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Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

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Melvin’s Legendary B-B-Q in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

In a 2007 pageant, Miss South Carolina Teen became a YouTube sensation after butchering the answer to a question about U.S. geography. Within three days, the video clip had attracted nearly 3.5 million views.  The befuddling question she was asked was “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the United States on a world map.  Why do you think this is?”  Her now famous response:  “I personally believe the U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh…people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and…I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., err, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our…”

When I told family and friends about my plans to vacation in Charleston, South Carolina, some of their responses may have validated Miss South Carolina’s contention that U.S. Americans don’t have maps…”Where’s South Carolina?”   “Why would you visit South Carolina?”   Other friends who know me very well and understand my single focused “live to eat” approach to life reasoned that Charleston must have some fabulous restaurants.  That’s an understatement!  From 2008 through 2010, Charleston chefs earned three consecutive James Beard awards, a feat heretofore accomplished only by chefs at the Big Apple.   They earned the “Academy Award of food” equivalent by using high quality local ingredients as Charleston’s chefs have done long before “farm-to-table” became the de rigueur buzzword and modus operandi of restaurateurs everywhere.

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The main dining room at Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q

Charleston is not only the epicenter of a robust farm-to-fork Lowcountry cuisine movement, it is a preeminent practitioner of the pursuit of porcine perfection.  Rather than hold fast to sacrosanct traditions, Charleston is open-minded and tolerant of new-school variations (okay, so maybe it’s not that revolutionary to see pork chopped into chunks instead of delicate strands).   Despite that “progressive” attitude, one tradition not tampered with in Charleston is that pork reigns supreme throughout the Carolinas.  Locals will argue that “barbecue pork” is redundant because barbecue is pork!  Sure, barbecue restaurants may include chicken, smoked turkey and even brisket on their menus, but pork is king in all its forms: pulled, chopped, sliced, shredded, ham, whole hog, half-rack and full-rack.

One of the Charleston area’s most venerated barbecue restaurants is Melvin’s Legendary B-B-Q whose legacy and traditions have been rooted in Charleston’s barbecue scene since 1939.  In some respects, you may feel you’ve warped back in time when you step through the doors.  Melvin’s is not exactly what you’d term as nouveau, not that it matters once you bite into those pork ribs.  A line-up of bottled soft drinks holds court on the counter where you place your order.  Radar O’Reilly would be happy to see Nehi sodas are available.  So is the best cherry milkshake you’ll find anywhere.  If you’re so inclined, you can also find out from posted flyers on the wall when the next patriotic meeting will be held.

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How long has it been since you’ve seen some of these sodas?

Melvin’s menu is a pantheon of pork, but it also offers chicken, brisket, turkey and a phalanx of burgers the envy of burger purveyors everywhere.  In 1999, none other than Emeril Lagasse called Melvin’s cheeseburger “America’s best.”  Similar sentiments were also expressed by Jimmy Buffett, himself a renowned connoisseur of burgers.  It may take a clothespin clamped around your nose to order a burger because the pervasive bouquet of hickory smoked meats will envelop you the second you walk in.  Those beguiling aromas are a siren’s call for barbecue aficionados.  For me, the Carolina style dry ribs beckoned most enticingly.  Dry means the ribs are slathered with a rub of sundry spices.  It’s really the choice which makes most sense because on every table, you’ll find two sauces.   That means you can have ribs three ways–with a dry rub and with each of the two sauces.

Since it’s been established that pork reigns supreme in the Carolinas, the most contentious debate in the Carolinas is to sauce or not to sauce.  The answer, of course, is sometimes you feel like sauce and sometimes you don’t.  At Melvin’s, you can have it your way every visit (forgive me for the three cheesy cliches in a row).  The Carolina style ribs are terrific every way you have them.  The mustard barbecue sauce (called “Our Golden Secret”) is considered the gold standard among South Carolina’s mustard-based sauces.  It’s an amazing sauce with tart, savory and just slightly piquant (cayenne?) notes.  The “Southern Red” sauce, based on apple cider vinegar, also has tart, savory and piquant notes, but differs greatly from the Golden Secret.  Both are exceptional as is the dry rub.

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Half rack of ribs with two sides: macaroni and cheese and onion rings with cornbread. Two sauces seen in background

There are seven ribs on a half rack, each one very meaty and larger than most pork ribs.  They’re not the “fall off the bone” variety, but they’re also not beef jerky-like in texture.  A rib plate comes with cornbread and your choice of two sides.  One of the most popular sides are the golden onion rings, available in quantities of one or two.  Though those quantities may seem small, each onion ring is roughly the size of a donut with a thick coated batter some may find off-putting.  The macaroni and cheese is a bit on the dry side, but it’s much better than the “Kraft dinner” to which American children are subjected.

