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Big Bad Wolves Barbecue

If you’ve been on the Strip during a gameday, you’ve seen Big Bad Wolves stationed on the porch of the Houndstooth. If you haven’t stopped to check them out and try their barbecue nachos, you’re seriously missing out. Big Bad Wolves only sets up shop from Friday lunch to Saturday night on gameday weekends. Over the summer when everyone begins their “Countdown to Kickoff”, several of my friends “Countdown to Barbecue Nachos” instead. And for good reason.

First, you should know that the barbecue nachos are the only thing to order. I mean, they have other menu options (pork sandwiches and stuff), but I don’t recommend them, as you can get better pulled pork at a number of other Tuscaloosa restaurants. It’s the nachos that make Big Bad Wolves special.

Next, I must warn you not to be tempted by the Dreamland barbecue nachos sold in the stadium (I’m not sure if they’re available throughout the stadium, but they’re definitely sold in the student section). The Dreamland nachos are equally overpriced (they’re being sold at a concession stand–duh!), and the flavors just don’t compliment one another like the chips, cheese, pork, sauce, and (optional) jalapenos of Big Bad Wolves’ nachos do.

Here’s how BBW BBQ nachos break down. The chips are salty but not overly. They’re just standard yellow corn nacho chips. Round and think enough to hold up to the weight of the other ingredients. Next comes the cheese, which has a milder color (less yellow, though not queso-white either) and taste than most (Taco Bell) nacho cheese. The mildness of the cheese makes it a nice complement taste-wise to the meat and sauce but also adds a nice texture to what might seem like a strange combination of ingredients. Chips and meat, even with sauce, would be a little dry–the cheese smooths things out and helps the meat stick to the chip.

Next comes the meat. As I mentioned earlier, there’s nothing particularly great about the pork itself, but it’s certainly not bad either. You can order your nachos with or without jalapenos. I usually get mine on the side. And the best part–the icing on the cake, so to speak–is the sauce. This part you do yourself. Squirt bottles of sauce are assembled on tables near where you order and receive your food, so you can cover this beautiful creation in as much or as little sauce as you want. The sauce is what I would call Memphis-style (though Barry, our barbecue expert, might disagree with me). It’s tomato-based, fairly thin (not runny at all–just not KC Masterpiece thick), slightly spicy, but mostly sweet. One of the sweeter barbecue sauces I’ve had, in fact. I think it’s really great, personally, and I suspect that its sweetness is what pulls all the tastes together and makes these nachos work in a way that Dreamland’s don’t.

And to complete your experience at Big Bad Wolves, you should be prepared to pay $9 (in cash) for them. Yes, that’s a lot of money for some nachos, but they’re a novelty and they’re delicious. Trust me (and the good portion of Tuscaloosa that flocks to this place on gameday) on this.

[natalie]

Mike & Ed’s Bar-B-Q

Apparently Mike & Ed’s is no longer in the Northport location mentioned in this review. As far as I can tell, they decided to let their lease on the Northport building expire and are still waiting for their new building at the 15th Street location to be built, so the Tuscaloosa area is temporarily without Mike and Ed’s. This review will be updated when I have more information.

Mike & Ed’s Bar*B*Q holds a sentimental spot in my creosote-blackened heart. It was the very first Tuscaloosa barbecue joint that I ate at. Heck, it was the first Tuscaloosa barbecue joint that I ever saw. I was born and raised in Kansas City, the barbecue capital of the world. Seeing Mike & Ed’s squat brick building, with its sunfaded sign and Formica tables and weird, rusting, cylindrical smoking room, made me all warm inside. It looked like how a barbecue joint should look like.

That charming building right by Forest Lake is no longer standing. It, like a majority of structures in the Forest Lake neighborhood, was irreparably damaged in the April 27th tornado. I was very affected by this. I even wrote a short nonfiction piece about Mike & Ed’s and other Tuscaloosa barbecue joints for the charity anthology, Tuscaloosa Runs This (free download found at tuscaloosarunsthis.com).

