Big T’s BBQ and Smokehouse, Calgary
“The wait will be about 25 minutes now”. Well, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even ten minutes and we were sitting comfortably at a table designed for four, next to the window with the early summer western sun streaming in on us, and probably close to 100 others, in Big T’s BBQ and Smokehouse’s renovated and updated barbecue joint on Crowchild Trail, right across from McMahon Stadium.
Note that this was at 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon – yep, in this part of North America, we still eat dinner at the most Puritan of hours (none of this European decadent 10 p.m. dinner parties for us, no sir, there be chickens to feed and cows to milk come mornin’, etc.). And by the time we finished our meal at 6:00, the waiting lineup stretched, literally, out the door and into the parking lot.
That’s got to be a good sign. Especially since the last time I had darkened these doors, waaay back about 10 years ago, I finally gave up on Big T’s BBQ – the food was incredible in its mediocrity (especially in comparison to the barbecue experience I had through a bountiful spate of business trips through St.Louis, Kansas City, and San Antonio). And besides – Calgary now had the Palomino, and Holy Smoke: places where you could get a guaranteed authentic BBQ fix whenever you needed one.
But then came a text from Shauna, asking if I had any ideas where she and her new bosses could go for lunch in the Northwest. And Big T’s popped back into my head. Somewhere, we’d heard that they had redone everything, and that they were careful about gluten. I called them to make sure. And you know, when the cheerful, knowledgeable person on the phone says “Oh, yeah, we have celiacs eat here all the time”, that’s a huge first notch on the safety scale. So, they took the plunge. Lunch was good – but because it was lunch, it kinda had to be small. And when Shauna says, with a gleam in her eye – “Look, we HAVE to go back there for dinner”, you listen, because when a celiac can find a safe place where the food is outstanding, you go…
And here are all the reasons you need to visit this place – more than once, because what they have proudly listed on their menu is such a range of GF options that you can’t possibly try everything at one meal.
We decided to try, though. Apparently, they’re the only place in town that serves actual SMOKED chicken wings as an appetizer. We split one order. Good thing, too – as we discovered later. Look – there are two ways you can go with smoking something. Either the rub and marinade and loving handling of the meat gets perfectly crowned with just the barest hint of the transformative power of a good smoke, or else it’s like licking an ashtray and pretending you like it. Let me tell you, these things were amazing. We got four wings each – perfect to try one without any of the accompanying sauces they put in a convenient bucket on your table, then one more to try with each of the Carolina Mustard, Original Big T’s, and Smokin’ Hot sauces, made in-house, and available for purchase to jazz up whatever you got in your own kitchen. And they’re all fantastic – the hot one will make you sit up, but never overpowers, and has a rock-solid sweetness balancing the fire. The mustard has a distinct, herby undertone to its tang, and the original? Well, it’s testament to how molasses should be used.
If these wings were any indication of what was to come…
There was a problem. Among the Barbecue commandments is one which says “by their ribs shall ye judge them”. Shauna decided right off the bat – she was having the Memphis baby backs – which are dry-rubbed and smoked, and served saucelessly. I wanted ribs, too, but that makes for a pretty one-dimensional judgement of a Barbecue place. Big T’s has gone to the effort of serving just about all the foundational dishes from each of the diverse BBQ regions in the US – regions which are prepared to fight over which is the “right” way… Burgoo stew, Andouille sausage, brisket, smoked chicken breast, pulled pork, meat loaf, dry rib-ends – they’re all here, folks, made up by the chef who immersed himself in Barbecue culture in several states before coming home to Calgary.
So I ordered the three-meat meal – char-grilled meatloaf, dry-dusted rib ends, and sliced smoked brisket. With that, you get two sides – and the choices are many: mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potato fries, onion rings, poutine (!), fries, burgoo soup, pit-baked beans, potato salad, dirty rice, coleslaw…. I settled on fried green tomatoes and hush puppies (warning – neither of those are GF. Shauna’s side dishes were, though).