As you wait for your number to be called, you’ll want to peruse the condiment bar not only to provision yourself with plastic cutlery and napkins, but to stock up on peppers, relishes and pickles.  They may not last until your order is ready for pick up.  Each table includes a roll of paper towels and you’re going to need several of them. 

The Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge

The Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge

Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q may not be the first restaurant a visitor to Charleston will visit if the purpose of the visit is to explore the city’s culinary heritage, but you can’t have a total picture of an exceptional culinary city without sampling Carolina style barbecue.  Besides that, the drive across the Arthur Ravenal, Jr. Bridge from Charleston to Mount Pleasant is spectacular.  So is the barbecue at Melvin’s.

Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q
925 Houston Northcutt Blvd.
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
(843) 881-0549
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Half Rack of Ribs, Onion Rings, Cornbread, Cherry Milkshake

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Back-Sass BBQ – Bernalillo, New Mexico

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Back-Sass BBQ in Bernalillo

Every few years, the eyes of the world fixate on a tiny chimney perched on the roof of the Sistine Chapel as millions await the telltale plumes of white smoke which signify that a new pope has been elected.  Since November, 2012, savvy Duke City area barbecue aficionados have been following plumes of smoke emanating from a mobile eighteen-foot grilling machine, a sign that great barbecue is imminent.  Fittingly “Follow the Smoke” is the motto of the Back-Sass BBQ team which has been hauling its mother ship of barbecue all over the city.

On January 29, 2014, Back-Sass BBQ put down roots in Bernalillo, launching its bodacious barbecue operation in a restaurant storefront.  Located on North Camino del Pueblo less than half a mile north of heavily trafficked Highway 550, Back-Sass is easy to find if you follow the smoke which wafts into your motorized conveyance like a sweet Texas smoke signal beckoning you to try some baby backs.  Back-Sass BBQ is situated in a fairly nondescript edifice which formerly housed La Bamba Grill among other businesses.  Its signage is bold, sassy and inviting.

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The interior of Back-Sass BBQ

Attempts to define any new barbecue restaurant’s “style” as either Kansas City, Texas, Memphis, or the Carolinas are inevitable, but Back-Sass BBQ’s style doesn’t subscribe to any of those hallowed templates.  Instead it might best be described as “Cleveland style.”  No, not the Cleveland in Ohio which set the Cuyahoga River on fire back in 1969.  I’m talking about the other Cleveland, the one in New Mexico bordered by Holman and Mora; the Cleveland on the “other side” of the Jicarita Peak from my hometown of Peñasco.

Back-Sass BBQ founder and owner Gina Valdez grew up in Cleveland, New Mexico, a village one travel site described as “where cars go to die.”  She’s been a barbecue enthusiast all her life and although she’s a sanctioned judge with the Kansas City Barbecue Society, doesn’t barbecue competitively, not even in Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew.  In fact, Gina didn’t get super serious about honing her craft until a broken leg laid her off, giving her the impetus to build the mobile unit.  The eighteen-foot barbecue behemoth can smoke more than one-hundred full-sized turkeys at one time.  In her new restaurant, however, she relies on barrel smokers that aren’t quite as prolific.  Though hours of operation are posted, once the barbecue runs out, the restaurant closes.

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Baby Back Ribs with Chile Beans and Potato Salad

You won’t want to miss out on this barbecue!  Shawne Riley, a long-time friend of this blog, made sure I didn’t, extolling the ribs and coleslaw so enthusiastically I had to visit Back-Sass BBQ the following day.  Shawne was also enamored of the sauce which she described as “pretty complex.”   Obviously more persuasive than I, she managed to coax Gina into telling her what’s in the sauce: molasses, apple pie spices, pineapple and a “bunch of other things.” 

Back-Sass BBQ is essentially a one-room operation with booth seating on one side of the room.  The dining room is sparsely appointed.  Fittingly therefore, the menu lists fewer than twenty items: four sandwiches, four plates (with your choice of two sides), three meats by the pound, baby back ribs, turkey legs, three sides (chile beans, coleslaw, potato salad) and for dessert, peach cobbler and gingerbread men.  

