The quest for BBQ in St. Louis takes me to Smokin’ Al’s

I’ve written many times before about my never-ending search for BBQ in St. Louis. It’s a lot easier to find now than it was 10 years ago. And, although it’s still not up to Kansas City standards, I do have to say it’s getting better.

This weekend’s adventure took me to Smokin’ Al’s, which is on Hampton, just north of I-44 and south of U.S. 40, within earshot of Forest Park. It’s in the city, so be sure to pack your concealed weapons.

I’m kidding. That part of St. Louis is safe, and Smokin’ Al’s seems to be popular with the police anyway. But what’s it like?The first thing I noticed was the prices. They’re very reasonable–higher than McDonald’s but no higher than, say, Subway. My girlfriend got the BBQ hamburger with fries and a drink. Posted price was $4.99. I got the BBQ brisket sandwich with fries and drank my usual water (I don’t drink caffeine after noon). Posted price was $5.75, I think. Our total came to $11.99.

Like a true BBQ joint, Smokin’ Al’s has a napkin dispenser on the table. On a recent BBQ excursion, someone handed me a single napkin. I held it up and told whoever would listen that this was a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with BBQ in St. Louis. If you can clean up afterward with a single napkin, it wasn’t BBQ.

When the food arrived, it came with reason to hope that the napkin dispenser would be necessary. It had BBQ sauce on it! Amazing!

Like the classic Kansas City joints, the brisket sandwich was served on Texas Toast. The girl at the counter was much friendlier than the people at the counter at Gates or Arthur Bryant’s though. (They make rudeness an art form at those places. It’s part of the atmosphere.)

The quality of the meat was very commendable. It wasn’t dry or tough, and it was about as lean as you’ll ever find at a BBQ joint. You could tell from looking at it that it was cooked the way it’s supposed to be: long and slow. And there was a lot of it.

The sauce is their own homemade blend. It’s a bit different. It wasn’t quite as spicy as, say, Gates, but it wasn’t sweet. I doubt there’s a lot of honey or molasses in it. It also wasn’t tangy like a lot of BBQ sauces. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty good, but it’s not much like anything I’ve had in other parts of the country. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say "St. Louis Style BBQ"–that’s what it says on the sign. And I know they don’t mean pork steaks, because those weren’t on the menu.

And yes, during the meal I went through about five napkins.

Best BBQ I’ve ever had? No. Best BBQ in St. Louis? Well, you’ve got me thinking, and I’ll grudgingly admit that the title of Best BBQ in St. Louis is no longer like the title of Tallest Building in Topeka. I might give a slight edge to Super Smokers, but Smokin’ Al’s is cheaper and the portions are a bit bigger. Best BBQ value in St. Louis? Absolutely.

So how’s it rank on the All-Time scale? It’s not quite in the same league as Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, or Smokestack, all in Kansas City. Second tier is Biffle’s in Concordia, Mo., Carson’s in Chicago, or Trotter’s, an old chain out of Springfield, Mo., which during its prime was as good as anyone’s but whose quality dropped off very quickly in the early ’90s. It disappeared soon after. But I remember it fondly.

I rank Super Smokers a notch below those two levels. I’ll put Smokin’ Al’s in that same category. But one must remember, both of these chains are mere rookies.

The quality of life in St. Louis just went up a notch. This Kansas Citian will be back. Especially seeing as it’s about a 10-minute drive from work, making it suitable lunchtime fare.

I can’t think of a higher compliment I could give.

Recovery time.

Taxes. I think I’ve actually filed my taxes on time twice in my adult life. This year isn’t one of them. I filed Form 4868, so Tax Day for me is actually Aug. 15, 2002.
In theory Uncle Sam owes me money this year, so I shouldn’t owe any interest. I’ll have a professional accountant test that theory soon. Make that fairly soon, because it’d be nice to have that money, seeing as I expect to make the biggest purchase of my still-fairly-short life this year.

Some people believe filing a 4868 is advantageous. The thinking is this: Let the IRS meet its quota for audits, then file. That way, the only way you’re going to get audited is if you truly raise red flags, which I shouldn’t because I’m having a professional (and an awfully conservative one at that) figure the forms. That’s good. I’d rather not have to send a big care package off to the IRS to prove I’m not stealing from them.

Adventure. Steve DeLassus and I dove headlong into an adventure on Sunday, an adventure consisting of barbecue and Linux. I think at one point both of us were about ready to put a computer on that barbie.

We’ll talk about the barbecue first. Here’s a trick I learned from Steve: Pound your boneless chicken flat, then throw it in a bag containing 1 quart of water and 1 cup each of sugar and salt. Stick the whole shebang in the fridge while the fire’s getting ready. When the fire’s ready, take the chicken out of the bag and dry thoroughly. Since Steve’s not a Kansas Citian, he doesn’t believe in dousing the chicken in BBQ sauce before throwing it on the grill. But it was good anyway. Really good in fact.