Now, a little over three months later, Mike & Ed’s has re-opened in a temporary building in Northport. I am thrilled to report that while things look different, the food has stayed the same. This new location is in a small wooden shack (complete with a working drive-thru! Call ahead!), with tables and a mishmash of assorted chairs stuck in wherever they can fit. It’s counter-service now. Whereas before you’d get a perky waitress to take your order and refill your cup with sweet tea, now you order at the register, get a ticket number, and pour yourself some sweet tea out of a giant white industrial trash bin/paint bucket w/ a spigot attached to it. Don’t kid yourself about ordering anything but the sweet tea here. Resistance is futile.

Mike & Ed’s sells mostly pork, and you can order it one of three ways: chipped, sliced, or chopped. Avoid the chopped preparation; it isn’t so much chopped as it is deliberately cubed, and the cubes of pork tend to dry out quickly. The chipped is the most popular; moist, very finely pulled strands of pork shoulder tossed with Mike & Ed’s house mustard-based sauce (they have a few other sauces if mustard doesn’t suit your palate: a thin tomato-based sauce with some hickory smoke to it, and a full-on South Carolina yellow mustard sauce). I tend to opt for the sliced pork; thick slices, laced with flavorful fat, with lots of smoky bark left on them. Truth be told: none of the pork options are anything better than average, but average barbecue is plenty tasty.

Mike & Ed’s serves up other meats too. Their barbecued chicken isn’t particularly special, but (surprisingly) their fried chicken strips are. The most succulent, plump, juicy chicken strips in town. For me, Mike & Ed’s best meat is their turkey. Of all the meats at Mike & Ed’s, the turkey achieves the best balance of smoke and juiciness. It’s so good that I had Mike & Ed’s barbecue an entire turkey for me that I served for Thanksgiving dinner.

My favorite thing about Mike & Ed’s, the one thing that they do that is legitimately great, are their barbecued beans. So often, even at otherwise solid barbecue joints, the beans will be an afterthought, tasting like they came straight out of a can. Not here, no way. There’s a depth of flavor to Mike & Ed’s beans that is unmatched in Tuscaloosa (or at least I haven’t found their match yet). In Kansas City, they cook the beans underneath the meats being smoked so that beef brisket drippings will fall into the beans. Mike & Ed’s takes that general principle and applies to it pork shoulder. The smoky-sweet beans are flavored with the sizable chunks of pork shoulder that drip down into them. The beans are at their best in the evening, after a whole day’s worth of meat and juice and fat has had hours to cook down into them.

There are other barbecue joints in Tuscaloosa that easily outclass Mike & Ed’s. They don’t do much at all wrong, but they don’t excel at much beyond turkey and beans. Even still, it’s always an enjoyable meal. The service and atmosphere are top-notch. I never walk away disappointed.

Mike & Ed’s has plans to rebuild at the site of their former location. A sketch of the building was posted on their Facebook page (which seems to have disappeared). It looked like a sterile, big-box looking building that reminded me of the similarly safe Northport location of Dreamland. I will be glad to see it back at Forest Lake, but I will be sad to see its barbecue joint charm replaced by a boring, antiseptic chain store aesthetic. My advice? Go to the temporary Northport location and soak up the atmosphere while you still can.

[barry]

Mike & Ed’s, formerly (and soon to be) located at 101 15th St, is currently located at 2910 5th Street, Northport, AL, next to Kentuck Park.

Monday-Saturday: 10:30am-3:00pm

Moe’s Original BBQ

When  Moe’s Original BBQ opened in downtown Tuscaloosa in early 2010, I was skeptical. I avoided it for some time, as I’m fairly confident the saturation of barbecue restaurants in Tuscaloosa will weed out substandard joints. I decided I’d try it if it could pass the T-town test.  Over a year later, Moe’s was still going strong, and I was curious.