Two meat plate: hot links and pulled pork with two sides: potato salad and coleslaw

Two meat plate: hot links and pulled pork with two sides: potato salad and coleslaw

26 March 2014: Some purists will tell you  that one of the marks of great barbecue is whether or not sauce is needed.  Other barbecue enthusiasts don’t want their barbecue naked, preferring it slathered with a sauce.  Back-Sass BBQ is quite good with or without sauce.  The baby backs pull away from the bone easily and have an addictive bark, the deeply dark, flavor rich, sweet, caramelized rind suffused with magnificently complex flavor.  Barbecue without bark has no bite.  The sauce, by the way, is indeed pretty complex.  The flavor components Shawne described are easily discernible, but the source of a pleasant piquancy can only come from chipotle, a fact Gina confirmed.

One of the other hallmarks of Back-Sass BBQ is an aromatic smokiness courtesy of apple woods which dispense a very mild flavor and imbue foods with a slight sweetness.  Because a little smoke goes a long way with meats, most aficionados prefer light-smoking hard woods such as apple which tend to be complementary of all meats.  The fragrances at Back-Sass BBQ’s dining room would make a wonderful aftershave or aphrodisiac.

My friend Bruce "Sr Plata" takes a bite from a turkey leg as big as his arm

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” takes a bite from a turkey leg as big as his arm

27 March 2014: Your best bet if you want to sample more than one meat is the two meat plate with your choice of two sides. Make one of those meats the hot links, emphasis on the word “hot.” That’s hot as in hotter than eighty percent of the chile served at New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City area. Not only are these luscious links hot, they’re moist and delicious. You’re well advised to eat these last because you might not be able to taste the other meat on the plate…and if the other meat is pulled pork, you’ll want to be able to discern every nuance. The pulled pork has a pinkish hue with a darker “ring” denoting the smoking process. It’s sweet, moist and absolutely delicious–with or without sauce.

Smoked Turkey and Broccoli Soup

Smoked Turkey and Broccoli Soup

27 March 2014: The turkey legs at Back-Sass BBQ look like throw-backs to the age of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. They’re bulbous, chewy, delicious drumsticks the size of Popeye’s forearm or a pterodactyl wing. Bad cartoon metaphors aside, you’ll channel your inner troglodyte as you gnaw on perhaps the best turkey legs in the Duke City area (with apologies to The Cube). There’s almost something primal about holding these legs by their built-in handle and piercing through the glistening bark to expose pinkish smoked turkey meat. Who cares that turkey is all dark meat. The smoked flavor and surprising moistness will convert even the most cynical. 

 

Potato and Leek Soup with Spinach

Potato and Leek Soup with Spinach

3 April 2014: During an April, 2014 visit to Back-Sass BBQ, Gina told my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and I that before she was a barbecue lady, she was a soup lady and that she planned on introducing soup to the menu once she perfected her recipe. She then treated us to a magnificent example of her soup handiwork, a steaming hot bowl of smoked turkey and broccoli soup. This soup is perfect as is and should be on the daily menu starting now! It’s a rich and creamy soup with a strong pepper influence coalescing with the smokiness of turkey and the al dente crispness of broccoli, celery and other vegetables. Both Sr. Plata and I took home 32-ounces of this enchanting elixir to share with our respective wives, but we secretly hoped they don’t like it as much as we do so we could have all of it. Unfortunately for us, they loved it. 

9 April 2014:  The soup of the day during a subsequent visit was a potato and leek soup with spinach.  It’s a hearty, creamy and very tasty soup served hot.  The flavors of leek and potato harmonize very well and the spinach lends nutrients, texture and its very own unique flavor profile.  This is the type of soup you’ll love best during cold winter days, but it’s wonderful any time.

A quarter-pound of brisket

A quarter-pound of brisket

3 April 2014: If your experiences with brisket are akin to what masticating shoe leather must be like, it’s because you haven’t had great brisket. Trust Gina to smoke your brisket. It’s tender, offering just the right amount of chew and it’s and smoky with a pink smoke outline. Best, it’s delicious with or without sauce and has the perfect qualities for dressing a sandwich. A quarter-pound will do you for lunch.

Brisket Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

Brisket Sandwich

09 April 2014: If you prefer your brisket on a sandwich, Back-Sass serves an overstuffed sandwich just brimming with moist, tender brisket nestled in a soft hoagie bun. My friend and fellow barbecue aficionado Mike Muller uses brisket as his benchmark for how good a barbecue restaurant is. He loved this one and was surprised at just how moist and tender the brisket is. The brisket pulls away easily and you won’t find any annoying sinew or fat.

