The pulled pork at The Brick Pit. (Andy Staples)
MOBILE, Ala. – The folks who cover the NFL have grown so accustomed to big-city food that some – even the ones who came up in the profession covering the Lord’s sport – have forgotten many of the basic rules of road dining. Somewhere near the top of the list is this one:
The quality of chain barbecue is almost always inversely proportional to the distance from the original location. This isn’t Heaven Is A Buffet’s third commandment, but it may get added if I get inspired the next time I climb Florida’s Mount Dora.
When I arrived in Mobile last month to watch NFL scouts and writers ogle dudes in their underwear prior to the Senior Bowl, I was disappointed to learn that a large group had opted to get its barbecue fix at Dreamland. For the uninitiated, Dreamland is a mini-chain of barbecue restaurants based mostly in Alabama. It began as a small shack on Jug Factory Road in Tuscaloosa that sold only ribs and white bread. Though I believe properly cooked ribs require no sauce, Dreamland’s sauce tastes so good that a D battery dunked in it would be at least edible and probably quite tasty. That shack is legendary. Its offshoots are most certainly not legendary. That sauce has covered a lot of mediocre barbecue in the past few years. (The original isn’t even that great anymore, having long been surpassed by Archibald’s in nearby Northport.)
I asked members of the Dreamland group to tell me who decided to opt for average barbecue when better local options existed. None would take credit for the idea. I’ve seen this phenomenon before. Eating at a Dreamland satellite location is like owning a Nickelback album. Plenty of people do it, but no one dares admit it publicly.
So I grabbed ESPN The Magazine writer Seth Wickersham -- who needed fine dining to celebrate the publication of this excellent story about tortured genius Bill Walsh and the book he wrote that inspires and maddens coaches across the country -- and we set off in search of Dreamland-slaying barbecue. Our path took us to The Brick Pit, a sagging house nestled in a cluster of trees less than a mile away from The Shed, another satellite of a more famous barbecue franchise. Right away, I knew the proprietors of The Brick Pit had the correct idea. On my way inside, I passed a sign near the door that fired a direct shot at the interlopers from Tuscaloosa.
THIS AIN’T NO DREAM. THIS IS THE REAL THING!!
More barbecue joints should talk smack at their competitors. It might spice up an otherwise collegial enterprise. Unlike most sportswriters, I’m not opposed to trash talk. It adds flavor. As long as no one talks about anyone’s mama, smack away.
Another sign promised the “Best Smoked Barbecue in the Great State of Alabama.” Clearly, we had entered the Deion Sanders of barbecue joints. And like Prime Time, The Brick Pit mostly backed up its boasts.
I haven’t had a pulled pork plate at every spot in Alabama, but I believe The Brick Pit may be telling the truth about its superiority in that particular discipline. The pork chunks were thick and juicy and pulled so that most had at least a sliver of bark. It didn’t need sauce, but the house’s hot sauce – which, unlike most “hot” barbecue sauces, actually contained some capsaicin – only deepened the flavor. That pulled pork would taste great in a sandwich or alone on a plate. Hell, I’d fill a swimming pool with it and dive in if it were socially acceptable.
The ribs didn't live up to their billing, and I’m not quite sure why. The pork was obviously rubbed to perfection, so it made no sense that the ribs – while cooked perfectly – lacked flavor. Everything about them was ideal except the rub. I couldn’t figure out if someone had skipped a step in the preparation process that day or if this was a conscious choice to satisfy diners who planned to dunk their ribs in the hot sauce anyway.
So while the ribs weren’t the best in the Great State of Alabama – Archibald’s remains the champ – the pulled pork might have a claim. Hopefully, The Brick Pit will keep talking smack to its competitors. Because the harder the pitmasters try to back up their words, the better everything will taste.
BBQ smack. (Andy Staples)
Brick Pit ribs. (Andy Staples)