Sunday, April 28, 2013

Eating Out: Las Vegas Foodie Fest 2013

By Dru Chai

I've attended my fair share of food truck gatherings, and the Las Vegas Foodie Fest was one of the better ones in terms of organization, layout, selection and most importantly... lots of shaded seating, especially in 90+ degree Vegas weather. There's nothing worse than paying admission for one of these things and there's literally no where to sit in a hot parking lot except for a few measly picnic tables. The food trucks were spaced out perfectly -- not too close or too far -- and there was plenty of room to walk around.

If you're a first-time attendee at one of these food truck festivals, you might be disappointed in the long lines, admission prices, and jacked-up prices. Organizing a food truck gathering of this magnitude (30+ trucks) requires a lot of organization, logistics, and planning. As painful as it is, the admission price covers some of these costs. Just like with a BBQ festival, long lines are inevitable. Beat the crowds by going early -- there's no other way around it. Food trucks who traveled from California and Arizona have to increase their prices as well. They have to factor in the price of travel, hotel, gas, and other expenses. Food trucks will also run out of food -- either towards the end of the day or end of the weekend. Go. Early.

White Castle made its first appearance in Vegas, and was by far the biggest draw for the event. Lines quickly swelled and wait times estimated were as long as 3 to 4 hours. Yes, insanity. I spoke with a White Castle regional operations executive and she said she was blown away by the response from Vegas after just the first day. When asked about opening on the West coast, she smiled and said "would you like White Castle more than In-N-Out?" I said definitely not. But if you asked me where White Castle would most likely to succeed, it would have to be Vegas over California. The late night and drunken Vegas crowd would flock to White Castle to get their slider fix, sloppily reciting lines and re-enacting scenes from the beloved cult classic movie Harold and Kumar.

Love 'em or hate 'em, they have a cult following
The calm before opening storm

I tried White Castle sliders for the first time when I lived in the East coast, as well as the frozen ones in the local grocery store. Now that I've had these "freshly cooked" sliders at the Vegas Foodie Fest, one thing's for sure -- White Castle tastes the same everywhere! I'm not sure how anyone can throw down more than 4 or 5 of these sliders without getting bored. The meat is pre-frozen and steamed back to temp on a griddle -- it has no charred flavor. The best flavor comes from the jalapeno cheese slider -- with a sligh spicy kick --and the tartness from pickle slices.

Staff busy cooking those sliders
Staff started cooking hours before opening 

So why were so many people willing to wait in a long line for something they can easily find in their local grocery store freezer section? For most people, it was just for the experience and curiosity, just to say they tried White Castle when they visited Vegas. For others, it was a bit of nostalgia -- either some childhood memory or experience when they lived back East. Some other people I spoke with scoffed at the long lines, saying that the long lines weren't worth it, and that the sliders tasted like "cafeteria food." Love 'em or hate 'em -- White Castle sure makes an impression one way or another.

Shortly after opening, two long lines formed, easily a few hundred people
Many were buying multiple Crave Cases, 30 sliders each case
BBQ food trucks were well represented, this one based in Arizona
Q UP! truck's "Gangsta" mac and cheese, brisket and bacon, on sourdough
Logo for the Super Q BBQ truck from San Diego
Another BBQ truck, relocated to Vegas from San Diego
Seoul Sausage, winner from last season's Great Food Truck Race on Food Network

The Maine Lobster lady truck based in Scottsdale, AZ
Who needs to fly to Maine for a lobstah roll?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Revisited: How to Make Smoked BBQ Brisket

By Dru Chai

You can say that I've learned a lot since the first time I tried smoking a brisket. It was overcooked, dry, and bland. But it wasn't just about my BBQ technique -- it was also about all the little things. I bought the brisket flat one time at Costco and tried smoking that. The brisket flat has no fat cap, so of course it dried out after several hours in the smoker. There was also the quality of the meats that I purchased. It was all good to buy USDA Choice in the beginning, but you could definitely taste the quality of the meat just wasn't up to par.

Fast forward a couple of years later, and I feel much more confident about my brisket. Good BBQ isn't rocket science, but you pick up little tricks of the trade along with each experience. Competition BBQ teams will closely guard their tricks with their life, but for backyard BBQ purposes it's all good to share.  For me, I try to keep things as simple as possible. 