Driving by for that year and a half, I was always confused by its ever-shifting atmosphere. Moe’s has a bit of a split-personality: restaurant by day and bar by night. This division is also represented by the layout of the establishment: bar on the right side, restaurant on the left. The “About” page on Moe’s website advertizes “Alabama-style” barbecue and claims UA as its alma mater, but the first five Moe’s were opened in various parts of Colorado. The mountain atmosphere carries over into the Tuscaloosa location, as the wood interior and ski décor (a lift seat and black diamond signs, for example) are reminiscent of every ski lodge ever. Eleven HDTV’s are staggered throughout the restaurant and bar and are usually set to various sporting events. The bar also advertizes Colorado craft beers, but they’re only available in bottles. The only tap I’ve ever seen there is for Bud Light, and the liquor selection seems pretty standard. I’ve only ever been to Moe’s during meal time, but from what I can tell of the night scene, it looks too undergrad/frat-heavy for my taste. There’s a stage in the corner for live music Thursday-Saturday nights, and when the weather is nice, they open the giant garage-style windows on the front façade to give the place more of an outdoor-ish atmosphere. Of course, you can always sit on the patio.

The menu is fairly simple. Sandwiches (pulled pork, chicken, turkey, and catfish, I believe) come with 2 sides and a drink for $9. Platters (pulled pork, chicken, turkey, catfish, wings, ribs) come with 2 sides a drink for $10. I’ve only ever tried the chicken sandwich, but it’s so good, I can’t bring myself to order anything else. I’ve been told the pulled pork is worth coming back for as well. The chicken is tender and covered in a tangy almost orange-colored barbecue sauce. “Tangy” and “peppery” are what come to mind when I try to describe it. This chicken and thin-but-not-quite-vinegary sauce is then topped with Moe’s marinated slaw, which is unlike any slaw I’ve ever had. Since I’m not a fan of cole slaw, that’s a good thing. Instead of the chopped and creamy slaw I’m used to (hating), Moe’s uses larger pieces of cabbage and a vinegary sauce that compliments the rest of the sandwich exquisitely. The crunch of the cabbage and the combination of the barbecue and slaw sauces really add something to an already good sandwich. Finally, the slaw is topped with a few slivers of cooked bell pepper and a few slices of pickles. This layering of tastes and inclusion of little touches (such as the bell pepper) prove that Moe’s is about more than throwing sandwiches together. They’ve thought long and hard about what makes good barbecue and what best complements that barbecue—and the payoff for all that time and effort is well worth the $9 you’ll pay for it. And I haven’t even gotten to the sides!

Moe’s keeps several sides on the menu permanently: baked beans, marinated slaw, potato salad, chips, and banana pudding. I’ve not had any of these, however, because their “Special Sides of the Day” are always so enticing. The yams were delicious and just sweet enough to border on dessert. I get the macaroni and cheese every time I go there. It’s baked until it nearly dissolves in your mouth with at least two kinds of cheese and plenty of butter. The skillet corn is also fantastic with the same kind of flavor complexity (sausage and celery, namely) I described in the sandwich. I’ve also seen black-eyed peas, peas and corn, and greens on the “Special Sides” chalkboard. On my last visit, I tried the coconut pie, which (as you can tell by the picture) comes in a little cup. It tasted fine, but was easily the least impressive thing I’ve had at Moe’s so far. I imagine the banana pudding served the same way and is probably better, but I’m not a big banana pudding fan so I haven’t tried it.

Finally, the sweet tea is sweet—as tea in an Alabama barbecue joint should be. It’s not the sweetest in town, but it’s not far from it. You may want to half-and-half it with the unsweet if you you’re not a disciple of the “a little tea with my sugar” tradition like I am. Overall, Moe’s really knocked my socks off the first time I tried it and has continued to impress me in the three or four times I’ve eaten there since. You won’t catch me partying there on a Saturday night, but those yams and skillet corn make Moe’s a constant candidate for lunch or dinner every day of the week.

[natalie]

Moe’s Original BBQ is located at 2101 University Blvd in downtown Tuscaloosa, next to the new federal building.

Monday-Saturday: 11am-9pm
Bar open until 2am; 3am on Fridays

Archibald & Woodrow’s

When you live in a city with a lot of barbecue options, you need a quick way to parse out the worthwhile joints from the wastes of time. I’ve found that with some regularity you can determine a good barbecue joint just by the experience of being outside of the building. Archibald & Woodrow’s passes this test: the gravel parking lot juts right out onto Greensboro, making it difficult to even situate your car; the squat, slightly-sun-faded red brick building sits in a perpetual slouch; the coal-black smoker is visible up against the left-facing wall; the sweet perfume of wood smoke and rendering pork fat wafting over the Academy Sports parking lot.

