Since moving to Seattle from North Carolina in 1992, I’ve eaten at maybe 250 different restaurants. Not once have I had a meal I enjoyed any more than the dinner I had last Saturday evening at Uncle Thurm’s Finger-Lickin’ Ribs & Chicken, in Tacoma’s little vest-pocket Asian community.
People who think Southern cooking means just gratuitous fat, fried everything, and chronic over-cooking prove nothing except that they have no clue about Southern food. And yet, over the years in the beverage biz, the food-pairing question I’ve gotten most is “What wine/beer goes best with Southern/Cajun food?”
Personally, I dislike the whole question of what’s the proper beverage with any food. Know what the proper pairing is? Whatever you like best. Period. But most people are not ex-chef cranks like me, so this comes up and I’ve had to respond.
Sitting in Thurm’s wonderful, homey dining room, last Saturday, I drank Diet Pepsi with my pulled pork and red beans ‘n’ rice and thought about it. Since any mission I might undertake to convince people that they should drink whatever the hell they please with their food rivals Don Quixote’s Quest for sheer, whimsical futility, I sat and had what was the very first – in 23 years living in the Pacific Northwest – really great plate of North Carolina-style barbecue and thought hard about what wines and/or beers I would want to drink to complement the moist, chewy, perfectly-smoked pork and the savory, earthy rice. It was not easy. How does any beverage manage to climb over those huge, assertive flavors and that hint of pleasant heat?
I found my answer the next evening, eating Thurm’s left-overs while watching football: Big, herbal IPA. The sweet spices in the food collided head-on with the big resiny character of Deschutes “Pinedrops“, and, instead of producing wreckage and maimed bodies, melded seamlessly into a nicely-balanced whole. The pairing was particularly good with the pork, the lovely dill ‘n’ celery-tinged potato salad, the candied yams, and the tender, perfectly-cooked catfish fingers. Just gorgeous. In the past, I would have reflexively reached for a malty Strong Ale, along the lines of Ninkasi “Sleigh’r” or Deschutes “Jubelale” or Mad River Red Ale, all great, and most things in the same category would work at least as well. But the Pinedrops with Thurm’s Ribs was a revelation, as was the pairing I tried later, when I had a rib tip with a few ounces of Lost Abbey “Deliverance“, an inspired blend of LA’s near-perfect Strong Ale, “Angel’s Share” and their titanic “Serpent” Stout. The mocha and brandied flavors at the bottom of Deliverance wrapped around Thurm’s signature BBQ sauce like a silk scarf around Audrey Hepburn’s neck.
Those who insist on a Pale Ale or – far worse – one of our (formerly) All-American crap adjunct Pilsners like BudMillerCoorsPabst had better expect to settle for just the sensation of cold on their tongues, because those wimpy-ass flavors of the Pils or the milder hops bite of most Pales simply cannot stand up to the smoke and spices.
Many people want the beer to do little more than provide that cooling effect I just mentioned or are put off by excessive hoppiness. For those folks, anything will work: Coke, Iced Tea (still the best pairing with Cajun food), BudMillerCoorsPabst, or ice water. With spicy foods of any origins, finding something just to wash them down and not call attention to itself is far easier than trying to find a good complement. For foods with Asian spices – Thai, Szechuan, Malaysian, etc. – the traditional German, off-dry whites are still a great bet. (Riesling with Kung Pao Chicken had always made me think that, at some point, Germany had to have invaded China.) But the affinity is just as dead-on with an off-dry Pinot, like Lucien Albrecht “Cuvee Balthazar” (Pinot Blanc) or Grey Monk’s Pinot Auxerrois. But with beers, sweet doesn’t always work. Delirium Tremens, one of the sweetest beers I’ve ever tasted, was an unqualified mess with both Thai foods and Cajun…proving nothing much except what any savvy wine or beer fan already knows: beer and wine are very different beverages. In beer, in the always-tricky pairing with Cajun spices, the herbal character of most IPAs clashes with a metallic thud and does nothing for the food. There is a certain spice threshold for pairing with an IPA and Cajun is waaay over that wine. For Cajun, if you’re dead-set against iced tea, a Belgian Quad works beautifully, as does a big Scotch ale, like the Belhaven or Alesmith Wee Heavys. IPAs are going to top out at about the level of tame Southwestern fare or the fruity tang of Malaysian cuisine. In wine, the fruity cuisines, even with significant spices, suggest a dry white like an Italian Albana or a Spanish Verdejo. Even a Washington or Oregon Sauv Blanc or Pinot Blanc will be lovely. NOT so for a big, oaky California Chardonnay, one of the worst knee-jerk food pairings Americans ever threw into a bear-hug and refused to let go of.