The first step to good brisket was upgrading the meat. After months of buying USDA Choice brisket at Costco, I was ready to move a step up. KCBS membership comes with a day pass at Restaurant Depot, and it's one of the most convenient places for me to get a Certified Angus Beef brisket. Not only are these much cheaper by the pound compared to Costco, but they are much better quality meat. These suckers are at least 12 pounds and up, but well worth every penny in my opinion.

Competition BBQ teams will tell you that they have all these tricks and things to look for when they're selecting their brisket -- like how thick the fat cap is, or how flexible and limber the meat is when they hold it up, etc etc. For backyard BBQ purposes, I just pick the least expensive one and head on out as fast as possible because the fridge section at Restaurant Depot is freeeeezing!

Back home, I usually concoct my own BBQ rub, but I decided to do a little experiment. I went ahead and liberally applied some of Slap Yo' Daddy's BBQ chicken rub. Yes, you read that right -- chicken. Why not? The way I see it, this brisket will be smoking low and slow for a good 10-12 hours so any distinct flavor from any rub you put on it will dissipate anyway. What I want is a nice, smoky, dark bark to form on my brisket. I believe the rub will help achieve good bark.

If you don't have any store bought rubs, don't fret. Just make your own. You can start off with a simple salt and black pepper rub, and depending on how you feel -- add some brown sugar and other spices like paprika, garlic powder, cayenne, etc. The possibilities are endless.

After about 5-6 hours in the WSM smoker, you can see that the bark on the brisket is beginning to form nicely. The high sugar content from the Slap Yo' Daddy rub helps in caramelizing the outside crust, which is exactly what I want. Another several hours, and I want to see the crust look almost black -- like a dark meteorite. So how did the brisket come out?

Well, I just about devoured half of a 12 pound brisket as I was slicing it up in portions. There's nothing better than tasting a freshly smoked brisket (after about a half hour rest to let the juices redistribute, of course). I could taste the subtle tart flavors from the rub, and it actually gave the brisket an added dimension versus if it was just something simple like salt and pepper. I think the cumin was a nice element that nicely complimented the smokiness of the meat.

The brisket slices from the flat (or lean brisket for all you Texans) were perfectly tender, but I find myself more in love with burnt ends. I thought that the burnt ends came out great. I just love chopping them up in cubes, seasoning some more rub, and throwing them back in the smoker for even more flavor. I don't understand why Texas BBQ places don't do this, as they simply slice up this "fatty brisket" along the grain. I suppose that is why they nicknamed it Kansas City burnt ends. But I'll save that for another post. Until then, I'm already drooling for my next plate of burnt ends.

Product Review: Slap Yo' Daddy BBQ Chicken Rub

By Dru Chai

Whether it's backyard or competition BBQ, the rub can make either a huge or subtle difference in the overall flavor of the meat. In competition BBQ, most people will be very heavy-handed in applying the rub, because after many hours of low and slow smoking, there is honestly not that much distinct flavor from the rub that will come through. It also depends on the meat -- you can definitely taste more of the rub flavor on chicken versus something like a brisket.

If you're familiar with competition BBQ, then you should be no stranger to Harry Soo from Slap Yo' Daddy BBQ. He's won a plethora awards, but if there's one category that sets him apart from the competition -- it's his BBQ chicken. He consistently scores and places high in chicken because there is a distinct flavor profile in his rub that's a bit salty, tangy, and sweet. Combined with the natural juices from the chicken thigh, it really is mighty tasty. Naturally, Harry launched his own chicken rub to sell -- so that everyone can enjoy a taste of BBQ competition chicken flavor at home.

As I do with my other product reviews of rubs, I like to do a little taste test of the rub on its own and inspect the quality of the rub up close. As you can see from the picture above, the first thing you'll notice are the green parsley flakes mixed in the predominantly red-orange color of the rub. The first few ingredients are salt, sugar, chili powder, granulated garlic, black pepper, and onion powder. 

This serves as a pretty good foundation for most rubs. The next spice is cumin, and for those who are familiar with the flavor of cumin, it can be very potent and overpowering if used too much. You can definitely taste and smell the cumin in this particular rub. This rub is not intended to be spicy, so instead it leans more on the sweeter, tart/tang side of things. This flavor profile would be a good compliment to chicken and turkey.

So how did this rub taste on meat? Well, instead of trying to replicate Harry's chicken, I decided to do something different. I wanted to see how versatile his chicken rub was, and decided to use it on my brisket. Click here to see how it turned out.