Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ashley's Bar-B-Que: Much Ado About Meat

It's funny, as reactions to the Speed Queen review were certainly polarized: one side, I had folks railing against me for not claiming the shoulder as the second coming of Christ. On the other side, I had the dismissive scoffs of barbecue aficionados who regard Speed Queen as one incremental step above Famous Dave's. I guess you can't please everybody, and in the case of the Speed Queen review, I shouldn't even bother trying to please anybody. Even my own mother.

So, I approached our meal at Ashley's with a bit of caution: with all of the perceived hype surrounding Speed Queen, the last thing I wanted to do was build Ashley's up into a gigantic thunderhead of deliciousness, only to stand corrected by the huddled barbecue masses yearning to chop my head off.

I will not launch into a long soliloquy regarding racial segregation, class differences, and neighborhood issues in Milwaukee, please see previous reviews for that. However, it does merit a mention that Ashley's is not in Fox Point, nor Franklin, nor River Hills: this is a neighborhood fixture serving one of Milwaukee's most impoverished areas, and while certainly not Calcutta, a trip to Ashley's for many of Eating Milwaukee's readers should put things in perspective: poverty, racial segregation, and rough times are still very much part of the fabric of Milwaukee's inner city.

The building itself is a bit homely: what looks as though it may have started life as a garage, or maybe a car lot. It is, however, authentic, and has the look and feel that always tells me the food is more important than the image. A stack on the roof of the squat building was spewing fragrant smoke as we arrived, and I could smell the sweet nectar of fried goodies from within the door.

The lobby itself is very spartan, with a curved counter for ordering, a few plastic chairs, and some very retro video games. One wall is dominated with the menu board, which is fairly straightforward:

The menu is generous, and I can't imagine you'd want for much with as many items as Ashley's offers. The usual suspects are all there, with one sad, glaring omission: no Mac & Cheese!

This is, of course, perfectly fine, as we had downloaded Ashley's menu beforehand, and Lauren had decided to make some at home. Being Eating Milwaukee, we couldn't just do some nuclear-orange Mac & Cheese from a box, and even the usual homemade baked Macaroni w/ Sauce Mornay still didn't quite cut it: we had the Pioneer Woman's Spicy Mac & Cheese.

We had a near-record attendance of six (count 'em, SIX) EM staff members present, and we tried our best to cover the entire menu. And, even though Ashley's very graciously offers delivery for orders over $20, we went in person to check out the digs, and get a feel for the operation. Boy, am I glad we did!

We stopped in on July 3rd, and there was plenty of traffic to be found, even on a traditional barbecue-in-your-own-yard weekend. Lots of folks walking in off the street, lots of cars in and out of the lot. This is the sign of a good meal: it being a holiday weekend, the place was nevertheless jumping.

The lobby itself is a bit claustrophobic, and on that day, was ghastly hot, so I spent a fair bit of time outside on the lot while we were waiting for our food (a wait, which I might add, was negligible, at worst, considering we didn't phone or fax our order in ahead of time). Having a huge Nikon hanging from my neck can be a curse, sometimes a blessing: in this case, it was the latter. I was afforded a few really fun conversations from folks asking if I was a photographer, to which I replied a resounding "Yes," despite the fact that I believe that title is reserved for actual professionals. They'd ask who I worked for, what I was shooting, and why. We talked about the weather, about the food, and about other restaurants in the area we shouldn't miss. It's this kind of social interaction I believe we so often miss in the TGI Friday's and Applebees of the world: not sitting at a bar, boozed up and verbose, or secretly wishing the people at the table behind you wouldn't talk quite so loud. Here we were, complete strangers, on a hot July day, on 15th and Center, exchanging tips on the best Soul Food in Milwaukee.

While waiting, we were lucky enough to meet Ashley's owner, whose genuine kindness and generosity took me aback a bit. I very timidly asked if he'd be so kind as to show us his pit, akin to asking an artist to see their studio, and amazingly, he agreed.

Inside that hallowed chamber of smoke and fire was a menagerie of meats: chicken, ribs, pork shoulder... all proudly and neatly laid out, slowly becoming that delicious concoction we know as barbecue.

Yes, it's down and dirty. No, that's not all grease from the meat: mostly resins from the wood burning to create the smoke. Yes, it's a complete and utter honor that we were allowed to take a camera inside of the kitchen. And I will say, for the record, what I saw of the kitchen was immaculate: clean, well lit, and nary a dirty utensil in sight.

Learning our lesson from our Speed Queen debacle, we checked all of our items thoroughly before we left: the staff of Ashley's had gotten all five of our very complicated orders perfect -- indeed, there was no reason for us to be concerned with accuracy here.

Upon arriving home, the fun really began: doling out the smoky goodness. What follows is a very quick overview of what we ordered:

Here we have a combo dinner with Tips and Outside, along with some deep-fried Okra.

