130-132 Ormond Road, Elwood (map)
On Sunday, the gorgeous Jess invited a group of us to join her for a relaxed birthday lunch. Because she is so deeply enamoured of the Deep South (I'm rabidly jealous of her impending trip to Austin and New Orleans), she'd searched high and low throughout Melbourne to find a place that serves Texas-style BBQ.
She found it at Fresh @ Elwood, a cafe that puts on a Southern-style BBQ every Sunday afternoon from 2pm, with live music in the back courtyard. The meat is barbecued for six hours in a gigantic locomotive-shaped contraption (known as the "Iron Horse"), and you can order as many of the meats as you want (from $20 for one meat to $27 for four).
We were all excited at the prospect of Texas-style BBQ right here in Melbourne, but found the experience somewhat lacking. I'll hand the reins over to Jess, so that she can articulate her critique:
"I applaud Fresh @ Elwood for creating healthy meals using premium, usually organic ingredients. Salads and vegetables and such. That's their thing. That's what they do. It's not the cheapest cafe in Elwood, but they have a mantra and they stick to it.
That is why I find it completely strange that Fresh, of all places, decided to take on Texas style BBQ on Sundays. Texas BBQ - smokey meats accompanied by carb-and-butter-heavy side dishes. When done right, the ultimate in comfort food. In fact, fresh salad is rarely offered (and further rarely ordered) at a genuine Texas BBQ joint. Most meats are served with a half bag of sliced bread, a tub of beans, a tub of potato salad and various other accoutrements such as pickles, mac and cheese etc. Let's get this straight, its ALL about the meat.
Barbecuing is akin to a religion in the U.S.A. There are three main regions vying for the title of BBQ capital - Texas, Kansas City and the Carolinas, separated by the choices of meats and style of barbecue sauces. What we refer to as barbecuing in Australia, the Americans call grilling. Barbecuing is the art of cooking meats for extended periods of time over indirect heat. Often the smoking/cooking process takes around 12 hours, sometimes up to 24. BBQ masters are known as "Pit Bosses", and each has their own secret recipe. Some inject their meats with flavour, some use a dry rub, some rely on the variety of wood chips used in the smoker to impart a signature flavour. Competitive barbecuing is serious business, and renowned Pit Masters can be as famous throughout the South as any "celebrity" chef. Entire towns in Texas exist purely because their renowned BBQ joints, and locals know that you better get there early or else the meat will sell out. They say you "Don't Mess with Texas", but I suggest you don't mess with Texas BBQ.
The meat at the Iron Horse BBQ (the name of the BBQ at Fresh) was ok. One of my friends didn't eat her pulled pork, citing it as having no flavour. Another friend ordered only pork ribs and remarked that they were tough, finding it hard to understand how meat which was slow cooked on indirect heat for 6 hours ends up being tough. I find it hard to understand too.
I had the "Beef Ribs" and beef brisket. When you order a beef rib in Texas, you are given a Flintstone-sized mammoth bone of bovine goodness. A cow rib - epic in its awesomeness.
The ribs we were given at Fresh were short ribs. Since short ribs actually have a specific name, it might be appropriate to specify this on the menu, and then i would have known in advance not to order them. The brisket was well cooked and tender, and all who ordered it enjoyed it. However, none of the meat of any kind appeared to be flavoured with that signature smokey bbq scent, or have any deliciously blackened outer edges. Someone at the table remarked that their plate tasted exactly the same as oven roasted/slow cooked meat.
BBQ sauce is also somewhat of an institution through the U.S.A. Much like Tomato Sauce/Ketchup, you are usually given carte blanche to add as much or as little as you'd like, and there is always an extra bottle of sauce on the table. In BBQ restaurants it's always almost home made, and some even offer a variety of two or three sauces. Iron Horse BBQ sauce had a good flavour, and was served already poured over the meat in the kitchen - there was no "DIY" bottle. However, I have never seen BBQ sauce "un-puréed" before. Chunks of tomato and thick slices of onion were ladled on top of the meat, and nearly had the appearance of a stew or goulash. My perfect texture of sauce is thick enough to coat the meat, should never really be too watery, and should definitely be blended to ensure all spices and ingredients are evenly distributed.
I think it was the mac n cheese that truly turned me into a sad panda. Mac and cheese is one of my favourite side dishes. Variables include combinations of cheeses, baked breadcrumb crusts, the addition of green chile etc. Usually the biggest difference is whether it's baked (lasagne style) or "loose" straight from the saucepan.
The Mac and Cheese at fresh was baked style. It was an Australian cafeteria-esque take on a pasta bake. There was more bechamel sauce per square inch than pasta, and it was heavy on the flour. The "squares" of mac crumbled under the fork, and fell apart as they were cut into. Sadly, not the sign of the gooey, cheesily sinful side dish i had hoped for. Upon seeing photos of the dish online, my friend in Texas asked me what the "square bread roll looking thing" on my plate was, referring to the mac n cheese.
Other sides included dirty rice, a slightly acidic coleslaw and potato salad - sadly, nothing like the creamed kind typically found in the U.S.A. Chilli Beans are also on the menu, but we didn't order them.
For those who dont know better, the experience would be an OK meal. And this upsets me. The real deal Texas BBQ is honestly THAT good. Fresh are serving Texas BBQ in the way that Taco Bill is serving Mexican food - an Australian take on a cuisine.
The trick to honouring and respecting a cuisine largely unfamiliar to the Australian palate is authenticity. I believe one of the reasons Mamasita is enjoying such huge success is their no-frills attitude to serving authentic Tex Mex/Mexican food. They have not substituted their menu to make it friendlier and more approachable to the average Aussie punter. They have invested in authentic recipes and ingredients, and the result is deliciously effective.
Hopefully, the same purist attitude can be applied by the chefs behind the Iron Horse. They have the equipment, and i believe they have the capacity to do it really, really well if they so choose to."
Thank you to Jess for being a guest contributor to Melbourne Gastronome! As someone who has never tried real deal Texas BBQ, I didn't mind the pulled pork and brisket (though I thought the sauce was far too acidic). It's a shame though that despite the meat being cooked for as long as it was, there was no charred goodness.
When Jess had called to book our table and had learned that Southern-style biscuits were not on the menu, she'd taken it upon herself to make us some delicious chipotle and cheddar biscuits.
Have you ever had Texas-style BBQ? Know of anywhere else in Melbourne that serves it?