Oh, I forgot. He did spray some olive oil on the chicken first. Whether that helps it brown or locks in moisture or both, I’m not quite sure. But olive oil contains good fats, so it’s not a health concern.

Now, Linux on cantankerous 486s may be a health concern. I replaced the motherboard in Steve’s router Sunday night, because it was a cranky 486SX/20. I was tired of dealing with the lack of a math coprocessor, and the system was just plain slow. I replaced it with a very late model 486DX2/66 board. I know a DX2/66 doesn’t have three times the performance of an SX/20, but the system sure seemed three times faster. Its math coprocessor, L2 cache, faster chipset, and much better BIOS helped. It took the new board slightly longer to boot Linux than it took the old one to finish counting and testing 8 MB of RAM.

But Debian wasn’t too impressed with Steve’s Creative 2X CD-ROM and its proprietary Panasonic interface. So we kludged in Steve’s DVD-ROM drive for the installation, and laughed at the irony. Debian installed, but the lack of memory (I scraped up 8 megs; Steve’s old memory wouldn’t work) slowed down the install considerably. But once Debian was up and running, it was fine, and in text mode, it was surprisingly peppy. We didn’t install XFree86.

It was fine until we tried to get it to act as a dialup router, that is. We never really did figure out how to get it to work reliably. It worked once or twice, then quit entirely.

This machine was once a broadband router based on Red Hat 6.1, but Red Hat installed way too much bloat so it was slow whenever we did have to log into it. And Steve moved into the boonies, where broadband isn’t available yet, so it was back to 56K dialup for him. Now we know that dialup routers seem to be much trickier to set up than dual-NIC routers.

After fighting it for nearly 8 hours, we gave up and booted it back into Freesco, which works reliably. It has the occasional glitch, but it’s certainly livable. Of course we want (or at least Steve wants) more features than Freesco can give you easily. But it looks like he’ll be living with Freesco for a while, since neither of us is looking forward to another marathon Debian session.

Nostalgia. A couple of articles on Slashdot got me thinking about the good old days, so I downloaded VICE, a program that can emulate almost every computer Commodore ever built. Then I played around with a few Commodore disk images. It’s odd what I do and don’t remember. I kind of remember the keyboard layout. I remembered LOAD “*”,8,1 loads most games (and I know why that works too, and why the harder-to-type LOAD “0:*”,8,1 is safer), but I couldn’t remember where the Commodore keyboard layout put the *.

I sure wish I could remember people’s names half as well as I remember this mesozoic computer information.

It stands on shaky legal ground, but you can go to c64.com and grab images for just about any Commodore game ever created. The stuff there is still covered by copyright law, but in many cases the copyright holder has gone out of business and/or been bought out several times over, so there’s a good possibility the true copyright holder doesn’t even realize it anymore. Some copyright holders may care. Others don’t. Others have probably placed the work in the public domain. Of course, if you own the original disks for any of the software there, there’s no problem in downloading it. There’s a good possibility you can’t read your originals anyway.

I downloaded M.U.L.E., one of the greatest games of all time. I have friends who swear I was once an ace M.U.L.E. player, something of an addict. I have absolutely no recollection of that. I started figuring out the controls after I loaded it, but nothing seemed familiar, that’s for sure. I took to it pretty quickly. The strategy is simple to learn, but difficult to master. The user interface isn’t intuitive, but in those days they rarely were. And in those days, not many people cared.

Who was the most influential woman in your life?

My good friend Brad came to me with a question a couple of weeks ago: Who was the most influential woman in your life?
He wasn’t looking for my answer so much as he was looking for what I thought people’s answers would be. So I countered with a question: Married or single? He asked what difference that made. “Well, if you’re married, the right answer is your wife, whether it’s your mother or not,” I said. “And if you’re single, the right answer is your mother. Now the true answer could be something totally different.”

Brad laughed. I think he might have said I’ll be good at staying out of trouble with a wife someday, but I’m sure I’ll be very good at getting in trouble, or at least getting lots of dirty looks. Guys live for that.

Brad was looking to shoot another video together, with that as the theme. The pieces just didn’t come together this year so we had to shelve the project. But his question lingers on.

Who was the most influential woman in my life?

Certainly I learned more from my mom than anyone else. She taught me weird ways to remember how to spell tough words. Do you ever have trouble remembering how to spell “Wednesday?” It’s the day the Neses got married. wed-Nes-day. Got it? And how to remember the capital of Norway. Well, I knew Oslo was the capital of some Northern European country, but I couldn’t remember which. So she wrote “nOrway” on a slip of paper. I never lost the Oslo/Norway connection after that. (That’s probably not very impressive to my European readers, but Americans are notoriously bad at geography. I don’t know how many Americans know Norway is in Europe. Some Americans may not know what Europe is, for that matter.)

