Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IEM Session #15.4

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(continued from 15.3)

Eating Day: Yes, STILL April 29, 2010

NOTE: All locations in Oakland unless specified otherwise.

MAGGIE RAY'S- 3206 Danville Blvd, Alamo- 1:45pm- $8.95

I was starting to get somewhat full- a little earlier than I had expected. My unemployment pants were straining to hold in my gut, but as of yet, I was not in any considerable pain. It was no time to slow down. We arrived at Looney's new location on MLK and even exited the car, but when we got to the door, I decided I wanted to give myself a brief respite and take the drive out to the Contra Costa suburbs. I was hoping that 30 minutes on the road might clear a little space in my beef-hole. NOTE: As of today, I still have yet to try Looney's. Let me know if you think it's worth a visit.

Alamo is the richest, whitest, suburb in very rich, very white, south-central Contra Costa county. My hopes for quality 'que in this town were slim. I imagined sauce pilfered from Chili's baby back ribs ladled over sliced beef inspired by an elementary school cafeteria. It is true that I have a penchant for food made by the oppressed masses of America. This is mostly because it's a good way to get a cheap meal. My reverse snobbery obscures the fact that it is occasionally possible for Whitey to make delicious "real" grub within spitting distance of a booming metropolis. Maggie Ray's is clean- too clean- for a bbq joint. It looks more like a bistro, complete with al fresco dining and a smooth jazz soundtrack on the back patio. I decided to forego this scene and get my food to-go from the counter in the front of the building and eat it on the sidewalk. The decor in the front room had a lot of contrived, distressed, old-time kitschy replicas- the kind of accoutrements you'd find at a Cracker Barrel or T.G.I. Friday's- including a faux-retro poster advising that meatless diets are dangerous. It was all geared to look funky, yet safe, for the locals. I anticipated this set-up a harbinger of imminent crumminess.

Maggie Ray's barbecue was expensive, but it cost no more than Uncle Willie's in "gritty" downtown Oakland, so the price shouldn't be seen as a reflection of Alamo's sickening affluence. And the meat came with a romaine lettuce salad and a corn cake (with real Niblets inside!) You would not find either of these high-end sides at an urban barbecue establishment. But authenticity be damned, since both of these items were delicious. The corn cake was moist with just the right amount of sweetness. And the salad had a tangy vinaigrette. I ordered the "sandwich" portion of brisket (rather than the "barbecue specialties" portion), but the sandwich came with neither sliced cheapo bread, nor the sandwich roll they usually provide here (they were out.) Hence, I received the corn cake. The meat is what really shocked me here, though. The brisket was cut in long slices and resembled the thick, hand-cut pastrami one finds at Katz's and other kosher-style delis in New York. And they did not skimp on the portion. There was no hot/mild sauce option, but what they served was a good mix of sweetness and slight heat. Ladled sparingly, the light saucing was the perfect complement to the stellar brisket. It provided just a touch of added moistness without interfering with the taste of the meat, which would have been excellent on its own. The meat was juicy, tender, and perfectly smoked, requiring zero gnawing.

I was flummoxed. Stuffed to near misery now and experiencing near-deafening borborygmos , I could not believe that I had received bbq beef of this caliber in such an enclave of assholery. I had contact with only one person at Maggie Ray's- a pretty, well-scrubbed blonde. For all I know, however, the place may be run by former sharecroppers who use generations-old recipes to create these carnivorous delights. This is all immaterial. I don't care if Maggie Ray's is run by a Mormon CPA from Idaho. Whoever is cooking that meat knows what s/he is doing. There IS a time for keeping it real, but when you want good barbecue, your mouth is the only arbiter of quality- even when the experience seems less then genuine.

I don't see myself making too many trips all the way out to Alamo just for brisket, even delicious brisket. It's a bit of a drive from Oakland and the stuff does cost a little more than I want to pay. But if I'm ever hungry in this part of Contra Costa and I have some money burning a hole in my pocket, I can think of few places in the region where I'd rather eat.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

IEM Session #15.3

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(continued from 15.2)