The interior is even more promising. There’s wood paneling everywhere, slunking booths whose maroon cushions are wearing out, sets of chairs that have been cobbled together piecemeal. It retains all of the charm awkwardness of the building’s previous tenet, which I can only guess was a Country & Western-themed sports bar. This is a building that looks like it will exist without repair until it gives way to entropy and collapses. That, dear readers, is the sign of a good barbecue joint.

Of course, the reason to come to Archibald & Woodrow’s is for the food. Like just about all barbecue in Tuscaloosa, it is firmly in the Carolinian tradition (no beef, vinegar sauce). In a region where the word “barbecue” often refers only to pork shoulder, you need to deliver a quality pulled pork. The pulled pork at Archibald & Woodrow’s delivers. Well, I suppose it is more of a chopped pork, but the texture and cut is closer to pulled pork than any of the chopped pork served in other T-Town joints. It is served mostly lean and mostly from the interior of the pig. The exterior bits, with the pronounced smoke ring and crusty outer bark, rarely show up on your plate (the employees must hog all of those pieces to themselves). And while that is disappointing to me, the interior shoulder is plenty good enough. The smoke doesn’t overpower the essential porkiness of the meat, instead working as a secondary player whose job is to draw out inherent sweetness.

The sauce here is crazy-good: vinegary; very thin; hot spices that accentuate the smokiness of the meat. The pork comes in a bath of this sauce, and it quickly penetrates the slices of white bread that come with each order of pork. Archibald & Woodrow’s ribs are good as well; better than Dreamland’s, I’d say. Unlike with their pork, Archibald & Woodrow’s ribs have an abundance of smoke flavor and deeply smoky outer bark. They require some pull to get them off the bone, but they are not underdone. There is a misconception that good ribs should “fall off the bone.” I am sure that you’ve heard that phrase before. For me, ribs are overcooked when they simply fall off the bone. The texture of those kinds of ribs is gummy and inappropriate. Archibald & Woodrow’s ribs are tender without being slippery.

As far as pure barbecue goes, pork and ribs are all that Archibald & Woodrow’s has to offer. This all-pork approach is very traditional for the area. But Archibald & Woodrow’s has other menu options besides barbecue. You can get some of the most delicious chicken wings I’ve ever had. The wings spend a short amount of time in the smoker, and explode with flavor that is all chili heat tempered by fruit sweetness. If you enjoy chicken wings then you must order some from Archibald & Woodrow’s. If you don’t like pigging out (bad pun count: 2) on BBQ, you can order some of the quite-nice fried catfish or whiting.

A lot of people will judge a barbecue joint by its side dishes, especially the barbecued beans. The beans here are not exceptional; in a town that has had Mike & Ed’s revelatory beans, Archibald’s doesn’t measure up. The fries seem to be the typical sort of Sysco frozen crinkle-cut tasteless sticks. I would suggest that you order the collard greens or the unique macaroni & cheese that features the zing of orange zest as a secret ingredient. I have to mention how good the sweet tea is, too. It is among the sweetest in town, but I’ll be darned if I don’t drink multiple glasses full each time.

I’m from Kansas City — the barbecue capital of the universe — so I am VERY picky when it comes to barbecue. And the pulled pork here is good enough that Archibald & Woodrow’s would crack the list of “visit occasionally” spots in KC. I don’t bring that up to sound like a barbecue snob, I bring it up because it is some of the highest praise that I have to give. I hope to eat here once a week or so for as long as I live in Tuscaloosa. I will never tire of the pork here or the sweet tea or the awkward décor or the napkin dispensers that are always empty or the counterman that jokes with me about sports all of the time. Chances are that you won’t tire of these things either. I will one-day eat at every one of Tuscaloosa’s many, many BBQ joints, but at this point in time, Archibald & Woodrow’s is the clear front-runner for best BBQ in town.

[barry]

Archibald & Woodrow’s Bar-B-Que is located at 4215 Greensboro Avenue, at the corner of 43rdSt. (205) 331-4858

Monday-Thursday: 10am-9pm
Friday & Saturday: 10am-10pm
Sunday: 11am-6pm
“Dining room closes 30 minutes prior to closing time. To-go orders only.”

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