Monday, March 17, 2008

The Great Texas Brisket Chase (Part II)

(This is Part II, click here for Part I, or risk becoming total disoriented)

Having packed my suit and my portable GPS navigator (“Giles,” as I’ve nicknamed it thanks to the British accent on which it's now set), we took an early flight Friday morning, arriving in Dallas around 10 a.m. and picked up our rental car. Our internal clocks were still on Eastern time, and we hadn’t eaten since grabbing something at the airport at 6 a.m. Between my dad’s diabetes and the uniquely Jewish proclivity to always have your next meal planned, lunch became priority one—it was the main topic of discussion while eating our breakfast in the airport. What was the name of the place where we had the good barbecue on our last trip to Dallas many years earlier? Oh, yeah! Sonny Bryan’s! It was in the city, but we’re headed out to the ‘burbs. The opposite direction from where we needed to be, going into the city during the workweek didn’t appeal to me.

So just for smiles, after powering up Giles and acquiring satellites, I typed in Sonny Bryan’s, and was excited to find they’ve expanded from their one or two locations downtown. And there’s even one along our route. So off Giles led us onto the Texas highways. My children (whom I wisely left at home with MoCoSpouse) have reached an age where they no longer do incredibly annoying things as backseat passengers, but in a warped circle-of-life realization, I've found Mom has somehow managed to pick up the slack. First, she felt compelled to call out the name of every business along the 20-mile commercial strip of highway and remark on whether or not it was one we had back home. And how big everything in Texas was as we passed by...from the width of the highway, to the McDonalds, to the carwashes built to accommodate pickups, to the roadkill.

Mom and the automobile always had a funny relationship. To the outside world, we were this normal ‘60s middle-class suburban family. But we harbored a dark secret that few people to this day can fathom—Mom had neither the courage nor desire to drive, so she never had a car nor license to drive one. In conjunction with Dad's grueling work schedule that often made him unavailable until evening, we somehow managed to get to all the things kids needed to get to. And even at a fairly advanced age, Mom still manages to get wherever she needs to via a network of friends who can still drive and public transportation when Dad is unavailable to play chauffeur.

What Mom lacks in courage to get behind the wheel, she makes up for in her confidence as a navigator. Mom’s navigational skills (I refer to her as Dad's GPS—Global Positioning Spouse) are not based on abstract concepts such as north, south, east, west, or maps—they are based on instinct. Dad is the stereotypical stubborn won’t-ask-for-directions guy who still goes to AAA for Triptiks and traveler’s checks.

I also stubbornly refuse to ask for directions, but have the advantage of being the technogeek who was the first in our family to embrace Mapquest in the mid ‘90s and satellite navigation in the current millenium. Put the three of us together in a rented Grand Prix in a strange place, and it's "fasten your seatbelts—it’s going to be a bumpy night."

For years, I’ve been extolling the wonders of GPS to Dad with the hope that I could convince him to get his own, thinking it would be especially easy since prices have come so far down in the last year or two. No go. He still refuses on principle, but I know that he respects the technology and I'll catch him sneaking a curious glance each time Giles announces the next maneuver.

Mom, on the other hand, has little patience for technology. To her, answering machines were an evil invention specifically designed for the sole purpose of allowing children to screen their mothers' calls in the days before Caller ID and cell phones. She would refuse to “talk to a machine,” and then we'd get an earful the next time we'd call for not being clairvoyant enough to know that she had tried to call earlier. Giles is apparently just as evil, and Mom believes she can somehow do better. She continually asks over and over if I know where I’m going on this strange, big highway in this strange, big state. “Not a clue,” I tell her. “But he does,” I add, cockily pointing to Giles on the dashboard. Mom is skeptical.

As Giles tells me we’re within a mile of Sonny Bryan’s, my mouth is watering. “Arriving at Sonny Bryan’s on the right,” he proudly announces. Except that there’s no Sonny Bryan’s on the right, just a few chain restaurants along the ring road encircling a huge shopping mall. I intentionally make a wrong turn onto the ring road, hoping Giles will automatically re-route me to the correct location. Sure enough, he re-routes me, but to the same incorrect location. As an experienced car GPS user, I’m not incredibly frustrated as it’s not all that unusual for this to happen. Usually it’s one of two reasons:

1) Sonny Bryan’s used to be there, but I’m too cheap to cough up $100 for a database update

2) When you’ve got an address that’s not exactly at an intersection, Giles (as well as web mapping programs) gives an approximate guess as to where an address is located. Sometimes this is way off. Sonny Bryan’s is likely buried in the food court of the gargantuan shopping mall where every business shares the same street address.

Mom appreciates that I’ve taken the time to explain this, but doesn’t particularly care and counters with her trump card, the last thing any GPS user wants to hear from a backseat passenger:

“There’s a gas station, go ask somebody.”

All the while, Dad knows to remain quiet and uninvolved, held captive in a navigational Switzerland.

Refusing to swallow my pride, I called an audible. This is Texas, there’s got to be barbecue everywhere. Sure enough, I ask and Giles shows me all the barbecue places near our current location and there's one 1.2 miles away with a really good, rednecked name that happens to escape me at the moment. This time, all the restaurants are along the highway. But once again, no barbecue. Mom’s patience and Dad's blood sugar are both approaching alarming levels. We'll try for one more before settling on the readily visible TGIAppleRubyChilisFridays dotting the landscape.

This time I wised up, and called the phone number Giles provided of the next-closest place to ensure they were still in business and easily accessible. Lo and behold, we land upon Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, a cafeteria-style chain currently expanding nationwide, right where it’s supposed to be. Mom sees the empty parking lot and has concerns about going into a restaurant that's empty at the 12 noon lunch rush; I explain that it’s 11 a.m. and she should think about setting her watch back an hour in a new time zone. She never did; "too much work" since she'd just have to change it back again at the end of the weekend.

Dickey makes a pretty darn good brisket (along with a portion of smoked turkey), sliced to order, damp but not swimming in juice, fork-tender and slightly sweet. I chose some great sides (cole slaw and mac-and-cheese) to accompany my platter, and the first of the many Dr. Pepper I would consume over the long weekend. Unlike other parts of the country where Dr. Pepper is just another choice on the soda dispenser alongside Sprite, it's a culture all its own in Texas. Dr. Pepper was born here, and it seems to carry the same sort of marketing clout as Coke or Pepsi, with its own branded machines and restaurant signage.

We made our way to the hotel, exhausted after the 4 a.m. (Eastern) start to our day, and got some much needed rest before the first official event of the weekend, a (non-barbecue) dinner for the out-of-towners. In the interim, Giles led me back to the airport to pick up my sister, who flew in from another part of the country for the weekend festivities. The best was yet to come.

Next up in Part III: Brisket...with an added bonus

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