Chicken Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

Chicken Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

09 April 2014: The very last item on the menu I had from Back-Sass was the chicken. True to form, it’s very clucking good. The chicken is available as a sandwich or you can opt for a half-chicken (thigh and leg). Any way you have it will become your instant favorite. As with all meats smoked by Gina, the chicken is moist, tender and redolent with apple wood smokiness. The half chicken has a wonderful crust which, at first glance, may appear to be on the burnt side, but that patina comes from the marinade she uses on her beer can chicken recipe.  That crust is poultry’s answer to pork skin and is absolutely delicious.

A half chicken

A half chicken

One other essential element in the barbecue experience is sides, the accompaniment needed because even barbecue addicts can’t live on meats alone. Back-Sass BBQ offers three terrific sides. The chile beans are true New Mexican chile beans with red chile and not Texas “chili” beans with whatever mystery spices they add. The coleslaw is light on the dressing and heavy on crispness and freshness. The potato salad, which includes finely cut pickles and celery, is similarly light on the mayo or salad cream. All are terrific.

Peach Cobbler and Gingerbread Men

Peach Cobbler and Gingerbread Men

27 March 2014: Back-Sass BBQ offers only two desserts, one of which is seemingly de rigueur in barbecue restaurants.  That would be peach cobbler, one of those desserts often described as both homespun and old-fashioned.  More often than that, it’s described as delicious.  Covered with a crumbly sweet crust and imbued with moistness, it’s a good cobbler, one which can be improved only by a scoop or four of ice cream.  The other dessert is gingerbread men (five for three dollars) which children of all ages will enjoy.

Meat up with some friends and follow the smoke to Back-Sass BBQ in Bernalillo for apple wood smoked deliciousness.

Back-Sass BBQ
N. 213 Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 404-8217
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 April 2014
1st VISIT: 26 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Chile Beans, Potato Salad, Coleslaw, Hot Links, Pulled Pork, Peach Cobbler, Gingerbread Men, Turkey Leg, Smoked Turkey-Broccoli Soup, Brisket, Brisket Sandwich, Half Chicken, Chicken Sandwich


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Rub-N-Wood BBQ – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

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Rub-N-Wood Bar-B-Q in Rio Rancho

“Beam me up Scotty. There is no good barbecue on this planet.”
~
James T. Kirk

Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the United Starship Enterprise never actually uttered those words, but had he visited Rio Rancho between June 22nd and August 2nd, 2013, he would have found NO barbecue–good or bad–in Rio Rancho. No barbecue in the City of Barbecue…er, Vision, is akin to no Subarus in Santa Fe. Rio Rancho, after all, is home to the annual Pork & Brew, the state barbecue championship sanctioned by the prestigious Kansas City Barbecue Society. Rio Rancho has also been the home–for nearly a quarter of a century—of the legendary Smokehouse.  

When the Smokehouse shuttered its doors on June 22nd, its loyal patrons were torn between wanting to fly the flag at half-mast or flying it upside down as a sign of distress. The Smokehouse’s affable proprietor Gary West urged calm, assuaging those of us whose blood is the color of barbecue sauce with news that we would be without barbecue for only a short while. He told us a competitive barbecue team called Rub-N-Wood would be filling the void soon. Having sampled Rub-N-Wood’s ‘cue, Gary was excited that Rio Rancho would be well served.

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Interior of Rub-N-Wood Barbecue

Rub-N-Wood (no double entendre intended) opened its doors on Friday, August 2nd. Though it’s not normally a good practice for critics to visit a new restaurant until it’s had a chance to iron out any start-up problems, the intoxicating aroma of barbecue wafting through the air was too irresistible. My willpower lasted a whole day and things went so well, I returned the following day.  It will take a while, however, before the number of visits to Rub-N-Wood will equal the one-hundred plus visits I made to the Smokehouse over the years.

Rub-N-Wood is the brainchild of Roger Bell who’s been smoking meats since building his first barbecue pit in high school. He’s a veteran of Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew event, consistently placing in the top 25 with an 11th place finish in chicken in the 2012. It’s not every competition barbecue team which will succeed with a storefront operation, but Roger and his family have the right attitude to make it big. They want their restaurant to be a place where friends congregate for good food, good friends and good fun.

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Smoked Chicken, Fried Corn and Bread

There are a number of cosmetic changes that differentiate Rub-N-Wood from the Smokehouse. One is a touch of modernity with a flat screen television over the counter where you place your order. The menu is replete with familiar favorites such as brisket (whole, sliced or chopped), ribs (baby back, St. Louis or spare), smoked sausage, smoked turkey (whole, legs and breast), pulled pork and some of the very best sides served at any barbecue establishment in the Duke City area.

