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By 2g1c2 girls 1 cup

September, 2008:

Southern Food Extravaganza – Ajax, BBB, and The Rib Cage


I'd vote for Bob in a heartbeat!

I'd vote for Bob in a heartbeat!

I sit at the Hampton Inn in Oxford, Mississippi as I write this killing 2 hours before my next Meal. It is the day before the first Presidential Debate, and/or exactly a week before the Vice Presidential Debate in St. Louis – Depending on what John McCain decides to do. Yesterday he announced he was suspending his campaign due to Friday’s House vote on the Economic Bailout. Oxford is ready – Red, White, and Blue bunting adorns every business in this sleepy hamlet, the University of Mississippi has been transformed into a Mini-DC, and all of the television network folks, myself included, are ready to go but instead are sitting around twiddling their thumbs – Swapping war stories about how it used to be on the Lincoln Campaign – Well, maybe they don’t go back that far.

Ok, enough backstory – You are here to read about food, not Politics. But I am here in Oxford, then off to St. Louis, then nashville – 2 weeks of hard work and (hopefully) awesome Southern food. If yesterday was any indication, then I am off to a good start.

Two nights ago, we went drinkin’ and dinin’ off the Square in ‘downtown’ Oxford. We started at the Ajax Diner, and after starting with a couple of Bass Ales, I dug into one of the best Chicken-Fried (I’m sorry – “Country-Fried”) Steaks I have ever had. The meat was almost like a cutlet – Not very pretty to look at, and I was really worried I made the wrong choice at this point. But the fact that this wasn’t a whole steak meant that there was no fat or gristle at all, just pure beef. There is nothing worse than big chunks of fat hiding under a layer of breading and made further invisible by thick gravy. As it turns out, this was one of the BEST CFS’s I have ever had – Great beefy flavor, crisp breading (but not too much!) and awesome brown gravy. I was a bit worried about the gravy too because there didn’t seem to be enough – I like some on every bite – and I was going to order more, but decided against it. As it turns out, there was just enough for every bite and not a bit more. They REALLY know gravy down here folks. Smooth, robust, and delicious!

As for sides, I went with the night’s veggie – Collard Greens, and what was billed as “Hash Brown Casserole”. The Greens were a tad disappointing – Good flavor but a tad too bitter and they hadn’t been cooked long enough. A few quick shakes of Tabasco cured that though and I ate up every bite. For the casserole, I expected some sort of fried hash-brown cake. What came was something completely different. It looked like someone had taken hash browns, cheese, and mayo, mixed it together, and baked it. The first bite was weird as the potatoes didn’t feel crunchy like hash browns should – So I took a second bite, then a third, and before I knew it, this was the first thing gone on my plate. Hash browns, cheese, and mayo – Who knew?

After the Ajax, we went a drinkin’ – We ended up a a place called the “Library”, a definite college bar, thusly named, I am sure, so that when the college-bill-footing-parents called their children the kids could say “Hi Mom and Dad, yes, I am studying hard, in fact I am at the Library”

Wherever we went, whoever we met, we had one question for them: “Where is the best BBQ in town?” The answers were split 50/50 between a place off the square called the “Rib Cage” and one known only as “The joint inside the Shell Station.” Uh, OK – That sounds intriguing, but not very sanitary.

As well as questioning BBQ, we asked the townsfolk where the best Breakfast was – Ajax Diner, for some reason, only served lunch and dinner. A diner that doesn’t server breakfast? Huh? Anyway, the consensus was ‘BBB’ – Otherwise know as something like “Bob’s Badass Breakfast” or “Bob’s Big Breakfast” or such. Yesterday morning, we of course had no choice but to go. The directions were off the square, and as we drove and hit a residential neighborhood (the homes here are Awesome – but that is a whole other blog) we thought we had gone too far. We may have been going a bit slow, and at a stoplight the woman behind us pulled up alongside and asked us “Y’all lookin’ for somethin’? Bobs, oh that jest up the street a bit – Y’all keep goin’, y’uall fand it!” Two blocks later, in a huge (for Oxford) shopping center, was Bob’s.