Eating Day
: STILL April 29, 2010

ELVE'S- 3214 Martin Luther King Jr Way- 12:42am- $7.99

Two sandwiches down and I wasn't the least bit full. I was looking forward to going to the new Double D's. Located at the very beginning of International Blvd., Double D used to be housed in what can be best described as an office for a hoarder who works from home in his own filthy chaos. There were stacks of junk and paper everywhere and lots of faded pictures on the wall. The owner would pass you your order through a slot in the metal door without any revelation as to where the food actually came from. The bbq in that place was consistently good; it was served in large portions and everything cost $5. Recently, Double D moved around the corner into the long-abandoned Casper's location on 1st Ave. Double D, formerly a take-out window only, now boasts a counter, tables, and an expanded menu. Prior to the session, I had eaten at Double D once or twice after they had relocated. The meat, although gristly, was still quite good and still $5. When I came here during the session, however, I had a rude awakening. The owner had instituted some ridiculous changes. Gone are the $5 orders. He now sells all the meat by the pound. No plate meals. No sandwiches. All meat is now sold by the pound. "Like a deli," the guy said. It sure as hell isn't $5/lb, and unlike a deli, he wouldn't sell less than a pound of meat. This restriction may have been instituted temporarily because the owner didn't have a scale yet, but it's ludicrous notwithstanding. People want meat, man! Eyeball it or something until you get a goddamn scale. If this is how Double D is going to operate, I don't need them anymore. I can understand why the guy might have to raise his prices, due to the increased overhead, but I don't need to go through all of that rigmarole just to get a little meat and sauce with a couple of slices of crummy wheat bread.

With Double D's off the table, I went and picked up Mitch to accompany Vinnie and me on some stops in Eastern Contra Costa County. He suggested that I first try Elve's. I was completely in the dark about Elve's. I had driven by hundreds of times and had no idea it was a bbq place. I guessed that it was a soul food joint specializing in overpriced fried chicken, like Nellie's in a smaller space and a crummier neighborhood. Elve's does have fried chicken and fish and some other soul food classics- all priced much more reasonably than Nellie's or that fancy-pants "California" soul food place on Mandela, which I want nothing to do with. Although they have a rather expansive menu (burgers and corn dogs, too!), Elve's specialty seems to bbq. How could this place have existed for so long without me knowing about it? I felt ashamed.

The proprietor at Elve's is a happy sort who moved much faster than your average Oakland bbq proprietor. This, paired with a couple of old video game machines, made me even more disappointed in myself for being ignorant of Elve's for so long. It's a small space and primarily a take-out establishment, but there are a few tables to eat-in, too. For 50 cents more than the cost of the lunch special at Chef Edwards, I got a big pile of saucy beef, beans, AND potato salad. And instead of the usual crap-slices of Dollar Tree 2/$1.00 wheat bread, Elve's serves their meat with buttered, griddled bread that approaches Texas toast territory. The meat was deeply beefy; seasoned, but not so much that it detracted from its corpse-like delectability. And there were little to no excess fat formations or connective tissues to be found. The sauce was thinner than the first two entries. While it wasn't as sweet or spicy as Edwards', the sauce complemented the beef perfectly and it tasted great on the bread and potato salad.

It takes a brilliant person to get the right balance between meat and sauce. One must not upstage the other. The two components must exist in a perfect symbiotic relationship. Where one has a weakness, the other must excel. The perfect sauce:meat duo works together as well as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Burns and Allen, and Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Elve's knows the secret. On their own, neither the meat nor the sauce here would be remarkable, but together, they harmonize to form something magical. I anticipate many future visits to Elve's to atone for my former ignorance of its existence.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

IEM Session #15.2

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(continued from 15.1)

UNCLE WILLIE'S- 614 14th St.- 11:37am- $8.95

Willie's opened while I was working downtown, but their lunch prices were much higher than Chef Edwards, so I never bothered checking them out. The old decor was something to behold. One of the walls had murals that featured crudely-painted likenesses of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ronald Reagan. Those masterworks were rendered either by a mental patient, or by somebody born without arms. Willie's has long since been renovated, possibly after undergoing a management change, as the word "Texas" used to appear in the name of the restaurant. These days, the interior is appointed with a big-screen TV (tuned to ESPN) and a painting that blatantly rips off Ernie Barnes' "Sugar Shack," a piece best known from the credits of Good Times.

