We are generally skeptical of menu items labeled "poppers." I mean, we're not doing any first looks at Chili's anytime soon.
But the chicken poppers at AJ's on Main in Grapevine have a way of making skeptical heads turn. Crunchy bacon encapsulates a longways jalapeno slice and a chunk of fried chicken breast for a rudimentary yet delightful starter fit for the fair. A little ranch? Why not? Even through all the layers of crunch and spice, the moist chickeny goodness is what you remember most.
AJ's is a barbecue, etc. outfit, with ribs, pulled pork and sausage plates buttressed by options like fried catfish and Frito pie, nestled snug on South Main Street, caddie-cornered to the ruins of the old Grapevine mills and the Vintage Railroad downtown. The reverse flow smoker is an homage to Grapevine's historical train ride as an early stop on the old Cotton Belt Railroad and primarily puffs clouds of hickory wood out the blastpipe (and other crevices).
And when the finished product hits your lips, it's pretty damn good, too.
The first few riblet bites on the outside of the quarter-rack were just a mite dry, but as I worked my way inward and onto the bone's underside, the requisite juiciness made its game-saving appearance.
Call me prissy, but these are not pickin-up ribs, either. Meat falls off bone at the subtlest disruption. I used a fork, which isn't my modus operandi. All in all, very nicely done.
The sausage is about as salty and peppery as I'd want it to be, without crossing the border into over-seasoned. The sauce is a pleasure, tangy and smoky, adding something to the overall product instead of detracting from it or masking the meat and hickory smoke contained therein.
I'm a sucker for good fried okra, and AJ's piles it on. You know that over-fried okra with the actual green thing zapped from existence from too much time in the oil? AJ's don't play with that, son.
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Oh, and I probably shouldn't have, but I ended lunch with a Texas cannoli, basically ensuring that I wouldn't accomplish anything else the rest of the day. The fried dough, snowy with powdered sugar, warms the cream cheese inside, partially melting the chocolate chips while they still somehow remain cool to the tongue. It's a delectable ender.
AJ Gillinger, a retired Grapevine Police officer, opened this spot about two years ago after an oyster bar closed on the property. Gillinger, a backyard 'cue-man for years, had never worked in the restaurant industry before setting up shop in the city he continues to serve. He said it just happened. Well, cheers to that.
AJ's on Main 651 S. Main St., Grapevine, 817-488-6112, 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday ajsonmain.com