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.


FeeDee said...

I might be only one of your twelve fans on the interwebs, but I've followed your exploits from afar with a mixture of awe, envy, trepidation and schadenfreude. As an Australian gastronome I applaud your ambition to navigate your way through the multitude of culinary options available to you in the hub that is San Francisco. I do hope you keep it up, and will endeavour to contribute when I am able. Best, Fi.

Daddy J said...

I guess this makes me fan #2.
Anyway, glad you're back. I think the week-a-post idea is good for everyone. Easier to produce. Easier to digest.

Jez said...

I'm always around for the show.

tom jones said...

good to have you back, of course i had recently taken you out of my bookmarks

Brewtal D said...

SO HAPPY that you are back. You are one of my heroes...