Here's Barnes' original:

Here's the knockoff (not by Barnes):

We were here mere minutes before the lunch hour, so I was shocked to find Willie's deserted, save for one woman eating solo. The prices are no longer out of step with Chef Edwards, so Willie's should have been more crowded than this. The lack of clientele didn't seem promising, but the meat was actually decent. The brisket was shredded in long pieces, rather than the small chunks I received at Chef Edwards, and there were a lot of crispy ends. The portion was slightly smaller than Chef's, but the meat was somewhat leaner than Chef's, so it definitely a mixed blessing. The sauce was a touch non-descript. Neither as hot nor as sweet as the Chef's sauce, Willie's sauce was simply less flavorful in general- totally acceptable, but not noteworthy. If the meat was richer and more deeply-seasoned, the subtle sauce would have worked, but Willie's meat was also on the understated end of the spectrum. A bolder sauce would have provided a better compliment. I ordered a side of collard greens. They were the star of the show here- heavy with bacon/pork flavor and absent the grittiness or bitterness often present in this dish. I have one other qualm about this meal. The ubiquitous 2-slices-of-whole-wheat-bread-in-a-baggie included the heel from the loaf! Yes, the heel! From some crummy off-brand loaf you'd buy at a liquor store or find in the cafeteria of a nursing home. I realize the heel tastes exactly the same as all the other crappy slices in a cheapo loaf, but nobody wants the heel of shit quality bread. It is just bad form. Throw the heel away, for chrissake. You will not miss it. If you truly think that serving heels is what will keep your business afloat, you've got a faulty business plan, chum.

I have no problem with this place, per se, but I see no real reason to eat here or at any unmemorable BBQ joint, for that matter. Bay Area BBQ is just too expensive to settle for mediocrity- unless the joint has an "outsider artist's" rendering of Ronald Reagan on the wall next to MLK's calming visage. I can excuse a lot of missteps in the midst of that kind of genius.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

IEM Session #15.1- On 'Que and Off Cue

I am through making grandiose excuses for publishing so infrequently. The long and the short of it is, I am just a slothful, lazy, individual with little motivation to write. I do not have a burning need to write about myself. When I finally finish writing up the account of an Inhuman Eating Machine (IEM) session, I feel relieved to be done writing, but I don't NEED to do it to achieve emotional catharsis. In that aspect alone, I am unlike a 13 year-old girl. I do, however, feel that I have a calling to share with my fellow man my experiences dining on a shoestring; and to describe my travails of overeating. I wish there was an easy way for me to telepathically transfer to my readers the accounts of my journey. I suppose there is some way I could get a camera and videotape the sessions, but let's face facts. I am a mushmouth. A fomfer. I speak like Bob Newhart with a mouthful of marbles. And I am a jittery type with less than photogenic qualities. Alas, IEM will remain a written-only exploit for the foreseeable future until I am able to find "people" who can make me look presentable to the camera.

It has been almost nine months since I last posted an IEM session. If I am going to continue this endeavor, I NEED to post on a regular basis. You, dear readers, deserve it! But what can I do to get my ass in gear and write? I figured out that part of what keeps me from writing is the fact that these sessions are LOOOONG. When I look at the scribbled notes of a session, I procrastinate when I mull over the prospect of turning these notes into long-form descriptions. I know it will take days to churn out the finished product. This apprehension keeps me from ever getting started. It just seems like too much. It reminds me of when my parents would force me to clean my room before they would allow me to watch TV. (I assure you, this happened very seldom.) The pile was so massive, I would sometimes stare at the heap for what seemed like hours before lifting a finger.

Lucky for both of us, I recently came up with a brilliant idea (with the help of my wife) that will slightly alter the format of an IEM session, but should enable me to release sessions on a very regular basis. Here's the plan. As you know, each IEM session is comprised of at least eight stops within a single day. In the revised IEM format, I will still eat all eight meals within the same day, but I will now simply PUBLISH ONE STOP PER WEEK, until the entire escapade has been posted. It will now take eight or more weeks for a single session to be fully posted. In this serialized format, you will have a little bit of IEM each week to satiate you until the thrilling climax, which will inevitably end with me in gassy agony. By reducing my writing load to one stop per week, the chore should seem much less daunting. Even an inveterate layabout such as myself can piece together a mere one thousand words on a weekly basis, rather than having to come up with the word diarrhea needed for the full session. If I cannot produce a weekly blog under these constraints, it is clear that I have no business in the blogosphere. In fact, I have no business associating with other homo sapiens. I make no promises. I have failed you before. This new path seems walkable, though. I think I can do this. I hope I do not let you or myself down. Starting with this installment, keep an eye out for IEM postings every Tuesday, unless I inform you otherwise. With your encouragement and/or hassling, I see no reason that we cannot eat together every week.

