Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bandana’s Bar-B-Q

103 Truman Blvd
Crystal City, MO


The Place:
Bandana’s is a regional chain headquartered in St. Louis with locations in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Kansas. The one we visited is in Crystal City*, near the K-Mart. The first thing you notice when you get out of the car is the delightful aroma. They keep their smokers running 24/7 and it smells absolutely wonderful. (If heaven smelled like this I’d clean up my act.)
The second thing I noticed was the music being pumped from a cheap outdoor speaker. It was country music, I could tell from the two step beat and twang, but lyrics, voices and instruments were impossible to discern. The speaker, like one you’d find on a boat, had a bandwidth too narrow to make any music enjoyable; it was like listening to an ice cream truck.
Inside the music was audible but once again they had gone cheap on the overhead speakers. If there were any bass clef notes in any of the songs they played you couldn’t tell. The only good part about the background music is that the volume was kept very low, so it soon blended in to the background.
The décor was cheap and country-kitschy. The wallpaper on the soffits pretended to be exposed logs, over the kitchen area, brick. This wallpaper wouldn’t fool anyone. The booths were clean, well maintained and comfortable. The paper towel holder was constructed from iron pipe pieces, the overhead lamps had wash basins for shades. They were obviously going for a down-home country motif, and achieved a down-home country motif infused with a touch of either bad taste or abject poverty.
We were seated immediately and handed our menus. We asked for tea, tea, and to Adam’s delight Pepsi. (He has a definite preference it turns out) The menus were laminated two-sided cards about eleven by fourteen inches. The choices were simple. If you wanted fish, burgers, fried chicken, club sandwiches or Caesar Salad you were in the wrong place. This was a barbecue joint from one end to the other.
On the table, alongside the paper towels (always a good idea for barbeque/ribs) were five bottles of various sauces. Original, Sweet and Smoky, Sweet and Spicy, KC Masterpiece, and Chicago style. Adam tried a spot of them all from his wrist.
The menu had boasted ‘Fresh Brewed Tea’ and I was going to hold them to that. It was indeed fresh and delivered quickly but it was not Luzianne.

We placed our orders. I opted for the beef and pork platter with a baked potato and barbecue baked beans. (two sides included with the platters). Angel ordered the smoked chicken, with corn and baked potato. Adam ordered a sandwich called the “Wet Bandana” with Chicken and Turkey (beef and pork were also options) with fries.

The Food:
Delivery was pretty quick. Our plates arrived exactly as ordered. The disposable plates were set in tin pie pans and lined with butcher paper. The piles of meat were smoky and smelled great. The baked potatoes were wrapped in foil, the beans/corn served in a small bowl in the center of the plate. Topping it all were two generous slices of their garlic toast. This thick, French-bread toast was buttered, spiced then grilled. The meat portions were generous, I had two piles, pork and beef, Angel had a full half chicken. Adam’s sandwich was piled high and the fries were, as he put it, “perfectly made”.
I dabbed a little of each of the five sauces onto the rim of my plate and dragged small bits of meat through each of them. The meat was very well made and did not require sauce to make it good. I chose The Sweet & Smoky and the Chicago as my favorites. Adam agreed. (usually he prefers KC Masterpiece, this indicates that he found two sauces here that he liked even better)
Angel let me try a chunk of her chicken, it was heavenly; Moist, smoky and tender. I let her have a couple of chunks of my pork and beef. We decided that any of them would have been a good choice.
The pulled pork was absolutely perfect. The beef was a bit dry, as smoked beef tends to be, but with a dab of sauce it quickly became awesome good. The toast was simply outstanding. The potato was done perfectly and the butter and sour cream portions generous. The real surprise was the baked beans. These were absolutely the best baked/barbecue beans I had ever had. Obviously slow cooked with some meat added, the bean broth was thick and creamy. I could not get enough of these beans. Angel said that her corn was equally good, fresh, sweet and firm.
I can tell you how good this meal was in another way. I did not finish my potato. As I delighted on the bread, the beans and the barbecue, I found myself getting full. I was not going to be able to finish it all, something would be left behind. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing at all wrong with that potato, it was just that something had to be sacrificed and the potato lost. For me to leave potato behind is unheard of. I am a potato addict. I would rather have a potato, cooked almost any way, than most other foods. In most burger or sandwich places I’ll finish the fries and leave sandwich behind, but not here. That’s how good the food was.
Adam spoke often and highly about his meal throughout the evening. This is quite rare and says quite a bit by itself and in fact, he lobbied for a perfect score. I had to remind him that the tea was NOT Luzianne so a perfect score was simply not possible. However, should they ever decide to make and serve a hearty burgoo** as good as their other food, they might just have THE wining combination.

