A vegan’s homage to BBQ

IMG_2322.JPG

Barbecue is big business in Texas. It’s so big that different barbecuing styles are split between North, South, East and West Texas – everyone claims that theirs is the best. In eastern Texas, where I am now, meat is cooked until it is falling off the bone, smoked over hickory wood and marinated in a beyond sweet tomato based sauce to counteract the slightly acrid smokiness.

Southern Texas style is a little different, where meat is slathered in a molasses sauce which makes the meat pretty moist. Either way, barbecue here is taken damn seriously. Even as a non-meat eater I was keen to visit a few traditional barbecue joints because this stuff is the cornerstone of Texan society.

Traditional sides to a Texan BBQ are fries or a baked potato, coleslaw, black beans and perhaps a gherkin or two. These sides obviously differ depending on where you go, but there’s certainly something fascinating about having the enormous tray brought out from the smokepit and being given enough food to fuel a small family for a weekend for $12.99.

Non-meat eaters traditionally don’t get much of a look in when it comes to BBQ unless you’re a massive fan of potato, but sometimes that’s ok. Sometimes it’s fine to just sit in a huge, wooden shack, the windows darkened by years of smoking, and breathe in the smell of hickory and oak. There’s the obligatory stuffed deer standing by the counter, and tables are ramshackle and the floors are uneven.

This isn’t even completely for effect. BBQ joints are the epitome of rough and ready. On every table is a roll of kitchen towel more than a foot tall for mopping up juices, sauces and spills. There is a constant stream of people kicking back the swing saloon doors to the bathroom with their elbows, covered in BBQ sauces and chipotle.

Out back is where the magic happens, so there’s often a woody aroma wafting around these BBQ shacks. And maybe that’s why I like them so much. They don’t smell like meat, but they smell of the forest; that autumn smokiness when you light a bonfire using wet wood.

What’s interesting about BBQ here is that some places are trying to make the barbecue a more welcoming place for everyone. I’m almost with the school of people who say “leave it well alone. If you want vegan food, don’t come to a BBQ joint”. But then I suppose I like the idea of going with friends who want to really enjoy the meat and being able to eat something other than shoestring onion rings (did I mention that these were beyond incredible?).

Places like the Woodshed Smokehouse in Dallas are throwing things on to the grill that isn’t just slabs of meat. Among the typical offerings of pulled pork, chopped beef and brisket, there are a plethora of vegan/vegetarian friendly options. How about crispy potatoes with aioli, or smoked Texan peanuts and chili salt? Smoked artichokes covered with lemon? Or try the three kale salad, guacamole, and smoked pepita? Dig into the arugula, pickled red onion, smoked pecans, with orange supremes salad instead. Or opt for the slow smoked cauliflower with mornay sauce. I love how these dishes sit on the menu at no expense to pure, traditional BBQ items. No grumbling meat eaters because they’ve been dragged somewhere that only serves salad, and no sad, po-faced veggies who have to nibble on a lettuce leaf while looking mournful at the rack of ribs baked in sticky sauce.

Heaven. But sadly too far to walk to from our flat on the Katy Trail, so it’s being appreciated from afar. >

IMG_2321.JPG

IMG_2324.JPG

IMG_2320.JPG

IMG_2319.JPG

The changing face of Texan food

It’s early. 5.12am to be exact. I’m sitting at the granite worktop of our Airbnb host’s breakfast bar, savouring the air-conditioning that’s so cold I’ve had to pull on a sweater. At 4.45am I made my first drip-through filter coffee pot. At 4.55 I broke the filter coffee pot. And now, I’ve mopped up the spillage and trying to work out what to do until dawn breaks.

I’ve come to Texas mostly for the food – Texas barbecue, Tex-Mex, Ranch. But as a dairy-free vegetarian, I’ve also travelled here to appreciate how the state has adapted its traditional fare to suit new diets and ideas.

