Note to self: Eat barbecue fresh and on site.
Take-out is convenient and satisfactory, but I learned from six recent experiences with three relatively new barbecue joints that 'cue doesn't travel very well. In just an hour, what began as succulent starts to dry out, and a sandwich goes soggy. What I tried at home bore minimal resemblance to the same items I sampled dining out.
Red State BBQ, Hawg Wild BBQ Co. and Butt Rubb'in BBQ specialize in sultry smoked meats and picnic-friendly sides.
The three have common attributes. For instance, they are all super-casual. At Red State and Hawg Wild, the walls are autographed by satisfied customers with local name recognition. The table settings, including plates and table covers, are primarily plastic and Styrofoam. Brisket, beef, pork and ribs are the stars, with potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans playing dependable supporting roles.
But there the similarities end, and although the differences are subtle, they give each restaurant its own persona.
Red State, for example, is a roadside café on Georgetown Road owned by a Texas transplant. Its distance from downtown suggests the back highways of the Lone Star State. The menu is simple, with top-notch sandwiches. The brisket, sliced and falling out of the bun, is tender and smoky. Ditto the little mountains of pulled pork. Here, as at Butt Rubb'in, there are three choices of sauces — one is a little spicy, another sweet with honey, and a third is like honey mustard.
Hawg Wild's smoker sits in the parking lot facing Versailles Road. Another Texan, who will gladly explain "Texas cheat," a tenderizing method involving apple juice and steaming, owns this diner-style restaurant. Here, brisket is softer, so slices fall to delicious shards with just enough fat remaining, and the pulled pork melts in your mouth. Sauce comes in eight, yes, eight wonderful flavors. Being a spice lover, I was torn between the cowboy chipotle and Texas heat, but there are sweet and mild ones as well.
Butt Rubb'in BBQ is the most "formal," with the kitchen hidden from view. The local love of pork rather than Texas' penchant for beef dominates. It serves an interesting pulled-pork "sandwich" called the Joe Wilson, in which corn bread cakes stand in for buns. But I also loved the atypical brisket that tastes like pastrami; it's an oasis in Lexington's desert of deli food.
All three places serve good ribs, a dish less susceptible to losing its texture. Among them, however, Butt Rubb'in's were the meatiest and juiciest. Red State's were a bit neutral, perhaps because that kitchen is the most considerate overall about salting. Hawg Wild's were almost too smoky.
The sides you love will depend entirely on your palate.
In the coleslaw department, I appreciated the pungent and heady celery at Butt Rubb'in. Red State's is the creamiest, with very modest salt. Hawg Wild's coarsely shredded slaw is refreshing and vinegary, certainly the most refreshing.
All the potato salads are chunky and creamy, but their profiles changed between visits. Red State's is rich and light yellow; it sometimes had minced aromatics and sometimes didn't. Butt Rubb'in will add celery seeds in varying amounts. Hawg Wild is the most consistent: creamy and mustardy every time.
Each restaurant turned out small, tender baked beans. Butt Rubb'in uses a pinch of cayenne, giving the beans a slight kick. Cumin is a great addition to the beans from Red State. Hawg Wild's are the least sweet — meaning the least cloying — and you might find pork rind or minced onion giving extra flavor.
Barbecue, the quintessential warm-weather food, is so varied — and inexpensive — that the more choices, the better. Lexington has long had examples from Western Kentucky and Memphis, so it's nice to enjoy other regional riffs, especially straight from the smoker.