The service:
Our friendly waitress, Brandy, checked on us frequently and kept our drinks filled. She and a manager both stopped by to inquire if everything was okay. We assured them, talking with our mouths stuffed full, that yes indeed, the food was great.
Brandy, upon sensing that we were finishing up with the main courses offered desserts. Adam picked pumpkin pie, Angel chose pecan. I inquired about the availability of the one and only worthy option, apple.
No. No apple pie.
I was disappointed, but only a little since I was already quite full. I asked her to look around in the back in case someone had squirreled away a slice somewhere. She assured me that no one would do that and that she was quite sure that there was just no apple pie. I muttered “Blasphemer”, or “Infidel”, or something like that. She smiled and once again apologized that there was not any. I asked her to check anyhow. I told her I’d take it even if it had been setting out for a few days or had fallen on the floor.
When she delivered the pies, I looked her up and down and behind her, checking for smuggling or possible surprises. She laughed but again assured me that there was simply no apple pie to be found. “ Away with you then! ” I scoffed. She laughed. (Excellent people skills!)
As Angel and Adam finished up their excellent pies, I picked at the scraps of meat still left on my plate. Once we were all finished I glanced, just glanced toward the kitchen/wait area. Brandy immediately hopped up and arrived at our table with the check.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably already figured out that we really, really enjoyed this meal. Sure the décor and music were cheap and forgettable, but man, the food was superb! Every bit of it perfectly and painstakingly prepared including the sides and the toast. The sides weren’t just ‘sides’ here, they were treated with every bit as much attention to detail and quality as the meats. This is very, very, very rare.
The service was clean, well staffed and professional. It was not too flirty or overbearing, and was close and available without hovering. In fact it was good enough for me to actually, (and for the first time in this quest) offer the name of our server in a review. Also for the first time I paid more than my customary tip. Okay, not a lot more. I still consider 15% to be a fair and strict standard. I rarely go far above that, but I will, and HAVE gone well below that.
The price was quite reasonable with our platters costing around ten dollars each and the sandwich under seven dollars. The pie, tip and drinks brought the total up to $52.50.
For a comparison, re-read the review of “Buffalo Wild Wings” a few weeks back. It cost more for basically the same meals, yet was all but intolerable and inedible in every way. I happily paid the tab at Bandana’s.
Final score: 97% a solid A+. Highly recommended, I can’t wait to go back!

* Crystal City is an interesting place historically. In the late 1800’s a factory was built to manufacture plate glass from the very high quality silica found in and around Plattin Creek. Plate glass was made by melting silica (sand) in a furnace and pouring it onto tables. Once cooled the glass was originally polished by hand using sand, rouge and emery.
The American Plate Glass Company developed the area around the factory and called the town ‘New Detroit’. A few years later, not being satisfied being compared to Old Detroit, the people renamed the town Crystal City, a likely homage to the new owning company, Crystal Plate Glass. The town was company owned and run for many years. As such the company had certain rules about the morals and behavior of its workers. Alcohol was not allowed in the company town.
It wasn’t very long at all before another town sprang up right on Crystal City’s borders primarily to remedy the rampant sobriety problem. That town, now called Festus, was originally called ‘Tanglefoot’ referring to the tripping and staggering of the many workers/residents leaving the saloons to return to their homes inside the company town.
In 1908 Crystal City Works Nine, as the factory was called, was owned by PPG and was the world’s largest plate glass plant. As other glass technologies emerged the demand for plate glass diminished throughout the early to mid twentieth century. Having manufactured windscreens for aircraft during WWII and auto glass afterwards, the factory finally closed it’s doors for good in 1991.
Driving through the area now it is very hard to determine where Crystal City starts and Festus ends. Several of the old company homes still stand in the old downtown area of Crystal City but the factory and furnaces are long gone. All that remain of the glass company are the Hospital and the Headquarters building, now used for other purposes.
Source : http://www.crystalcitymo.org/history/index.html

** Burgoo: For you non Kentuckians, burgoo is like an Irish stew, sort of, and can often be found amongst smoked/barbecue meat event such as church picnics. There is no one defining recipe but it generally contains one or more smoked meats (squirrel and opossum was once popular) lots of corn, beans and whatever veggies might be available (skip the okra, please!).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Bentley House

Hillsboro MO.

