Ole Hickory cooker using hickory wood for about twenty hours, as they do with all the meats except chicken and salmon. The brisket soaked up enough smoke to satisfy me, and the seasonings seeped deep into the meat. Moreover, since this is the only place I’ve found in the Commonwealth serving barbecued goat, I suggest you try it, but know that this goat was chewy and stringy, as was the mutton—especially the external barky pieces. Both were slightly sweet and well seasoned, but I think these meats could benefit from regular basting with a dip. Both meats were improved by drizzling on some of the Daviess County dip, a thin Worcestershire-based tangy sauce. The pulled pork was tender and had a good fluffy texture, but it lacked the deep smokiness I prefer. This is often my response to pork cooked on gas-wood hybrid cookers. Mark agreed. We both thought the western sauce—a tangy, sweet, peppery, orange-colored sauce reminding me of the mild sauce at Knoth’s Bar-B-Que over by Lake Barkley—added necessary flavor to the mildly smoked pork. Of the sides we tried, I liked the baked beans seasoned with onions, sugar, and spices the best.
The potato salad was sweet, “almost a fruity sweet,” in Mark’s words. I didn’t try a dessert but was tempted by such homemade sweeties as banana pudding, pig picking pie (peanut butter pie and chocolate fudge), and cobblers (blackberry, peach, or pecan).
J. J.’s has a welcoming family atmosphere. Friendly employees greet you when you walk in the door, and the open dining room is clean and bright, with walls painted UK blue, mustard yellow, and rusty red. Windows let in natural light. Floors are carpeted. Mellow music plays throughout the dining room—at least until the University of Kentucky basketball game begins, as it did during our meal. A plaque on the wall from the Lexington Humane Society thanks J. J. McBrewster’s for their donations. The Mirkhans are dog lovers who named the restaurant after their rescued bulldog. She calls him Mac. The sandwiches at J. J.’s are named after him.
Susan, who grew up in Eddyville, came over to speak with us after we finished our meal. We bragged on western Kentucky barbecue awhile. Susan said the sweet peppery sauce had been made in her family for at least eighty two years. The recipe was found in her great-great grandmother’s Bible. Susan compared it to honey mustard, and then told me a funny story about the sauce. Her uncle, Harold Crady, was a successful insurance man who cooked barbecue on the river in Eddyville on Saturday nights. “It was a passion for him; it wasn’t something he could make any money doing.” Uncle Harold would cook on the riverbank with Mr. Knoth.
The plot thickens. “So Mr. Knoth stole the recipe?” I asked. “Harold gave it to him. Everybody knows the sauce as Knoth’s, but ironically enough it goes back a lot further than that. What’s funny is that years later my dad married into the Knoth family. Hugh [Knoth] made his sauce with white vinegar, and my uncle made his with apple cider vinegar. There’s a very big argument about which sauce is better. You can’t even tell the difference, but anyway . . .
“Western Kentucky deserves a lot of recognition for barbecue. When I was growing up, you didn’t eat burgers. You didn’t eat turkey. When you had an affair, you ate barbecue: pork shoulders and mutton. It didn’t matter if it was Christmas or a family reunion in July—you ate barbecue. So I would go to my Knoth’s side of the family, and they’d be like, ‘You didn’t go over there and eat any of that Crady’s barbecue, did you?’ And then I’d go over to Crady’s house, and they’d go, ‘You been over at Knoth’s eating that barbecue?’ It was never a Hatfield and McCoy kind of thing, but I got to live it because I was going to both households.”
“My family has always hand-pulled barbecue. We hand-pull all of our meats. One of the most popular things is to take your shoulder or butt and throw it in a big commercial blender and let it tear it apart, and then you go through it and pick out the gristle and things. But we hand-pull ours. During a slow period we smoke over a ton of pork a week.”
Susan keeps goat on the menu because it was featured on Triple D, but she said, “It’s extremely expensive and difficult to get. We don’t make one dime on it.” She’s been getting goats from local farmers, and the supply has been strained. There just aren’t enough goat farmers around. But Susan is committed to supporting local farmers. A Kentucky Proud banner—an icon stamped on Kentucky-made products—hangs on the wall near Guy Fieri’s photograph. Susan gets produce from local sources whenever she can.
Talking about the dearth of barbecue in the Bluegrass Region and eastern Kentucky, Susan said she’d met many expatriates from western Kentucky who’ve been “longing for” the barbecue of home. “When I’d been open like six months, a guy said, ‘I feel like I’ve gone home and had my dinner.’ That’s a nice compliment.”