This is what arrived (the cornbread is served with everything – except GF dishes):
Look, my mom taught me to finish what’s put before me. Let me testify that this was not possible, but not for sheer want of trying. The brisket – not even the merest hint of dryness about this notoriously lean and obstinate cut of beef. Whoever smoked this knew what they were doing (look at that pink smoke ring!). Every bite was juicy, tender, and with such a complex layer of flavors running over your tongue – that subtle, unmistakable smoke signature (sweet, because they use applewood from the Okanagan here), and the signature rub that sinks its roots deep into the meat over the 6-hour journey in their onsite smoker. The meatloaf – the meatloaf! – charred on the outside, and unbelievably smooth on the inside. How can meatloaf be smooth – yet there’s no other way to describe it. Is there a Wagyu of meatloaf? This must be it – don’t ask me how they can make it melt in your mouth, but it does. And what a great canvas on which to squirt on this sauce, then that one, then the other. Every bite became my favorite. The dusted dry ribs – “burnt ends” they call them in Kansas City – were definitely not burnt, but a perfect fun-sized version of the half-rack Shauna was enjoying across the table. With the pink smoke ring again evident in every bite – which means there was no cheating or shortcuts on the time in the smoker. And on the side? The fried green tomatoes stand confidently all by themselves compared to their ripe red cousins – these disks of crunchy freshness, dipped in a subtle dill dressing refresh and revive the palate for the next bite of meat. Hush puppies – perfect spheres of cornmeal cake, flash-browned in hot oil, and dipped in maple syrup. Another proof that pork loves sugar, people. Dessert with your main course, why not?
In the meantime, we had an interesting moment – in which the fine staff at Big T’s BBQ proved that how you handle a mistake is often the best test of all in the food business. Shauna’s plate came out of the kitchen, and Natalie, our server stopped it cold. “She’s extremely celiac!” whispered Natalie to the runner from the kitchen. “You can’t have cornbread on that plate – it’s too close to the other food, and it’s dangerous!” Everyone was clearly, and sincerely horrified by this mistake. The apologies we got were immediate and heartfelt. Another rack of ribs was fired and plated right up. And Chard, the general manager (yep, a perfect first name for the guy running a barbecue place), was over at our table in a flash – adding his apology, no excuses, and making sure we knew they knew this was a genuine slip-up. He stayed while Shauna waited, telling us that he was actually looking to source gluten-free flour so that they could offer everything on the menu in a GF version – including fried pickles and green tomatoes, and even the cornbread and hush puppies. In a world where checking out a safe place for a celiac to eat often means eye-rolling resignation, irritation and plain lack of caring – these guys really, really stand out. They know what happened, and they made it right. Completely, and without a fuss.
It didn’t take any time at all, and Shauna’s ribs arrived – a work of art, with a dry-rubbed crust barely concealing the pink, smoky succulence below. Imagine fall-off-the-bone but not soggy, sweetness hovering in the background instead of hitting you in the mouth. You don’t need sauce with these, at all.
Balance these with the dark, unctuous goodness of a long, slow-cooked dish of pit-baked beans, and some potato salad. Not that gooey pile that weighs you down like a rock – this was little cubes of the freshest, just-cooked new potatoes dressed so scantily they were almost indecent – a fresh, vegetably counterpoint to the substantial fare on your plate.
I couldn’t finish, so they boxed up just about a whole meal’s worth of leftovers for me to take home – throwing in some of each kind of sauce as well. There was no way we could have dessert, which we figured was OK, because the menu didn’t list anything GF in that column. What we didn’t know is that Big T’s is not resting on these menu’s laurels. There are actually apple crisp AND peach crisp available. Made with certified non-GF oats. Would we like some of that? Well, yes, we would. We’ll split the apple crisp.
Here’s what arrived:
No tiny little two-bite amuse-bouche here. This was a full lasagne-sized serving. Shauna’s verdict? “You know how much I love apple crisp. This is absolutely perfect”. The apples are just tart enough, the crunchy topping perfectly sweetened – and no vanilla ice cream. You know why? Because Natalie told us that since they serve it with all kinds of other desserts, they didn’t feel it was safe to possibly cross-contaminate us by serving it.
THAT’s sympathetic, knowledgeable and compassionate service. Top that off with Barbecue as good as anything you’ll find in Dixie. And the proof – not a hint of any tummy trouble, not once, all night (aside from being decidedly too full). This one’s safe too, folks. And with three locations in Calgary – northwest, in Deer Ridge, and at the Farmer’s Market, there’s one close enough to any of us to try. (Oh yeah, we boxed up the apple crisp too. Gonna eat the rest of that tomorrow).