Thanksgiving 2009

The Place:
It’s just like home, well, it is home.
Purchased unfortunately at the apex of the housing bubble in 2006. The modern comfortable home sports three bedrooms, three and a half baths, a large open living room, dining room and kitchen and a fully finished walkout basement on five acres of rural land just five miles outside Hillsboro MO. Somewhat secluded it sits back about four hundred heavily wooded feet from the road. No trick-or-treaters have ever approached, likewise there’s simply no point in hanging exterior Christmas lights. (Win-win!)
The dining room was furnished with a light oak table and matching chairs. A dark antique hutch, a family heirloom of some sort, overlooked the dining area and during the holiday season serves as the display platform for the owner’s large, pointless, but colorfully festive collection of nearly seventy nutcrackers.
The carpet was worn and plain. The large windows allowed the option of plenty of light, shaded by custom-made violet/purple/dark red vertical blinds. The walls were white with textured tones of silver and / or beige.
A few steps away were the open kitchen and pantry. Many meals are made in the small but accessible kitchen, few actually consumed in the dining room.
In the adjoining living room the large TV whispered an old episode of ‘Mythbusters’ and a fire crackled in the tarnished, glass enclosed fireplace.

The Food:
The holiday fare was traditional. Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, corn, deviled eggs, olives, dinner rolls, and of course, the specialty of the house; gravy. For dessert two pie choices. Angel and Adam to shared the pumpkin, I got the apple. I made the apple pie with my own two hands, carefully opening the frozen box and removing the plastic covering all by myself. Great effort was extended turning the oven to 400 degrees and setting the timer for fifty five minutes exactly. Midway through the cooking cycle foil was wrapped around the edges to keep the crust from burning.
Two small turkeys were prepared. One a day ahead of time, the other fresh out of the oven. The dressing was special this year, rather than from a box, it was homemade from an old family recipe, with dried bread, sage, celery, and whatever else goes into dressing. The mashed potatoes were made from actual potatoes, the dinner rolls were name-brand ‘brown and serve’ a family favorite. The gravy was as always homemade with the drippings from one of the turkeys, flour, and… well that’s pretty much it. The deviled eggs were piled high with filling and placed in the crystal deviled egg platter, another family heirloom. In the center of the eggs was a crystal bowl filled with black olives freshly plucked from a new, un-dented can.
I made my own tea, Luzianne, of course, Angel and Adam drank something, I don’t recall what.

The Service:
Angel decided to nap that morning and did not leave me any specific instructions. I obliged by not doing anything. The house smelled great though. Once she finally got up and started the final preparations, things moved quickly. There were few fatal accidents and most of the prepared food made it to the table.
The turkey was carved, one by Angel the other by me, with all the skill and finesse of an old-west saloon knife fight. The carcasses were decimated in the carnage and reduced to brittle steamy bones in very short order. The meat went into either the large Tupperware-like box container or a one gallon freezer bag. The box would serve as the starting point for subsequent meals. Some of the better bits were plated and served at the table. The bag went into the freezer for use in future meals and snacks.
Once dinner was called at about three thirty P.M. the meal went fast.

One of the turkeys was a little dry so we mixed and matched batches. Gravy cures this problem easily if applied liberally. The dinner rolls were darker on the bottom than the top as I had failed to move the oven rack up to the center before heating them. The potatoes were a bit watery, but once again gravy punched through that issue as well. The deviled eggs were exceptional, the corn was fresh from a can and microwaved with a bit of butter. In other words, perfect. The real star of the show though was the dressing. Angel had pulled back a little from the recommended amount of sage which turned out to be a good thing. The texture and taste were simply perfect. Angel has reminded me that there was also some asparagus. I assume she cooked it somehow and enjoyed it, I really don’t care. I’m pretty sure asparagus is what the Donner party finally reduced themselves to eating after they ran out of people.
The apple pie was cooked late deliberately. I planned to stuff myself with proper vittles at dinner and then savor dessert much later. Adam made the pumpkin pie which was a good life lesson for him. He removed the tin pie pan prior to putting it on the baking sheet. Admittedly the instructions on the box were a bit vague. This resulted in what could be described as a pumpkin pizza, which was every bit as good, so they tell me, as if it were still in the pie pan. I despise pumpkin pie and would have been no more concerned about how it turned out had it exploded and turned into boiling acid.
As holiday meals go, this one was as near to perfect as I can recall. Sure some individual items were a little off, but they were all made with purpose, devotion and love and then topped with gravy.
Dinner in a warm, comfortable place, surrounded by loved ones, the total tab: Priceless.
We highly recommend this place and will certainly return again and again. Final score 100%.

