After my last visit to a barbecue place I figured I had nowhere to go but up and I was right. And even though I didn’t exactly climb to the top of the ladder on my next stop, it felt good to know I was moving in the proper direction. Still, I was disappointed to realize that I had not yet reached the place where the view is spectacular and I have to admit that the summit will not be reached in the near future. Look out North Carolina, someday I will return.
I stopped into a fish shop I had noticed a few weeks ago to see if I could find something fish-like to burn on the grill. Salmon is always good and I had not done any tuna since I moved up to Washington so I thought I’d check out this little shop located right next to a Scandinavian bakery. I had visited the bakery on another occasion but I need more pastries in my life like Seattle needs rain.
The fish shop turned out to be very interesting and I got to talking to the fellow behind the counter about food and grilling. Because they also carried some pork and chicken the subject of barbecue and smoked meat naturally came up. I told him I was learning how to use a smoker my wife got me about a year ago and he asked if I had tried the barbecue place across the street. I hadn’t even heard of the barbecue place across the street and he said they were pretty good. They had just opened a couple of weeks before this and even though the sauce they advertised as traditional Kansas City style wasn’t exactly the way he remembered it, all in all, it wasn’t bad grub.
A couple of days later I found myself in the neighborhood and decided I should treat myself to lunch and see what I would see or more to the point; taste what I would taste.
The sign above the entrance read “Gabriel’s Fire” and I wondered as I entered if the fare would be heavenly. The dining area was fairly small and two very young looking gentlemen stood behind the short counter. When I asked, they said that you ordered at the counter and then could sit anywhere you could find a seat. Three taps with no beer labels indicated that they had not yet received a liquor license from the state but had every intention of getting one. The menu consisted of a group of seven different kinds of sauce that you could chose from when you ordered your sandwich or entrée. Fruit juice and the usual sodas were the only offered drinks. The sandwiches included BBQ Beef, Beef Brisket, BBQ Pork, Grilled Chicken, Grilled Flank Steak or a Hot Link Dog. All of them came with your choice of baked beans, Mac n’ cheese, potato salad, coleslaw, cornbread, macaroni salad, green salad or rice. The entrees offered were Pork, Beef, Pork Shoulder, Grilled Chicken, Grilled Flank Steak or Grilled Tiger Prawns and they came with two sides. Everything could be ordered a la carte and they offered some sampler platters as well. In addition to these foods they had Chicken Gumbo and you could order a Hot Link. I assume that this is the hot link from the Hot Link Dog even though I have never had either.
I’m not shy so I stepped right up and started asking questions. What about this sauce you call Carolina sauce? Is that eastern or Lexington sauce? The guy who was doing the cooking looked at me in a funny way so I clarified my inquiry. Is it a tomato based sauce or vinegar?
“Oh it’s tomato, it’s tomato, not many people out here would be interested in a vinegar based sauce.”
I bit my tongue.
Not many people unless they had a brain in their head I thought. Ok maybe that’s not completely fair, you really don’t have to have a brain in your head to like eastern style North Carolina barbecue sauce, just good taste. Moving on…..
I ordered the ½ sampler platter with brisket, pork shoulder, ribs and chicken and I asked for the Carolina Sauce that they themselves described this way, “Think sweet n’ sour with a pepper kick”. I don’t think these folks have ever been to Carolina.
I’ve already bored you enough with the whole menu so I’ll go easy on you with the sauces. They had what they called a Jamaican, a Thai, a Teriyaki, a Chipotle, a hot one and of course the Kansas City and Carolina sauces. Let your imagination run wild.
The food showed up at the counter in a large basket and the portions were more than ample. The sauce was not what I had hoped for but all in all not really that bad. Pretty good but not Carolina sauce. The pork was a little bit dry but really pretty good and the brisket was very tasty. I like ribs and they were fairly juicy. The chicken however was nothing special at all. It had been grilled and was skinless, boneless and pretty much tasteless as well. I should be completely fair about the whole entrée and say that I had no trouble choking it down and would recommend this place to anybody as long as they had never had North Carolina barbecue or at least knew if they had that they were not going to get any here. These young guys were out there hustling and trying to make a living fixing food for people and that is a damn hard way to earn a buck, so I tip my hat to them. The real disappointment for me was in the sides and I don’t know why more people in the food business do not spend more time on side dishes and other basic needs when you are dining out. I got three sides with my sampler so I picked beans, coleslaw and cornbread.