3101 Clays Mill Road, Suite 301; 859-224-0040
Neal’s Smoke Box
I’ve been surprised over the years to find good barbecue at service stations. When I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, the best ribs in town came from a place called B’s, housed in a Shell station south of the town square. To get some of the best barbecue in western Kentucky, you’ll have to walk through the doors of Heaton’s Citgo station in Princeton. And you’ll find some of the best stuff in the Bluegrass Region inside a Shell station, formerly a Chevron, in southeast Lexington, close to I-75.
I started with a brisket sandwich—three slices of well-smoked peppery beef coated with a heavy sauce that reminded me of KC Masterpiece. The pulled pork was tender and also saucy. The brisket was extremely peppery and salty, reminiscent of beef jerky, but unlike jerky it was very tender. Both sandwiches came on untoasted industrial hamburger buns.
In brief, Neal’s Smoke Box knows how to smoke a brisket, but I’d just get the meat without bun or sauce, both of which detracted from the good flavor of the meat. That’s not always the case, of course. Sometimes these elements—meat, bread, sauce—work together, like the magnificent hoggy sandwich at Mr. BBQ in Grand Rivers, which comes on a good hoagie bun brushed with garlic butter, toasted, with a thin peppery sauce on the side. So run into the Smoke Box, get a big plate of brisket, ask them to leave off the sauce (if they will), and also try the meaty spareribs that Neal smokes on the huge steel unit outside the store, and get some of Kelly’s homemade side items like the green beans and sweet potatoes. That’s a good meal. Neal’s Smoke Box has one of the most engaging origin stories I’ve heard.
When I stopped by during summer 2009, they’d been in the Chevron station for only three months, but they’d already been selling barbecue at the Lexington Farmers Market for seven years. The owners, Kelly and Neal Harris, started the business to raise money to build the Ruby E. Bailey Family Service Center in Lexington, whose mission is to help families and children in need, including literacy learning, after-school tutoring, and feeding programs.
Their goal is to “help break the cycle of government dependency,” said Kelly. Neal does the smoking, and Kelly makes the green beans and macaroni.
“Mommy’s the mac queen,” Kelly said. She said her greens and sweet potatoes come from five generations of cooking know-how, passed down daughter to daughter from the family’s origins in Meridian, Mississippi. You can top off your meal with one of Kelly’s homemade cinnamon rolls. Oh, yes.
6400 Polo Club Lane, Suite 150 (in the Polo Club Shell station); 859-293-9300
Red State Barbecue
Scott Ahlschwede, DVM, an equine veterinarian who owns this quaint restaurant north of Lexington, chose the name after watching the elections one year and noticing that all the states listed as red on the electoral map were good barbecue destinations. Lefties, no worries. Barbecue transcends political divisions.
The interior offered a toasty welcome from the winter cold. A blue and white UK Wildcat lamp hangs above the thick-slab wooden bar top. The menu is scribbled on a big chalkboard behind the bar. A stuffed wildcat mounted on a piece of driftwood stands on a mantel, next to a wall of fame signatures and testimonies from famous visitors, including six foot eight Kenny Sky Walker and seven foot one Sam Bowie, who kindly marked the top of his head on the wall so we lesser mortals can see just how shrimpy we are by comparison. How do I know the heights of these former UK basketball players? Google, perhaps? Unnecessary, for both men listed their vertical blessedness as a part of their signatures. I’ve been thinking about a personal stamp for my own barbecue fame—maybe cholesterol levels or blood pressure readings?
I approached the bar and struck up a talk with Jennifer Wiglesworth, an artist who manages Red State to support her art habit. She said some customers asked if they were communist because of the name. That had crossed my mind also, but I expected George Bush red instead of Fidel Castro red. Turns out the place is neither—at least not belligerently. If the owner has a political agenda, he hides it well. He’s from Texas, but his place pays homage to Kentucky’s favorite basketball team all over the walls of the place.