Some ribs and shoulder (underneath the ribs, of course), along with a generous helping of greens and the ubiquitous white bread.

Shoulder and battered mushrooms.

Ribs, outside, and -- get this -- Ashley Fries. French fries absolutely smothered in nacho cheese, Ashley's BBQ sauce, and pork shoulder. If you weren't thinking about preplanning your funeral before, you might want to now...

Everything here, of course, was complimented by Lauren's superb Mac & Cheese.

I will start the description of the food with a simple truth: everyone at the table agreed that Ashley's was better than Speed Queen, in nearly every way.

I noticed right off that my portions were bigger than when I ordered the exact same dinner at Speed Queen. Not only that, but my tips were far meatier, and less gristly. The pork shoulder outside was spot-on, with all of the smokiness you look for in the outer layers of the shoulder (you could see a very distinct pink smoke ring along the outer edge), but with none of the bitter creosote flavor I detected from Speed Queen. The outside had a fantastic crunchy, chewy crust, but still had some wonderfully tender meat just underneath: the combination of textures was really something to behold. Where Speed Queen's outside had been tough, and almost leathery in places, Ashley's had an even mix: some chewy, some tender.

The okra was tasty, if not your standard fare from Anchor Foods. Well, okay, Anchor Foods doesn't actually make breaded okra. But This Company does.

The Ashley Fries were decadent -- insanely decadent. Like, kind of not even sure what the point is -decadent. By the time you actually work your way down to the fries, they're incredibly soggy, but frankly, I think they're there purely as decoration. Some may like the combo, I can't say I was a big fan, but I can see what they were going for. For some reason, the mix of barbecue sauce and nacho cheese just kind of makes me a little green behind the gills -- it's like the mix of cheese sauce and Arby's sauce on an Arby's Beef & Cheddar sandwich... sickly sweet and vinegary meets dairy product. Yelch.

The breaded mushrooms were pretty standard fare -- tasty, but basic. I'm more convinced the barbecue is the real winner at Ashley's: hitting all the points Speed Queen was lacking on, and then some. I was elated to find the smoke flavor was in perfect balance with meatiness, never overpowering, never too little. The sauce-to-meat ratio was different, too: while Speed Queen was at times oversauced, Ashley's seemed to have a perfect harmony of sauce and meat. 

Ashley's sauce is an entirely different animal: a deeper red than orange, stronger, richer, and sweeter in flavor, it had a consistency that I've come to expect of barbecue sauce. Where Speed Queen had a sort of gel consistency, Ashley's flowed, but was still viscous. Imagine the texture of lotion versus the texture of pancake syrup, and you start to understand why I preferred Ashley's.

One of the shockers of the evening was Ashley's greens: rich, rich, rich! Tender, cooked to perfection, and with a deep flavor not so much of smoke, but meatiness, maybe a little garlic, a little onion, and an acid finish that may have been half lemon, half vinegar; still not completely sure. I would, in all honesty, go back to Ashley's strictly for the greens, as I would go back to Speed Queen just for the Red Beans & Rice. Even if you're not a fan of greens, when you go to Ashley's (which you will), get the greens. Say it with me: GET THE GREENS!

Ashley's was one of the best kind of surprises: when you're expecting good food, and are met with not only excellent food, but also warm smiles, and great experience. Taking the food to go isn't always my idea of a great time, but gathered around the table, in a shady backyard only a few blocks from the lake, all of us shoveling pig into our mouths like there's no tomorrow -- reminds me of the summers I love: family and friends, good food, the sun just starting to set. Milwaukee may not have a wealth of barbecue options, but I count Ashley's at the very top of the list as a don't-miss for the true barbecue fan. 

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B-
Frankly, there really should be no score here at all, since there really isn't much to grade on, at least in the traditional sense. But the tiny parking lot, residential setting, and close-knit relationships between the staff and the neighbors reveal there's something to be said for the purely social aspects of a restaurant. In this way, I think Ashley's deserves to at least place. 

Prices: A-
Portion sizes were slightly larger than Speed Queen, but the quality of the food was leaps and bounds. And let's not forget, Ashley's got our complicated order right: the first time.

Service: B+
Our orders were ready relatively quickly, and I certainly didn't mind a few minutes to poke around, talk with folks, and take some pictures. Everyone we met at Ashley's was extremely friendly.

The Food: A-
Honest, tasty, and without any sort of boasting or chest pounding. The ribs and tips were meaty and tender, the outside was deeply flavorful and a textural wonderland, the sides were all enjoyable (particularly the greens!), and the sauce was strong, thick, and slightly less the shade of a highlighter. We'd gladly go again.

The Details:

Ashley's Bar-B-Que
1501 W. Center St. 
Milwaukee, WI 53206
(414) 372-7666

Website with menu and pricing available here. 

Ashley's Barbeque on Urbanspoon