3 August 2013: If the smoked chicken at Rub-N-Woods managed an eleventh place finish in the chicken category at the Rio Rancho Pork & Brew, the top ten must have really be something. This is an excellent smoked chicken! It’s half a bird of moist, meaty, magnificent deliciousness. Deep-penetrating smoke imbues even the interior flesh with that addictive smoked flavor. This chicken needs no amelioration, but the sauce does pair well. The sauce combines tangy and sweet elements and has a nice viscosity.

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The Bubba Platter: Three meats (pulled pork, brisket and chicken) and three sides (fried corn, okra, coleslaw)

15 August 2013: Rub-N-Wood lends credence to stereotypes of barbecue lovers being hearty eaters with the “Bubba Platter,” your choice of three meats and three sides. The Bubba Platter is the best way to sample most of what the menu has to offer. Finish a Bubba Platter for lunch, however, and you probably won’t have room for dinner. The Brisket is moist and tender, two characteristics not always ascribed to brisket, a notoriously tough dish that requires meticulous care and patience to prepare and is prone to dryness. The pulled pork is plentiful and makes for a great sandwich or by itself. 

15 August 2013: There’s only one thing better than a Bubba Platter. That’s two Bubba Platters and someone with whom to share all six meat choices. You might not want to share the smoked turkey which became my favorite of all the Smokehouse’s meaty offerings. You won’t find turkey of this caliber on most Thanksgiving tables. The Flintstonian sized pork ribs are meaty and messy, a combination barbecue aficionados don’t mind at all. The sausage has personality with a spicy flavor profile you’ll enjoy. Rub-N-Wood’s barbecue has a pronounced smokiness. It’s not wimpy smoke as too many barbecue joints offer, but an adult R-rated smoke.

Bubba Platter: Three meats (sausage, pork ribs, smoked turkey) and three sides (beans, fried corn, potato salad)

Bubba Platter: Three meats (sausage, pork ribs, smoked turkey) and three sides (beans, fried corn, potato salad)

It wouldn’t be a barbecue restaurant without sides and Rub-N-Wood has several stand-outs.  My early favorite is the beans with green chile which have notes of seductive smoke.  The green chile is a bit on the mild side, but it has a prominent roasted flavor.  Also notable is the fried corn, golden niblets of buttery corn that has been lightly fried. 

18 March 2014: On Saturday, February 8th, 2014, twenty-six of Rio Rancho’s best restaurants participated in the fourth annual Taste of Rio Rancho, a celebration of the city’s best restaurants.  Held in the Santa Ana Star Center, the Taste of Rio Rancho gave guests the opportunity to sample more than seventy-five mouth-watering dishes ranging from decadent desserts to piquant chiles, sumptuous sandwiches, prolific pizzas and much more.  The award-winning appetizer was a pork rib from Rub-N-Wood.  Appetizers were the first category judged during the event so it took great willpower on the part of the judges not to consume the entire rib (it was very tempting). A very assertive rub is applied copiously on these ribs, giving them an adult flavor not for the faint of heart.  The Flintstone-sized ribs are very meaty and tender.

Rack of Pork Ribs

Rack of Pork Ribs

21 December 2014: During the Christmas season, Rub-N-Wood added smoked tamales to its menu.  Strictly a seasonal item, the tamales are excellent, much more moist than you might imagine.  Generously engorged with seasoned pork marinated in red chile, the tamales are a godsend for New Mexicans who don’t consider it to be a true Christmas season without tamales.

Desserts include a traditional Southern favorite–cobbler. Rub-N-Wood features peach, cherry, apple or blackberry cobbler as good as it’s made in the Land of Enchantment. You know it’s good cobbler when you don’t need a scoop of ice cream on top. The blackberry cobbler is more fruit than pectin with a flaky, buttery crust you could enjoy on its own.

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Blackberry Cobbler

Rio Rancho’s skies are brighter and its citizens happier now that it’s been graced with a barbecue restaurant.  All is right with the world again in the City of Barbecue.

Rub-N-Wood BBQ
4000 Barbara Loop, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-1914
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 March 2014
1st VISIT: 3 August 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bubba Platter, Smoked Turkey, Sausage, Pork Ribs, Brisket Smoked Burger, Smoked Chicken, Fried Corn, Beans with Green Chile, Blackberry Cobbler, Coleslaw, Pork Ribs, Smoked Tamales


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