The local bookstore is a great place to start when working out how local diet is evolving. Alongside the table bowing in the middle under all the books on the Bush’s (both Laura and Dubya – with one entitled, rather creepily-“Their Wedding Anniversary and Golden Years”) -there is an extensive cookbook section. I run my fingers along the spines: “Perfect Brisket”, “The Big Barbecue Book”, “How to Grill”. There’s even one cookbook I flick open with an entire non-ironically written chapter called “Why the Barbecue is the man’s domain”. Ah Texas.

But it’s across the aisle where things get interesting. An entire two shelves are dedicated to vegan ideas: “Afro-Vegan”, “the Vegan student primer”, “Vegan Chocolate”. This isn’t even taking into account the two shelves above it on vegetarian cooking. Perhaps rather than symbolising a massive cultural shift in Texas, it’s simply because fewer people know how to make a salad than bake a cow. Who knows? What’s clear is that this “phenomena” (if you could call it that) has expanded across Dallas.

We visited three bars/diners/coffee shops yesterday morning, buying a single item at each. This was completely unintentional. I wanted a coffee at the first one. Sam wanted a banana so we popped in to another. And then after the coffee and banana we both wanted breakfast so we went into the third and ordered granola/bacon and juice. Life’s complicated, what can I say? But what we both noticed was that the menus all had a gluten-free option. They all served a variety of milks with their coffee. As well as just the usual soy there was almond and rice milk if that’s what we felt like. At the place we had breakfast there was a plethora of standard brunch and breakfast items like pancakes and huevos rancheros, but there was also a portion of vegan granola on offer, or a stack of dairy-free, gluten-free pancakes.

Texas’ stereotype is one of a meat-loving, carnivorous pack of people. I’m sure this still exists from the number of barbecue pits and steak houses I’ve seen. And yet, it just goes to show that two very different ways of life can co-exist pretty happily. I saw it in Arizona, I saw it in California and I saw it in New York. I dismissed it as a trend and instead assumed it was because people here were health freaks.

In the UK I suffer abuse from my friends because I don’t eat meat and I’m somehow missing out. But the UK has shitloads to learn on this. I’m not trying to convert you, I just wanted to enjoy food where my friends can also enjoy food. Because food is a happy, social thing. So please, UK restaurants, enough with the snootiness when I ask for “no cheese”, and take a leaf from the book of the most carnivorous states on the planet.

IMG_2256-1.JPG

IMG_2233-0.JPG

Dallas’ downtown taqueria: Taco Borracho

Bordered by Mexico, Texas’ version of its neighbour’s food went global decades ago with Tex-Mex. But as well as a number of drive-thrus, diners and restaurants that still cater for creamy, cheesy versions of the real things, Texas hosts lots of tacquerias.

Great for vegans, dieters and gluten-freeer’s alike, these traditional joints litter the main city’s streets and even in Dallas-where money and glitz talks- you can still buy a taco for $2.

We’d heard great things about Miguel’s Cantina near the Dallas Museum of Art, so obviously, being British, we went to the place across the street instead. On the upside, we could see into Miguel’s and watch all the people having a great time.

Taco Borracho was full of office workers smeared in taco juice and rice so clearly they were doing something right. Like any American taco shop they also sold burritos and quesadillas, but the menu was short and to the point with a choice of brisket, brisket or brisket. I asked for veggie tacos and was told I could have black beans. Fine by me.

The tacos were $2.95 each, or 2 for $6.99 with extra rice, beans and a drink. So much rice and beans. Like all tacos that aren’t smothered in chipotle sauce and guacamole, they were just fine but not incredible. The beans were pleasantly stewed and tender, the flecks of jalapeƱo gave my mouth a sour kick every now and the extra hot salsa that I had poured liberally over the chewy corn tortillas eroded the top layer of my mouth. So far, so good.

There was far too much rice on the plate though, and it was a strange yellow colour as though they’d used food dye to make it look as though it was cooked with saffron.

The Peruvian owner had frowned when I had asked her to ease off on the sour cream. “We don’t have sour cream.” So at least vegans won’t offend their sensibilities with frivolous demands.

So for an ok, authentic taco, head to Taco Borracho. You’re welcome.
IMG_2243.JPG

IMG_2242.JPG

IMG_2244.JPG