Kentucky loves its barbecue, but outside its borders, it really isn’t thought of as a barbecue destination. With the exception of Owensboro, that is.
Old Hichory now has six generations of the same family working in the barbecue business.
The state’s fourth largest city bills itself as “BBQ Capital of the World” and has an international barbecue festival each May. All this is thanks to the city being home to the state’s only unique style of barbecue: mutton.
You read that right. Not some form of brisket, pork ribs or even pulled pork. Not sausage or chicken. Not even baby lamb, but older sheep meat that’s been turned into a smoky dish many would swear to be good enough to merit a lengthy car ride.
I, of course, had to find out for myself. While visiting my old hometown of Louisville recently, my dad and I headed west shortly after the morning rush hour traffic with the plan of having enough time to get to our first stop in time for lunch.
No one knows exactly why Owensboro or Daviess County would choose mutton as their meat of choice for their barbecue, but a local study of the subject did turn up the fact that there were 11,000 sheep in the area during the Civil War. So, there was a supply of mutton on hand.
Burgoo is on the menu.
If you read up on the subject, in information provided by the area’s top two restaurants, Moonlite Bar-B-Q and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q, you’ll discover that the tradition grew out of the local Catholic churches, who staged fundraising barbecues dating back to the 1870s.
“Mutton is simply mature sheep, much the way veal is young cow and beef is mature cow,” says Moonlite’s website. “The idea that mutton is ‘old’ sheep is one of the reasons it gets a bad rap, so let’s clear that up right now: there are definitely sheep that are far too old to be tasty, just as there are cows that are far too old to be tasty. Mutton is sheep that is just old enough to be really, really tasty. We call it ‘lamb’ if it’s less than 12 months old, and ‘mutton’ from 1 year to 5 years.
“Mutton is one of the best-tasting meats around, and there’s nothing like a good barbeque to bring it out.”
In 1918, Charles “Pappy” Foreman was sold on barbecue mutton, so he opened Old Hickory, and it has been in operation ever since by six generations of the same family. Foreman wasn’t the first in town to do that, but his has lasted the longest.
Mutton, mutton ribs and chopped pork at Old Hickory.
We decided to head there first. My phone’s map app sent us in the wrong direction a time or two, but we managed to arrive in time to be the first two sit-down diners of the day. There were plenty of people in line, though, to get to-go orders of some fine meat and some good looking sides.
It was a cold December morning, and the warmth of our waitress’ hospitality as well as her freshly brewed coffee made us feel right at home. Soon, she brought out a steaming hot cup of burgoo, a Kentucky specialty stew that can feature anything from squirrel to chicken. Old Hickory’s used lamb and pork in the mix bolstered by corn, tomato and more vegetables.
All of that had us primed for the three-meat plate that we were sharing, heaped high with mutton, mutton ribs and chopped pork. It was a beautiful sight, with one meat practically flowing into the other on the crowded plate.
I couldn’t wait to dig into the mutton ribs, almost hoping for a taste of something that would remind me of those served at Gonzales Food Market back in Texas. It didn’t, and that’s not a bad thing. Texas’ version of mutton ribs is often so laden with fat, you often have to work hard to find the meat in them. That was not the case here. These ribs were bright and tangy, thanks to a sauce made with a healthy dose of Worcestershire sauce in it, and there was plenty of meat to sink your teeth into. The hickory of the restaurant’s name was not too evident, but there was a slight smokiness integrated into the overall eating experience. The same was true of the chopped mutton.
The buffet line at Moonlite Bar-B-Q.
The pork was a little sweeter and a little more Southern in style, with the hickory flavor a little more pronounced. My dad grabbed a couple of pieces of bread from the plate and, in no time, had himself an old-fashioned sandwich laced with a few slivers of pickle, which came with onions on the plate. It was like old times for the Alabama native.
Yes, this was barbecue well worth the trip. The locals seem to love it as well. All of the tables were filled by the time we left, and praise was flowing freely from all corners.
My dad had not been with me as I drove across Texas in recent months to work on my book with Bonnie Walker, “Barbecue Lover’s Texas” (Globe Pequot Press, $21.95), so he wasn’t used to sitting down to a full meal and then heading out for another full meal or two — or eight — over the course of a day.
He’s also not used to driving two hours in a given direction just to eat, so it surprised him a little that we were simply heading from one restaurant to the next. Following the map app, we got lost again as we headed across town in holiday traffic, but at least we got to see some of Owensboro, which one friend said really is all about the food and not much more. We passed plenty of shopping centers and a few residential areas as proof of that statement, before we landed in a traffic jam in front of Moonlite Bar-B-Q.
Actually, the traffic jam wasn’t in front of Moonlite, it was in front of the neighboring Big Dipper burger stand, but more on that in a bit.
Love those corn muffins at Moonlite.
Somehow, Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn has earned the tourist status of being the barbecue destination in Kentucky, with hundreds, if not thousands, of hungry diners piling in every day to get their fill of whatever is on the buffet. There’s also a gift shop with everything to commemorate your visit, from hats to jars of their sauce.
But if our visit was any indication, you should skip Moonlite altogether. Maybe I was asking for it by ordering brisket along with the mutton and the chopped pork on the three-meat plate. Or maybe I should have just gone through the buffet like everyone else. Instead, I was served brisket that was so desiccated, it was almost sawdust. The mutton was flavorless to the point of leaving no impression whatsoever. And the pork was merely sweet thanks to an excessive of the tomato-based barbecue sauce that swamped it. The two cornbread muffins on the plate were far and away the best item we were served.
I will say that we appeared to have been in the minority, as most of the people around eagerly heading back to the buffet for numerous visits.
The side dishes at both places were a little underwhelming. Kentucky may have fought for the winning side in the Civil War, but it’s still a Southern state to most cooks, which means their sides are going to be sweet. Expect plenty of sugar in the coleslaw as well as the baked beans. You’ll even find it in the potato salad, where Miracle Whip is often used instead of mayonnaise; that just adds more sugar to the equation, not to mention corn syrup. No thanks.
My dad approaches the order window at the Big Dipper.
While dining at Moonlite, I received some text messages from a friend warning me about the place. If I wanted real Owensboro barbecue, I should head to Old Hickory. I messaged back that we had already done that, loved it and wondered what else we should try while we were in town. She said to stop at the Big Dipper for a burger “through the garden” and a shake.
My dad couldn’t eat much at Moonlite, not that he wanted to anyway. But I wanted to see for myself if there was a reason for all that traffic waiting to get into the small parking lot of the walk-up burger joint. There was. The Big Dipper gives you a fine, thin, old-fashioned patty – it reminded me of the Burger Chef chain from my childhood days – with fresh, ripe tomato, onion and lettuce, and it carried a price tag of about $1.80. I took a bite on the walk back to the car and finished it off before we arrived.
The shake was the real treat, however. You could mix and match flavors, so I got a chocolate shake with orange in it. It arrived with a nice malty flavor that helped the barbecue settle and send me home happy. Dad didn’t have room for a single taste.
Old Hickory Bar-B-Que
338 Washington Ave.
Owensboro, KY 42301
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn
2840 W. Parrish Ave.
Owensboro, KY 42301
International Bar-B-Q Festival