As one may suspect after reading IEM #6, In Memphis, you cannot throw a rock without hitting a barbecue joint, most of which are better than anything the Bay Area has to offer. While the Bay Area does have its fair share of BBQ joints, they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the South, they are often overpriced, and very few carry pulled/chopped pork. By neglecting to serve this dish, Southern BBQ purists might go as far as saying that these establishments do not sell BBQ at all. Down there, many say that "barbecue" is seasoned smoked pork shoulder with or without sauce. All the other stuff sold at BBQ joints may be delicious, but it is NOT BBQ. Well, this is not the South. Here, as in much of the non-South, we call burgers and hot dogs on an outdoor grill, "having a barbecue." And we will put BBQ sauce on any meat and admit it into the BBQ family. The word has a completely different meaning here and is much less restrictive.

But what's the deal with the lack of pork BBQ here? Why is beef king in California? I did a little poking around a few years ago and found three main reasons:

  1. The Central Valley of California is a huge beef producer (evident to anyone who has ever driven to LA on the I-5.)
  2. California is not a major pork producer.
  3. The majority of African American families (the people who run most BBQ places) in the Bay Area originally came from Texas. Texas, unlike the rest of the Southern states, primarily uses beef brisket in their BBQ.

Rather than lament the lack of pork BBQ here, I decided to investigate the BBQ beef options in the East Bay. I chose the beef (usually brisket) "sandwich" portion, when offered, which usually consists of sliced smoked beef with sauce, some kind of bread, and a small side order. If there was no "sandwich" available, I chose the small brisket plate. (I would be required to eat the meat and bread only.) I still wish there were more quality traditional pork BBQ sandwiches available around here. Along with cemitas, Italian subs, pork tenderloins, and kosher-style pastrami, BBQ pork forms "The Big 5" sandwiches of my fantasies. These are sandwiches you cannot get in their correct form in the Bay Area, no matter what the proprietors and local idiots purport. I would not let the lack of pork BBQ deter me from enjoying the East Bay beef, though. BBQ in its truest sense may be virtually unavailable here, but you can get saucy beef without too much effort. And that is nothing to cry about- in theory.

Eating Day: April 29, 2010

CHEF EDWARDS- 1998 San Pablo Ave.- 10:52am- $7.49

I rose at 9am. There was no reason to get up any earlier than that because nobody serves BBQ any earlier than 10am- and it would be against my principles as an unemployed person. After producing a fecal disappointment that resembled the handle on an alligator briefcase, I left for Tomm's, the only BBQ place in the East Bay that opens pre-10:30. I arrived there shortly after ten, but the counter girl informed me they did not have any beef ready. "Come back later. We should have some this afternoon." Things were not looking up.

When I worked in downtown Oakland, Chef Edwards' old location was my favorite place in the vicinity to eat lunch. In those days, Chef's was a mere lunch counter with about eight stools and a couple of tiny tables on the side. Chef did most of the work, but he had a few elderly and/or confused staffers there to take (and then forget) your order and slooooowly place wheat bread slices into styrofoam containers. Occasionally, one of these characters would even be allowed to hack at the smoked meats, which usually resulted in a hail of fat shrapnel. The old place was only a block from the Greyhound station on the opposite side of the street. The clientele were generally office/city workers, though, rather than aggressive derelicts from the neighborhood asking for handouts- at least during daylight hours. There was often a line during the lunch rush, so it could take well over an hour to eat there. It was best to visit the original Chef Edwards on days when your boss was out of the office, so you could eat at a leisurely pace. Most bbq places in the East Bay have brisket, chicken, links, and ribs only, but Chef's is one of the few places here that specializes in BBQ pork sandwiches. At the original location, you could get a heaping pile of pork or brisket, 2 slices of bread, potato salad, and a canned soda for $5 during lunch hours. Or you could get a smaller portion of pork topped with coleslaw on a hamburger bun for about $3.50. That sandwich, known as the "Piggly Wiggly," was as close to Memphis BBQ as you could find in the East Bay. Chef's pork was always tender; sliced, rather than pulled or chopped. The sauce was divine; sweet, but not overly so and well-seasoned. And the "hot" version of the Chef's sauce was actually hot every time, unlike certain places where the sauce varies by thousands of Scoville units on each visit.