For straight-ahead soul food, where fat and salt are an issue, reds can creep into the picture, too. I could just about taste Thurm’s ribs or pulled pork with a big, high-acid Mourvedre or a Brunello, maybe even a Spanish – NOT French! – Grenache. For Cajun food, there is exactly ONE red wine pairing and one ONLY: big, strappin’ high-octane California Zinfandel, maybe 16% ABV, with enough black pepper and spices to stun a rhinoceros.I guarantee you, you try anything less assertive than that, with properly-made Cajun food, you’ll get nothing more than a faint suspicion of fruit lurking waaay under the spices. The only other wine I’ve ever tasted with Cajun food that made any headway at all against the Spice Tsunami was a very assertive, over-extracted Washington Gewurztraminer from Maryhill Winery. If you go with a Gewurz, which offers nicely complementary flavors, make it a monster Gewurz, something with teeth, fur, and fangs, not one of those over-polite Alsatians that says “Excuse me!” as it enters your mouth.
But let’s get back to Thurm, for a moment. Thurmond Brokenbrough (who owns and runs Thurm’s along with wife Linda) was a military chef, an experience that I would put up against any kitchen training known to the culinary arts. Military chefs are required to be great. It’s not a choice. They have to deliver, meal after meal, day in day out, or go back to totin’ a rifle or scrubbin’ latrines. When I hear of a restaurant with an Army or Navy or Marine chef at the helm, I just go, ASAP. They have any artsy, foodie affectations trained out of them before they ever serve their first mess hall or OC meal and they all realize that they’re feeding the same guys with whom they’ll be sharing a bunkhouse with later. If they’re not making real, down-to-earth, genuinely delicious food, there won’t be scathingly feckless reviews on Yelp to worry about. There could actually be a massive group ass-whuppin’, like the same night.
Thurman Brokenbrough never got that ass-whuppin’. I don’t know that but it’s a very educated guess.
Against all odds, Thurm is from Delaware, not exactly a bastion of down-home Southern food. But somewhere in his past, a gene flipped and he became an honest-to-God truly great Southern chef. There are certainly Southern restaurants in this end of the country, ranging in competence from under-realized Kingfish Cafe in Seattle (mercifully closed this past January) to Tacoma’s solid Southern Kitchen, to Denver’s wonderful CoraFaye’s Cafe, which serves the only other really good catfish I’ve tasted since moving West in 1992. The general level of competence in these places is a big disappointment, for a Southerner like me, and Thurm’s and CoraFaye’s are still the only places I’ve found that make Southern cuisine as I knew it before coming here. Thurm’s is simply a near-perfect snapshot of what’s really great about Southern food. EVERY single item on our two plates was the best of its type I’ve found in 23 years. The candied yams were silky, gorgeous, tender, and perfectly sweet. The red beans ‘n’ rice was earthy and chewy and perfectly seasoned, the potato salad was actually better than it is in Carolina and Virginia, and the greens were a peppery, savory revelation. Best of all were the meats. PERFECT hickory-smoked (with a bit of mesquite involved) pulled pork, sweet and juicy, with a melt-in-your-mouth consistency. The ribs fell off the bone and tasted smoky and intense. The fried chicken was simply perfect: crisp breading, tender meat, and not at all greasy.
I’m going to urge you – both as a chef for 30+ years and as a beverage reviewer for over 40 – to at least consider the idea that you can be happy with that iced tea with Cajun or a 7Up with your ribs or even your favorite Merlot with anything not tripping a geiger-counter with spices. Personally, I have to come clean: I rarely ever have wine with food. To me, it’s a waste of great food and great wine. I know Italians who would slap me cross-eyed for saying that but I love great food and wine and I want to taste each, not a mash-up of both. And absolutely, with food like we found at Thurm’s, whatever you drink stands no chance of being anything more than the third spear-carrier from the left in MacBeth. But those who find a meal incomplete without a wine or beer, I get it. And I hope two things for you…
One, that these ideas help you find the pairings you like best, and Two, that you find yourself hungry in Tacoma, Washington, someday, and have the distinct pleasure of remembering to find Thurm’s. You will NOT regret it.