Here’s an interesting number: 10,400. That is the number of calories, according to my teammate Steve’s very fancy watch, each of us burned on the Ride to Conquer Cancer. (In winter, when I am in full hibernation mode, it usually takes me three weeks to burn that much.) This meant that my metabolism was fired up to the point that food would literally vaporize before it even passed my tonsils. This also meant that immediately following the big ride, I could eat obscene quantities of anything I wanted. Yes, this was a job for southern barbeque. And in Calgary, southern barbeque is Big T’s BBQ and Smokehouse.
There is a litmus test that all restaurants claiming to serve good southern cooking must pass: they must deep-fry at least one weird thing. Not too weird, mind you. Not Calgary Stampede weird where they started deep-frying Snickers and jellybeans a few years ago but will now deep-fry anything from small children to home appliances. (Not brand new appliances; we’re not barbarians!) But any self-respecting southern BBQ joint should deep-fry something that probably started off as a dare.
Big T’s does pass the deep fryer test. One of their specialties is deep-fried (you know, I think just used the phrase “deep-fried” enough to make me an honorary Louisianan. Three more times and I’ll be bestowed with the title of “Bubba” and all the perks that come with it!). Anyway, Big T’s has deep-fried pickles. Dill pickles, of course, because deep-fried gherkins is just crazy-talk. These are always a big hit with Alison, and she reluctantly shared them with the rest of the table. They are served in a paper cone atop an iron spire with a cool “ranchy” dip on the side. I love them too, with one caveat: the breading loses heat much faster than the encased cuke, deceiving you into believing (erroneously) that the pickle has cooled below the temperature of napalm and is ready to eat. Fortunately, the skin inside my mouth grows back quickly.
The atmosphere of Big T’s is a big part of its appeal. It has a bit of a roadhouse vibe…well, as much as a restaurant located in a strip mall can have any vibe that isn’t created by the stomping feet of twenty people trying to drop 30 pounds at the step class two storefronts down. The wood-lined walls are decorated with jazz, blues, and Motown record covers; and the kitchen is open for all patrons to see and drool over. The ambiance was enhanced at our table by the friends we were dining with, particularly Karen, an actual Southerner with a Deliverance-style accent and everything. Alison has known her longer than she’s known me, and Karen is quite possibly one of the bravest people I know. Not because she is fighting MS (which she is). And not because she recently toured the Middle East (which she did). No, Karen is the bravest person I know because I’ve watched her scream at complete strangers in New Orleans. Alison and I visited her a number of years ago when she was living in the Big Easy, and Karen did most of the driving. The other drivers she shared (I use the term loosely) the road with were a constant source of extreme irritation for Karen, and she would let them know in no uncertain terms, questioning the marital status of the parents of anyone who merged incorrectly and calling on Jesus to strike down those who didn’t have their exact change at the ready when approaching a toll bridge booth.
Don’t get me wrong. We love Karen, and her pedigree allowed her to order hush puppies like a real pro, giving our meal extra authenticity. (It also didn’t hurt that she and Heery paid for dinner. Thanks!)
Speaking of hush puppies, if you don’t know what they are, hush puppies are round pieces of deep-fried (“Bubba!”) cornbread served with maple syrup for dipping. An angioplasty can be added for a nominal fee. The hush puppies are the source of one of my few issues with Big T’s. No, they prepare them perfectly, so that isn’t my complaint. It’s that every meal comes with a non-negotiable side of cornbread, and then you get to choose from additional sides (one of which is hush puppies). Even considering my new title of “Bubba”, that’s a lot of corn in bread form. C’mon, Big T’s, let’s make the first side a choice of cornbread or hush puppies! Just saying.
My other concern is slightly more serious. Big T’s naturally serves breaded catfish (an animal that has been beaten mercilessly with the ugly stick, but is a southern staple), but this they do prepare wrong. It isn’t entirely fair to Big T’s to say this, because I’m comparing their preparation method to Dan Akroyd’s House of Blues. My first encounter with catfish as a food (instead of a freakshow at the aquarium) was at the House of Blues in New Orleans, and they breaded it in cornmeal. Big T’s uses a flour-based breading. I know! What’s wrong with these people? What’s next, pulled pork served in a pita pocket??
These are actually very minor complaints, and they were completely erased by the full rack of ribs I ordered. If you ever find yourself at Big T’s, you must have the Carolina Mustard ribs. (I’m having a Pavlovian reaction even as I write this.) I’m a big fan of dark reddish-brown barbeque sauces on my ribs (hell, on my anything), but this mustard yellow sauce beats them all. The rack was enormous, extending beyond both sides of my plate like the love-handles of an American tourist in a beach lounger, but due to my super-charged metabolism, I demolished them in about 7 minutes and didn’t feel a thing. Only a critical glance from Alison stopped me from ordering another round. Fortunately, Will was running out of steam, so I helped him finish his ribs, and I stole a hush puppy from Duncan. Will had chosen the spicy ribs, and they were also excellent with some real burn that increased with each bite.
We finished our meal by sharing a Wild Turkey Pie (think pecan pie with chocolate…giddy up!), and when I say share, I mean I devoured half of it before everyone’s glares finally broke me down.
Hey, I still had at least another 6000 calories to recover!