Open since November 5, 2010, Red State has already established a good following. Jennifer said, “Our lunch business is fabulous. Today they were lined out the door for an hour straight.” That’s about all the advertisement you need. In addition to the regular menu meats, which I discuss below, they also do weekend specials like whole smoked prime ribs, whole smoked turkeys, smoked salmon with a honey barbecue glaze, and smoked meatloaf. All meats smoke on a Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack rotisserie pellet cooker. My old friend Chip Barton, from my hometown of Glasgow, blew in from the cold, and we ordered a couple of “two-meat” plates—one with ribs and pulled pork, the other with brisket and pulled chicken. Our sides were potato salad, beans, mac and cheese, and corn pudding. I loved the thick-sliced brisket with ample fat left on it, and also the spareribs seasoned with thyme, oregano, and other spices. The mac and cheese was great—very cheesy macaroni shells from a roux base, extremely caloric and satisfying. The corn pudding was also rich. The baked beans—long-cooked pintos with chili pepper—were good. The potato salad was nothing special. The pulled pork was flaky with a moderate smoke flavor, and the pulled chicken—well, hell, I just don’t understand why people order this stuff. Why did I order it? One can always hope …
So, my perfect meal at Red State: a two-meat plate with brisket and ribs, mac and cheese or corn pudding and baked beans (which provide a good flavor contrast to the rich and cheesy macaroni and pudding dishes). Oh, the sauces aren’t necessary for the delicious brisket and ribs, but of the three table sauces—Memphis sweet, Texas spicy, and Carolina mustard—I found the Memphis sauce the most complex and fresh-made tasting.
The temperature was 23°F when Chip and I said good-bye and went our separate ways down the highway, my belly full and my spirit lifted by the renewal of old friendship and the making of new ones. Thanks, Jennifer, for making us feel at home.
4020 Georgetown Road; 859-233-7898 www.redstatebbq.com
Sarah’s Corner Cafe BBQ
A short drive east of Lexington on Highway 60, Sarah’s smokes up some of the best barbecue in the state and serves it up in a homey country-store atmosphere. LD and Ralph Egbert, realtors, opened Sarah’s on May 29, 2009, naming it after their beloved dog Sarah Jane, whom they met in 2003 at an animal shelter. Photos of Sarah grace the menus. In one, Sarah’s looking humiliated in a University of Kentucky‒colored dog sweater. LD and Ralph are huge Wildcat fans, having moved to Lexington from western Kentucky to be closer to the sports action. They show their fandom with their Blue Wall, a corner of the restaurant painted Wildcat blue with photos of UK legends hanging on the walls. They even put Rick Pitino up there, forgiving him for his perfidy. I guess winning five of six SEC tournaments and an NCAA national championship earns a lot of forgiveness.
Out by the highway for advertising, a big tank unit smoker with a firebox on the side for indirect cooking was parked. The meats they smoke up on there are oh-so-good. Charlie Winter and I shared a “Sarah’s sampler” with three meats and three sides. Charlie said (and I agree) that the very meaty baby back ribs were some of the best he’s had in awhile (and Charlie is a barbecue freak like me). They were moist and smoky, as good as I’ve ever had at a restaurant.
The thick-sliced beef brisket was real good, and the pulled pork was smoky and tender. I liked the peppery bark on the pork and the distinctive smoke flavor. I told LD that the barbecue sauce reminded me of Knoth’s sauce over in the Land between the Lakes, and she just smiled. The greens were rich and full flavored, like Grandma’s, with a lot of pot likker, and the hash brown casserole was cheesy. Pones of cornbread rounded out the meal. Sometimes LD and Ralph go wild and smoke pineapple and shrimp and Italian sausages. The day I visited she’d just made a homemade potpie using beef brisket.
“What do you do with smoked pineapple?” I asked.
LD and Ralph have roots in Princeton (in the heart of western Kentucky barbecue country) but lived in Paducah for eight years before moving to Lexington in 1985. Ralph used to manage Old Town Tavern, and LD worked for Starnes BBQ in Paducah. Her father used to run Knoth’s.
Ooooooooooh. No wonder LD smiled when I said their sauce reminded me of Knoth’s.
I asked LD about the east-west barbecue divide in the state, and she said, “I just don’t think people have the time and patience. You got to watch that smoker. You can’t just put the meat in there and cook it. It takes eight to ten hours to cook those Boston butts. You just can’t rush it.”
Can we infer by LD’s hunch that western Kentucky people move at a slower pace—got more time for setting around watching meat cook slowly— than the people around Lexington?
The country-store atmosphere at Sarah’s makes for fun dining in. I liked looking at the photos of dogs and cats on the walls. The Egberts actively support the Lexington Humane Society. Their personal story on the menu says, “Our pets (all thru Humane Societies) have given us great joy.”
A sign above the door leading to the restroom states boldly, “This ain’t Wendy’s—You’ll eat it any way we fix it.” Gladly.
4300 Winchester Road; 859-309-1220
Wagon Bones on Jefferson was closed when Berry stopped by and he also did not have the chance to sample Mary Lou’s BBQ on Walton in time for the book’s publication. He will be signing the new book in June at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington Green. Lexington’s newest smoked meats restaurant is County Club, opened Spring 2013 (after the book was released).
This excerpt also appears on pages 12 and 13 of the April 11, 2013 print edition of Ace.
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