None of these sides are hard to make. In fact, you can make very good cornbread, beans and coleslaw with about the same effort it takes to make mediocre or bad examples. The cornbread was a sweet northern style bread like I used to get when I was a kid and lived in Pennsylvania but it was a little on the dry side. The beans tasted as though they had been taken from a can and then heated without any additional seasoning at all. In fact I have had some baked beans that were taken from a can that were better than these. Just the addition of a couple of kinds of beans, a little garlic and onion and maybe some diced tomatoes can bring the most lifeless canned bean alive. It’s very simple and it really doesn’t involve any real cooking at all. Just a little bit of time. And that brings us to the slaw.
The primary ingredient in slaw of course, is cabbage. I have had broccoli slaw without any cabbage and I’m sure there are other slaws out there that don’t use cabbage but normally that is what we think of as the main ingredient in coleslaw. The good news is that this slaw had cabbage in it so I’ll give them that. But usually you add some onion or carrots to slaw. Some people I know add tomatoes. Some add nuts or apples. Some put marshmallows in them and I am here to applaud variety. This slaw was cabbage and lettuce. Chopped iceberg lettuce. I can’t say as I ever had that before but that’s all that was in the slaw with the cabbage and some sort of of light mayonnaise dressing. Not much to write home about but here I am trying to do just that.
If you remember my earlier post about another barbecue place I visited you have to know that this was quite a leap up the ladder of good taste for me. I never expect to get my precious North Carolina barbecue out here on the west coast but I continue to search for the elusive Holy Grail. But even though I was disappointed by some of what I ate at this new barbecue place, I liked it well enough that I returned today to dine there again and to see what progress they had made in this honest endeavor to feed people and make a living.
I have to admit that the primary motivation in my return to Gabriel’s Fire was to sample the chicken gumbo. I love gumbo and would have ordered it the first time but even I can only eat so much at one time.
I had stopped at the place twice since my first visit and seemed to never be able to catch them open. I was going to write this piece based on my disappointment in the sides and my disappointment in never finding them open but they may have been closed according to schedule. I just realized today that they are closed Monday through Wednesday and I’m not all that sure but that it may have been one of those days every time I tried to eat there, so I will cut them some slack in this regard. One thing I insist on when a person is running a business open to the public is that they keep regular hours. State your hours of operation and stick to them. Unless it’s some sort of emergency you must keep regular hours or you will never be successful. End of topic.
Today they were open and I found a parking place right out front. There was good news inside as well, even though they were still not serving beer, they had several customers sitting at tables waiting on their food. I was pleased they were selling food but I avoided the sides I had ordered previously. I got the gumbo and a BBQ pork sandwich. I was supposed to get a side of rice and when the food came it was plopped into the middle of my huge bowl of gumbo. OK. Not really a problem. I could not help but wonder how they would have served it to me if I just ordered the sandwich but it’s not really a big deal.
I had never had gumbo this dark in color before but the menu stated that it was made from a pecan roux and that is something I am not familiar with so it could very well have been the exact color it should be. I did think it went a little light on chicken and heavy on what appeared to be beef. There was also some fairly good sausage in it but not nearly enough of the Cajun Holy Trinity. If you don’t know what that is then you really don’t know a lot about gumbo. The Holy Trinity is celery, onion, green pepper and it’s used in almost everything they cook in New Orleans. The flavor was pretty good though and the BBQ pork had that Kansas City sauce that is just KC Masterpiece out of a bottle as far as I’m concerned. One other thing I found a little bit annoying were the utensils they gave me to eat with. I can live with plastic silverware but the spoon I got for eating the gumbo had a very sharp edge all the way around the bowl. I swear a person could cut themselves eating with it. It was very uncomfortable using it so I hurried through the gumbo. Actually I almost always hurry through my food but that’s another story.
The bottom line for this place is that the food is fairly good. Good enough that I ate there twice, but nothing I ever ate there was very exciting. I would just as soon have Mexican or better yet Greek. Like my friend the fish monger said, all in all pretty good grub.
I guess that’s supposed to be a compliment.