Chopped Beef and Loose Meat: Barbecue For Pit-Sissies

Yesterday I told you about the impending Texas debut of Maid-Rite, a corporate franchise type thing selling loose meat sandwiches, shakes and chili cheese fries. While a few commenters seemed to echo my lack of enthusiasm, others expressed disdain for my statement: "watch out Texas BBQ chopped beef -- loose meat promises to be just as underwhelming."

I should have known I'd get some flack. Commenter Finnegan asked:

where exactly have you eaten underwhelming Texas BBW chopped beef?

And Sybils_Beaver wanted to know:

so you've eaten at and reviewed a restaurant location that doesnt open until 2012?

It's true I've never tasted a Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich, but I've looked at enough pictures and recipes, and also eaten enough fast food in my time. I'm fairly certain I can conjure at least the spirit of the sandwich, which lead me to draw up the correlation to the chopped beef sandwiches I've tried since coming to Texas.

To answer Finnegan's question: My first chopped beef sandwich came by way of Daniel Vaughn, the BBQ Snob. I wanted to meet Texas' most prolific smoked meat blogger, and he invited me to tag along on a two-stop barbecue tour just over a month ago. (I do love a double lunch.)

The first stop was Jesse's Place, a dilapidated building turned barbecue shack and BYOB night club. Vaughn had this to say about the chopped beef sandwich: "sloppy joe quality stuff with sweet sauce and little smokiness. Given the price it's hard to complain." The sandwich cost $0.99, so I was hardly expecting barbecue transcendence, but it got Vaughn and I talking about chopped beef.

Brisket is without a doubt the toughest cut of meat to conquer, but like anything, there are always shortcuts to be employed. Meat made tender through the dull, brute force of a cleaver instead of craftsmanship, smoke and time, makes for relatively easy cookery. And any snafus with flavor are simply masked with a dousing of sweet barbecue sauce.To put it bluntly, chopped beef is for pit-masters who still need training wheels.

Smoked, sliced brisket, on the other hand, takes a deft hand. First you have to get the temperature high enough to break down muscle fibers and connective tissue, then you've got to get the cut cooked without drying out. Next there's resting times and storage and slicing. Bungle any of these and your brisket is screwed. An entrant that recently competed in a competition I attended last weekend admitted to always throwing a pork shoulder on the smoker when he cooked brisket -- just in case. It makes for a great save if you jack up the beef.

So that's why I have a special appreciation for brisket and other forms of barbecued meats over chopped beef. I've had a few other versions at BBQ stands around town, and the the occasional trailer turned makeshift restaurant on the side of the road, but so far the biggest flavor component in each of the sandwiches has been the sauce. I'm sure there are better versions out there, and when I find them I'll eat till chopped beef grease runs down my chin.

For now, though, I'm a sliced brisket guy. And besides, I thought Texans didn't need sauce on their meat anyway?