Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: Lillie's Q, Southern Food, and Kool-Aid Pickles

By Dru Chai

As I mentioned in a previous post, the BBQ restaurant biz is a tough nut to crack. But according to the latest culinary trends report from the National Restaurant Association, BBQ is consistently on the top of food categories for a reason. America loves BBQ.

Lillie's Q is the latest entry into the BBQ scene in Southern California, more specifically Orange County. White napkins, a la carte menu, an expansive drink menu, are just a few indicators to let you know that this is an upscale BBQ joint.

One item that might raise some eyebrows is the Kool-Aid pickles. As weird as it may sound, it's the perfect compliment to the richness of smoked meat. Cool and crisp, it's on the sweeter side vs. the sour tartness of traditional pickles. The beer battered fried pickles are a delicate balance of salty and sweet, while the pork rinds dusted with pimiento cheese powder is as addictive as they come.

The smoked chicken wings could've used more smoke flavor, and it has more to do with the chef's philosophy more than anything else. Chef McKenna isn't a big believer of smoke overpowering the food, and it shows with his choice of strictly using peach wood for his commercial J&R smoker.

Lillie's Q offers three smoked meats -- baby back ribs, pulled pork, and tri-tip. The tri-tip is sliced on the thick side, and is a bit chewy when not sliced against the grain. Unlike brisket, it's a very lean cut of meat without a lot of fat and flavor. It's the perfect meat to go with BBQ sauce -- and Lillie's Q definitely has no shortage of sauces.

The Carolina Gold and the (Hot) Smoky are BBQ sauces tailor made for both the tri-tip and pulled pork at Lillie's Q. The pulled pork is excellent, especially when smoked with the delicate and mild flavored peach wood. The baby back ribs are very good, and smoked just enough so that the meat pulls off the bone without being overcooked -- which is how is should be. "Fall off the bone" = overcooked.

As a fan of spare ribs -- which are larger, meatier, and juicier than baby backs -- I was a bit disappointed that they weren't offered at Lillie's Q. Spare ribs are a little more forgiving during the smoking process, and are less likely to dry out. However, Lillie Q's baby back ribs were on point, with a flavorful bark on the outside.

Lillie's Q has a variety of southern influenced sides to go along with their BBQ. Brunswick stew, collard greens, mac & cheese, green beans, just to name a few. The sides are generally on the salty side, and perhaps that's by design. There is a never-ending menu of alcoholic beverages to quench your thirst -- anything from craft beers to moonshine based cocktails.

For those not in the mood for 'Q, the shrimp and grits is Chef McKenna's favorite on the menu. It's definitely not for the light-hearted. The velvety consistency of the grits combined with the juicy, plump gulf shrimp will have you wondering just how many sticks of butter went into the dish.

Judging by the early Yelp reviews, the challenge has begun to educate the masses on what "real" BBQ is supposed to be like. There will be people who will confuse tri-tip with brisket (which will be on the menu in the future), say that the ribs aren't "fall off the bone," or say point out the pink meat in smoked chicken as undercooked. Chef McKenna has accepted the challenge -- Kool-Aid pickles in hand.

Lillie's Q
240 S. Brea Blvd
Brea, CA 92821

Thursday, December 18, 2014

How To Make Herb Crusted Smoked Prime Rib

By Dru Chai

There's something about serving and eating prime rib that just screams special occasion. Yes, it's expensive, so of course that has a lot to do with it. But it's also the appearance. A steak comes to the table looking like an blackened and burnt meteor rock. But a piece of sliced prime rib looks luxurious, velvety, and even sensual. Pink, juicy, and just begging to be eaten.

Having used my Weber smoker for over 3 years, it never occurred to me to smoke prime rib. Until now. With an early holiday family dinner scheduled, I told everyone that I was in charge of the main course. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to serve the juiciest, most flavorful, and tender prime rib ever. EVER. Okay, maybe that's stretching it. But it was gonna be damn good.

I started shopping right away to look for beef ribeye roasts and how much they would cost. Costco doesn't have the cheapest prices out there, but I didn't want to drive around all day comparison shopping. Once I decided that Costco was going to be it, I had to decide if I was going to buy USDA Prime or Choice. Since prime is the creme de la creme, it was $18/lb. Choice came in at $11/lb.

On a 7-lb boneless beef ribeye roast, we're talking about a $50 difference between Prime vs. Choice. I inspected several meats and I decided that it just wasn't worth the extra money for Prime. I did some side-by-side direct comparisons, and there is a subtle difference in the marbling. I chose the best looking Choice rib roast with the most amount of fat. Choice is still an excellent cut of meat for prime rib at a reasonable budget. It's technically not quite Prime, prime rib -- but pretty darn close.

I decided to do a semi-herb crust on the prime rib. I say "semi" because it's not quite the thick and heavy paste that you see in many other recipes. After an olive oil rubdown, I covered the meat with a generous portion of Kosher salt, cracked black pepper, minced garlic, garlic powder, and chopped sage (or whatever herb, like rosemary and/or thyme). I left the prime rib in the fridge for a couple days, uncovered, giving it a little bit of a dry-brine and dry-aging effect. The salt will pull in some of the moisture from the meat and hopefully intensify the beef flavor.

The next morning, I gave the prime rib a nice sear on all sides -- a good 2-3 minutes on every side. I was going to use my trusty cast iron skillet, but the prime rib didn't fit. Nonetheless, a standard indoor grill pan did the job. The smell was just intoxicating, and filled my entire house. The sizzling sound was over the top. I was practically drooling at this point. The pre-sear helps the rib roast develop a protective crust. If you sear the meat after the smoking process, there will be an ugly-looking brown colored ring, as I experienced in my smoked tri-tip.

After searing, it was time to fire up the smoker. I decided to add a mix of hickory and pecan wood chunks -- but not too much, since I didn't want the meat to be overpowered by smoke. I kept the smoker at a consistent 250 degrees F. With the help of an internal probe thermometer, the prime rib was done in about 3 hours, reaching an internal temperature of 130 degrees F -- perfect for medium rare. If you want even more rare, then 120-125 will do. If you want well done, just stop reading right now. Just stop.

I wrapped the prime rib in foil and let it rest for about 30 minutes. The temperature will also slightly rise up to 5 degrees at this point. Do not, under any circumstances, cut, slice, or poke the prime rib during this resting period. If you do, all of those precious meat juices will come pouring out.

When it was finally time to slice up the prime rib, it was like slicing through butter with a hot knife. The prime rib was a perfect medium rare and extremely tender. I took the drippings and added some broth to create the au jus. What really differentiated this homemade prime rib from the rest was the smoke flavor. It was just subtle enough and complimented the real star of the show -- the beef.

So if you ever having second thoughts about cooking or smoking prime rib, don't worry. The most important thing you have to do is watch the temperature and make sure you do not overcook. That's it. People will think you slaved all day cooking the prime rib. Slice up the meat and serve the slices to your guests like a boss. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.