About 5 years ago, Chef closed the doors of the original store to make room for the "urban renewal" going on in that area. The entire block is now comprised of condos and office buildings. Before he closed, Chef Edwards announced that he would soon reopen in a new location on San Pablo Ave., two blocks towards City Hall from the old place. The new place didn't appear for at least a year after the demise of the original locale. When it finally opened, it was met with mixed feelings (at least by me.) I was certainly glad to have the Chef back, but I wasn't crazy about the new decor. It has a "fifties diner" theme that is even more forced than Johnny Rockets. This move was obviously taken to make the place seem more upscale. Gone were the mental defectives working behind the counter. They would not fit in at the new and improved establishment. There was still a lunch counter, but there were now several more tables at which to eat and table service was now provided. These cosmetic changes were fine, I decided, as long as Chef's quality 'que remained. The lunch specials and Piggly Wiggly are still on the menu, albeit at a significantly higher price than before the closure. Despite the price increase, everything seemed okay with the Chef in his new digs.

Once the store re-opened, I ate there about 3 times in a one-month period. The first time, they were out of pork. The second time, the pork was cold (some of the inner pieces were actually a little frozen.) The third time, the pork was back to the greatness of old, but there was much less of it than before. Not a good omen. I went back a couple months after that, and they were now serving pulled/chopped pork instead of the sliced. This change would have been fine with me, but the meat was fatty. After that point, I didn't go there too frequently. When I did, however, I was usually satisfied. Chef seemed to have found his way back to where he used to be, but there were occasional slip-ups that would never have happened in the old dilapidated shack of yore. I never knew what to expect when I visited. There just was no quality control anymore. While the sauce was still a constant, the pork was always prepared a little differently than the previous visit and the portions varied considerably. At a Mel's Diner wannabe, you expect a little bit more than these kinds of shenanigans. I never gave up on Chef's, mostly because I did not know of a suitable substitute, but I was clearly disappointed with the results of his "upgrade."

It had been almost a year since I had last eaten at Chef's when I embarked on the IEM BBQ beef session. While I almost always order the pork here, I will occasionally get the brisket and have been generally pleased. I had high hopes that Chef Edwards might reign supreme once more- in the beef category- when I arrived at Chef's before 11am, accompanied by Vinnie from Pittsburgh. The new Chef Edwards also serves breakfast, so I expected the restaurant to still be crowded with patrons eating eggs and pancakes, but the place was practically empty. Just to be sure, I asked if I could get barbecue this early. I was in luck. The lunch special, which is now $7.49, still includes meat, bread, and a soda. There have been some changes to the special's parameters, though. You now get your choice of a side, rather than a default cup of potato salad. The sandwich is now on a buttered sesame hoagie roll, which is topped with slaw. The slaw is fluorescent yellow and seemingly mayonnaise-less like the slaw at Payne's in Memphis. And the soda is a bottomless fountain soda, rather than the 12oz cans they used to provide. These were all changes I could live with. While the terms of this session would not require me to eat the sides, I decided I would eat at least some of the side dish I received whenever stomach space allowed. I opted for beans, thinking the fiber might advance the bread and meat to a propulsive exit. I received a rather large cup of them and ate at least 2/3 of the portion. They were quite spicy with a goodly amount of ground meat and onion mixed in. They seemed like something you might eat on a camping trip. The hoagie bun was an acceptable change, I guess, but I suspect the extra breadiness was a ploy to serve less meat- while still giving the illusion of offering a "big sandwich." I'd rather just have a big pile of meat along with plain old sliced bread or a standard hamburger bun. At least the slightly toasted roll tasted fresh. The hot bbq sauce was sweeter than I remembered, but still pretty spicy. The brisket was cut into large chunks, rather than the shreds I remembered. The meat was fattier than optimum, but flavorful and not overly-smoked, and with a substantial bark to it.

Overall, Chef Edwards' brisket sandwich was good. I don't have any significant complaints about it. There was nothing mind-blowing about this sandwich, though. It wasn't transformational. Every meal at the old place was memorable. I would dream about those sandwiches- pork or beef. But this sandwich was merely mortal. I have no issue eating here on an occasional basis, but the Chef has a way to go if he wants to become my default barbecue stop again. The holy grail of East Bay barbecue was no longer a certainty for me.