And yes, mom taught me how to tie my shoes and how to blow my nose and how to brush my teeth and lots of stuff like that. And when I didn’t understand girls (which was often… Who am I kidding? It is often) she was always there to listen.

But the question was who wasn’t that. It was: Who was the most influential woman in my life?

Well, there was this girl that I met right after college. I told her I loved her, she told me she loved me, she changed my life, and set me off in an unexpected and (mostly) better direction and…

AND she couldn’t hold a candle to my grandmother, my mom’s mom, so even though I was devastated at the time, in retrospect I’m really glad we broke up.

What can I say about Granny? She grew up in southern rural Missouri, in the Depression, one of about a dozen kids (my grandparents came from families of 12 and 13, and I can never keep straight which came from which, especially since both had siblings who didn’t live to adulthood). Now, she got in some trouble growing up, but I think that experience, along with having lived through the Depression, helped her learn how to do the right thing even when resources seemed limited. She moved to Kansas City during World War II and got a job at Pratt & Whitney, working on an assembly line making airplane engines. She married a Kansas Citian. On a truck driver’s salary, they managed to raise four kids.

I remember a lot of things about her. She always had time for her family. She never wanted anyone to make a big deal about anything she did. She really knew how to cook. She made the best quilts in the world. And before anyone starts complaining about her falling into female stereotypes, I’ll tell you this. She absolutely loved working in her yard, and one of the things that pained her the most was her deterriorating ability to take care of her yard as she got older. Besides, she built airplane engines! Have I ever done anything that manly? I’m doing well to change the spark plugs in my car.

But if I had to sum Granny’s life up in a sentence, I’d say this: When it came to doing more with less, she was one of the very best.

What am I known for? A book and a series of magazine articles about doing more with less.

So, who was the most influential woman in my life? I think it was Granny.

Granny died a little over six years ago. I miss her.

A lot.

I had a conversation with my mom a while back about my two grandmothers. Granny had nothing for most of her life. My other grandmother wasn’t like that. She was a successful doctor, a psychiatrist. She married a successful doctor. He was a general practitioner, and one of the best diagnosticians you’d ever see. I can say a lot about him, but I’ll say this and have my peace: His father spent a lot of time hanging out with tycoons, and must have learned a few things and passed them on to his son. The guy had money, but in a lot of ways he lived like my other grandmother, who had nothing. A good rule of thumb is that if you have money but live like you have none, you’ll end up with a lot more.

I’m talking a lot more about my dad’s father (he wasn’t a dad) than I am about his mother (she wasn’t a mom). Frankly I know more about him. I know she was brilliant. Yes, she was smarter than my mom’s mom. Granny didn’t always have all the answers. My other grandmother always had an answer. And it was usually right. It was also usually long. (I get that from somewhere.) I remember asking her once if Cooperstown, NY is close to New York City. It took her half an hour to answer that question.

But I never had much of a relationship with her. Neither did my dad. He’d talk about “my mother,” or “my father.” I heard him call his father “Dad” once. They were arguing. About me. As for her, well, I never heard him call her “Mom.”

I haven’t seen her or spoken with her since October 1990.

It’s hard for me to talk or write about this, because I don’t want to rag on my relatives. I always had a great deal of respect for them. I know what they were capable of, and I think that’s why I’m disappointed in them.

My dad grew up being told he’d be a failure all his life. He didn’t get good grades, and he was rebellious. I suspect a lot of that was because he had two absentee parents. But Dad was smart. It seems his biggest problem growing up was that he mostly used his great mind to figure out when he had to perform and when he could get by with slacking. He also couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to do with his life. He had the same gifts his father had, but he wanted to be as different from his father as possible, and that posed a dilemma for him. He once told me his father didn’t know what to do with him. But that’s OK. Dad was only two years younger than I am now when he finally figured out what to do with himself.

The decision was made that my dad’s younger brother would carry my grandfather’s torch after he died. I don’t know what role she played in the decision, but she stood behind it. My dad watched as his brother made mistakes and both his brother and his mother paid for them. My dad tried to help. He didn’t want his help. She didn’t want his help. Finally my dad gave up. Dad had made himself a success; in his own mind, he’d proven them wrong. I don’t think he was interested in proving them wrong in their minds; he just didn’t want to see them struggle. Loyalty runs in the family.

I asked my mom which of my grandmothers really had more? Her mom thought she struggled all her life, but she was always able to provide for herself and others. Always. Had she been able to see that, I think she’d still be alive today.

When Granny died, she left enough for her four kids to fight over. But they didn’t fight over it. That wasn’t how she raised them.

I know one of my duties is to provide for my relatives, and in that regard, to be perfectly honest, I always let my dad’s mom down. But I guess I always assumed since she never wanted my dad’s help when he was alive, why would she want mine? To my knowledge, she never attempted to contact me after he died, so I had no way of knowing any different.

Dad’s mom died yesterday. All I have on her living conditions is hearsay, but I know poverty when I hear it described.

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