Some people say that to dodge controversy, there are three topics one must avoid: politics, sex and religion. I would, however, suggest a fourth if you live in the South: barbecue. Everyone has an opinion, often formed by the immovable blend of sentiment, memory and personal taste. Open up the dialogue, and people otherwise easy going and flexible become hardliners.
Here in Kentucky, with so many counties and small communities, a variety of barbecue styles exists. Yet, when pressed, most people acknowledge that the commonwealth's definitive one comes from the western part of the state, several hours by car from Lexington.
The drive is worth it, of course, but it might be less necessary now that J.J. McBrewster's has appeared in Stonewall Center. The restaurant smokes all its meats on the premises, some for as long as 16 hours. The sauces and dips, all homemade, enhance the outdoor flavors; try the Western or "melon" for a sweet, vinegary tang, the "mean sauce" or "Daviess County dip" for peppery and hot. Sounds right to me.
Mutton is the signature meat of Western Kentucky 'cue, but McBrewster's, as most places now do, also offers variety. There is salmon, brisket, pork, chicken and turkey. These may be pulled or chopped for sandwiches ($6.99 to $8.99) or panini ($8.49), or served in lovely, hearty heaps for an abundant dinner plate ($8.25 to $11.99) that includes two sides. Sides are served individually (89 cents to $2.59), and are all Kentucky Proud when possible. Desserts ($1.49 to $4.99) are made from scratch.
And the really good news is that all this gracious plenty, including the sweet course and a beer, with a weighty to-go box, rarely costs more than $15 a person.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed the mutton more, because it is a claim to fame of sorts, yet its texture is too unpredictable: fork-tender in some places, stringy in others. I give purists their due, of course (I don't want any trouble), but I enjoyed other dishes more.
The generous pulled-pork plate, for my money, is the best of the bunch and melts in your mouth. Competition comes, believe it or not, only from the smoked turkey. This dry and grainy bird is transformed at McBrewster's. The chicken runs a close second, although perhaps suffering, as did the salmon filet, from some overexposure in the smoker.
The sides are all suited to a good barbecue lunch or dinner, and some shine brighter than others.
Ranked starting from the best were the maple-glazed baked beans, deeply brown and sweet. Naturally, green beans are cooked Southern-style, until they are very soft, but J.J. McBrewster's are much better than most other restaurants' — neither too salty nor too watery. Crunchy, creamy slaw is a requirement on a barbecue menu; this version has a light touch, both with the mayonnaise and with the seasonings, complementing rather than overshadowing the main courses. A smoked vegetable medley of primarily zucchini and summer squash was an unexpected but welcome option.
I was less impressed with the starchier choices, including the milky mac and cheese, the al dente potato salad, or the loaded mashed potatoes — the spuds had very little flavor — with cheese and bacon.
McBrewster's corn-studded muffins are sweet, but the real desserts are positively decadent. The chocolate candy bar cake has loads of toffee and caramel between the creamy topping and chocolate cake. A fluffy peanut butter filling is the star of the "pig picking pie." But my favorite is the chocolate truffle, a dense, fudgy cake with an even darker chocolate ganache center.
Although I am going against all my best instincts by walking into the barbecue debate, I do think it's hard to beat a McBrewster's pulled-pork sandwich with hot sauce, a cold beer and vegetables grown in our own back yard.