Old Hickory Bar-B-Q, Owensboro, KY

Of course, the problem with doing road trips and eating at new places the way that we enjoy is that we need to balance our traveling between the diametrically opposed points of my foolishly impulsive nature on one peak and common sense on the other. When I first read about barbecued mutton, a common dish in the northwestern Kentucky town of Owensboro, I was halfway out the door. Stark reality soon took hold, and it just made more sense to wait patiently, until I could find some genuine reason to actually be in Ownensboro.

I’ve mentioned before that my son has been staying with his mother in the occasionally gorgeous city of Louisville for a chunk of his middle school days, while my daughter stays with me. I’ve agreed to do what I term as a “prisoner exchange” every once in a while, and don’t mind making an overnight journey and a meal or two out of the travel. Owensboro is just an hour from Bowling Green, making it a five and a half hour trip from our base of operations in Marietta. I asked my son how he felt about trying some barbecue mutton and burgoo, and, good man that he is, he replied “Heck, yeah!” His sister was not convinced. That’s fine; one less mouth to feed and all.

As the home of the International Bar-B-Q Festival, held every May, and the self-styled “Barbecue Capital of the World,” Owensboro talks a big game for such a small town. Admittedly, we saw very, very little of the place – just the restaurant where we had lunch and a comically horrible used bookstore – and have no basis to judge, but honestly, one lunch was enough to demand we return and come to that festival. May 2011, however, is kind of impossibly booked, what with us having a baby around that time. Damnation!

Anyway, determining where to get some mutton in Owensboro was pretty fun. The town is apparently stocked full of barbecue joints, as any self-identified barbecue capital of the country should be. My favorite resource is Roadfood, and according to that site, Moonlite Bar-B-Q is the place to try – it’s actually the only Owensboro restaurant listed on Roadfood, an oversight surely due addressing. But between all the good-natured debates and arguments online about the city’s favorite dishes, Old Hickory emerged as the most promising.

We arrived right at eleven, local time. The restaurant proved very easy to find, and in a very tastefully designed building with a simple sign out front. It’s clearly popular with travellers, as we saw plates from Arkansas, Missouri and counties all over Kentucky in the large parking lot. Inside, there’s a cafeteria-like carry-out counter and register in the front room that you pass through on your way to the large dining room. The tables are garishly decorated with ads for area businesses and trivia about barbecue and the restaurant.

My son has decided to go emo, or something, or whatever thirteen year-olds think they need to go. I last saw him two months ago and his hair was as white as InuYasha’s. Now it is black like shoe polish. Actually, that’s precisely what it looks like, as though he’d just scrubbed his head in some bootblack. Anyway, I tried to contain my giggling – it’s not like his old man didn’t do one or two silly things with his hair when he was a teenager – and asked whether he was ready for some mutton. “Yee-ay-uh,” he says, making a four-letter word have three syllables. Well, when I was a teen, every sentence contained the words “like” and “man.” He had a chopped mutton sandwich and mac and cheese, and I had a chopped mutton plate with burgoo and slaw. Marie had a chopped pork sandwich with baked beans. Everything was delicious.

Burgoo is the local equivalent of Brunswick stew. In Georgia, there are so many dozens of recipes and variations that leave the finish product looking and tasting like anything from mulligan soup to corned beef hash, with colors ranging from black to orange depending on where you order it. My experience in Kentucky is far more limited – I’ve just had it here and in one barbecue restaurant in Louisville – but I understand burgoo is most typically a soupier dish that normally includes potatoes, carrots and occasionally peas along with two or three meats. Again, this International Bar-B-Q Festival sounds like ground zero for experiencing the dish in many varieties.

As for the mutton, it certainly met my expectations. It was chopped very finely and was incredibly smoky. I did not think to order it dry, however, and wish that I had specified that. I would have enjoyed trying the meat on its own before adding the dip. The locals do not call their black sauce a sauce, oddly. It’s refered to as dip, and the mutton is fairly drowned in it. I thought it was quite wonderful, although the experience did prove me wrong when I wondered, some months back, whether Wallace Barbecue here in nearby Austell was using a Worcestershire base for their thin, piping hot sauce. This dip is a little thicker and quite black. Our server pointed out the squeeze bottle on the table and said “And here’s some dip if you need some more.” Really, the mutton had quite enough already, although I did enjoy squeezing a little more dip onto my bread just to enjoy the taste of the sauce separate from the meat.

Overall, this was a fine little trip to enjoy a regional specialty that we cannot get anywhere around Atlanta. I’m totally in favor of every opportunity to get out and do this. Marie and I probably would have enjoyed it just fine by ourselves, but it was great to eat with my son, and also to visit with my kids’ half-brother, who is four, and who wanted to tell Marie all about the museum that they were going to visit. The old toys’ exhibit in some Louisville museum called the Frazer is “hosted” by the stars of the Toy Story movies and the little fella had an awful lot to say about them. He didn’t want to try my mutton or burgoo. When you’re four, who has time for eating when you have got to talk about Woody and Buzz? And talk, and talk.

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