This place was a hole in the wall and was about half-full (or half-empty, but y’all know me). The one thing about the restaurants down here that differs from everywhere I frequent is no matter where we walk into, we are told “Just have a seat anywhere ya like” – I am used to “We will be right with you, no you can’t have a booth for only 2 people, do you have a reservation”, etc. The service down here is fresh, fast, and friendly, and every server we have run into so far seems genuinely happy to help you. Maybe the Servers in Washington, DC, should spend 2 weeks here training? Bob’s was no exception.

I opted for the “Bob’s Breakfast” – Eggs, Starch, Bread, Meat – a choice each. How do you decide between country ham, bacon, sausage patties, and andouille sausage – the latter three made with love and smoked on the premises? A homemade-from-scratch biscuit or home-baked sourdough? Sausage, red-eye, or tomato gravy? I opted for 2 sunny-side up eggs, country ham, sourdough, grits, red-eye gravy, and oh yeah, a side of sausage patties. No sooner did that sausage order come out of my mouth than I caught crap for ordering too much from my compadres.

The country ham was as I expected – Salty, thick, and full of flavor – perfect for topping with egg-yolks. The grits were amazing – Deep yellow, not that white stuff that you normally see – And I am not quite sure how they were done – I’ll have to ask when I go back. I like mine cooked in chicken stock and mixed with cheese – I am not sure these were either, but they were savory and delicious nonetheless. The red-eye gravy was perfect – I had it on the fluffy sourdough, the grits, and even on the eggs. But the Sausage? Oh, man, the flavor was incredible, made with fresh ingredients and smoked just right – with a perfect grind, no gristle or bad stuff. These folks do it right, and when Dennis tried a bite, he immediately ordered a side for himself (so much for giving me crap). The one thing I didn’t try was the homemade (of course!) jams and jellies – I was too busy dipping things in the gravy to care about fruit!

Fast-forward to lunch – After I slapped the manager who suggested Chili’s (please give me a break – if I wanted mediocre food I could find that restaurant almost anywhere) and laughed at Rich who wanted to go back to Applebees (who cares if it has the closest bar to the hotel – I’ll still never be caught dead there), we decided to head into town, a ride of about 5 minutes, and hit up The Rib Cage. The boys, Blake and Drew, had been there the day before and gave it two thumbs-up, and since I didn’t feel like eating BBQ where I got my gas (I know what you are thinking, and Yes – that could be taken a number of different ways), we figured that The Rib Cage was the way to go.

One of the perks of being in a small town is much less traffic than we are used to, and we found a parking spot right outside the restaurant. It was terribly dark inside – much like a seedy bar (Yes, I’ve read about them!), and though it was around 1pm, there was only one other customer – A bit strange, and I was suddenly wondering if we had made a mistake. But the smell that hit us as we walked through the door confirmed that we were, indeed in the right place. After finding a spot near the front window (so we had a little light), we sat down a prepared to eat. The drinks came quickly, and iced tea and sodas came in huge plastic cups that you could keep.

We order the chicken wings – as the menu warned us “CAUTION: They’re Hot!” They were sticky, messy, and delicious, but the one thing they were not was spicy – They barely raised a tingle on the tongue.

I ordered the BBQ – ie: a pulled-pork sandwich to the rest of the world. Here, ribs and BBQ are two separate things even though they probably came out of the same smoker. Dennis and I also split a small oder of ribs, which were very good, but nothing earth-shattering. They were cooked perfectly, with the meat coming off the bone easily but not falling off so much it ended up in your lap before you took a bite. The flavor was good, slightly sweet, but I was looking for something better than what I could do at home.

Then, suddenly, the Earth stood still, the ground opened up, and pure pleasure washed over me – I tried the BBQ. Now most pulled-pork sandwiches are good – Smoky (and moist of you are lucky) pork on a bun with whatever sauce you want n top – And some go the coleslaw-on-top method, but not me.

This pork was not just smoky and juicy, but Crispy as well! Now I know alot of BBQ that tries to achieve this – Where chunks of crispy pulled pork give off a rush of juice when you bite into them – But so far in my travels, The Rib Cage was the only place that truly made it.

Truth be told, the sauce was good but that’s as far as I’d go – Again, the “Hot” sauce was anything but – Maybe this batch wasn’t up to their usual spiciness, I don’t know. But I will tell you this – If I can ever get my pulled pork even NEAR the quality of the stuff I tasted here, I would die a happy man.