Bonus track: Leftovers!
The reason for making so much food was so we would not have to prepare another meal for the remaining three days of the holiday. Below is a collection of some of the meals made independently at unpredictable and irregular times.

Barbecue Turkey Sandwich.
Select pieces of white and dark meat, sautéed with lots of onions. Barbecue sauce is thinly applied in the skillet and allowed to caramelize. Served on toast with a side of lima beans and potato chip crumbs.

Turkey Rice, Asian Style.
Regular white rice made in my prized rice cooker. Veggies, onions, peppers, celery, etc sautéed with select chopped bits of turkey. Once the rice maker pops, mix everything in a large bowl with a chopped fried egg and douse with soy sauce to taste.

Classic Turkey Sandwich.
Bread, mayo, turkey. Done. Cheez-Its round off this quick meal perfectly.

Breakfast casserole.
Turkey, a little dressing, onions, heated in a skillet till hot. Add in two to twenty eggs to taste, partially frying them then mixing with the turkey, etc. until coated and done. Some bacon pieces would have been good had I remembered that we had some.

Poor (lazy) Man’s Casserole.
Take some of everything leftover; turkey, dressing , mashed potatoes, corn and pile it high in a cereal bowl. Nuke until piping hot, smother it in reheated leftover gravy. This meal best served to people already wearing holiday sweat pants or loose fitting bathrobes.

Deep Fried Thanksgiving Balls.
Angel saw this one on The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives”
Take some Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and mix together in whatever proportion you like, using the mashed potatoes to bind it all. Make 2 inch diameter balls out of them and dip them in a beer batter ( 1 ½ cup flour per 12 oz beer, ½ tsp salt, mix the flour/salt into the beer). Deep fry until golden brown. We topped ours with gravy. Use any remaining batter to make some tasty onion rings.

Turkey Potato Pancakes.
The morning after we made the balls, I pondered about the best way to reheat them. I flattened a couple pancake thin then reheated them in a skillet along with some of the leftover rice. Mmm.

Basic Turkey Midnight Snack.
Take some turkey from the box and put it in a plastic bowl. Sit down in front of the TV and enjoy. Excellent when accompanied by a fresh box of Chardonnay.

Angel also reminded me to mention the Turkey Pot Pie. Which is turkey, boiled potatoes and I imagine carrots or something like that in a thick stock that she made out of broth or something. Instead of pie crust, just make some biscuits. Angel decided to try a new recipe off the web. Bad idea, they weren’t very good but they sure were flat and hard. Regular biscuits (canned) are better, and so were a couple of those leftover turkey balls. Anyway, cook the broth with the turkey and potatoes, etc, and pour in a bowl over whatever carbohydrate / starch delivery device you prefer.

Thanksgiving Chili.
By day four we were running low. Angel broke down and made traditional chili. Angel’s a bit timid when making chili so I usually end up spiking it a bit, much like I do with my Sunday morning canned chili brunch. This time I kicked it up holiday style.
Chop up the remaining, picked-over turkey bits including those dry ones stuck to the side of the box. Chop up one stalk of wilting celery and the limp end pieces of the onions that rolled to the back of the crisper. Then add those diced bell peppers and jalapenos from the bags in the freezer. Sautee in olive oil since all the canola oil got used up making the turkey balls.
Spoon in more of the plain chili than you can possibly ingest at one sitting. Simmer while your Luzianne tea steeps. Crack open the last, stale package of generic saltines. Once all is done sit down, hunch over and read a book while gorging yourself . Ignore everything and everyone else for the next hour or so. Eat all of it.
For desert: ‘Tums’ and regrets aplenty.