NORTH ADAMS — A lot of people probably think that it’s the local indie journalist poverty thing that keeps me from going out and reviewing more food in and around Greylock Nation. They’d be right, of course, but an even more compelling reason exists: I get tired of chowing down on an entree that’s gonna run north of $20 and then realizing, “I wish I’d just stayed home and cooked that myself. And better.” All told, I’ve got a couple decades or more in the food world, from the field all the way to the front of the house and everything in between. That background can make me wicked appreciative and generous or decidedly unforgiving. The slightly unhinged duality might or might not serve me as a food critic.
If I do eat away from my own kitchen, it tends to be as part of a pickup quest to find meals that I just can’t prepare myself. Or at least not reasonably. And given the frequency with which I drool past A-OK Barbeque in the MASS MoCA complex weekday mornings, I developed a pretty weighty conviction that I couldn’t do their Brisket, Egg, and Cheese breakfast sandwich in my own kitchen. At least not reasonably.
And on this raw and rainy morning, I had one more reason finally to give in to my craving — I remembered that my chickens, long in the beak as they are, had provided me with one (1) lonely egg (pot-pie recipe to follow) yesterday. And as aromatic as Regina’s fresh-baked whole wheat loaves were this morning, I deflated at the though of such a meager sandwich to start my Monday. So, as the drizzle intensified into a steady rain, I walked up to the ordering window beyond which Kylie stood, grinning like she knew a BBQ junkie when she saw one.
Before I go on and describe the sandwich, I think a word about A-OK is in order. The about section of the website explains, rather modestly, that the barbecue outlet was:
“Founded by Aaron & Alexandra Oster and Orion Howard with the specific goal of putting better food on the tables of those within our community…”
Points for humility, maybe, but North County’s food game has been getting upped and more upped in the last few years, so the description begs the question of whether they mean “better” than what you had at the turn of the century or “even freaking better” than the better you’ve been getting used to around here lately. Either is probably true and probably why they earned the Greylock Glass readers’ award, “Greylock Nation’s Greatest” by a margin of about 85 percent.
So let’s talk about the sandwich, shall we? I bristle at breakfast sandwich prices over $5, so I was initially skeptical about a sandwich that was JUST egg and cheese. Add a slab of brisket or a sausage patty for another $2. Come to find out, though, unlike most breakfast sandwiches where the bread is really just a delivery mechanism for the egg and cheese, the sturdy but soft ciabatta roll shares top billing with the inside ingredients. I asked Kylie where they sourced the rolls from, and she let me know that Alex[andra] bakes them herself.
“You could ask her about them herself, but she’s in Australia at a bread conference.”
“So, what you’re saying is that she really [expletive] knows her bread.”
“Yeah. Alex really [expletive] knows her bread.”
And the roll is a critical component, because no matter how tasty it might be on its own, say, with a slathering of butter, it still is a delivery mechanism for the inside ingredients. Too soft, and the bottom half gets saturated and shit starts coming apart and before you know it, you’re holding a couple soggy wads of bread and you had to eat the insides first before it all went to hell. But if the roll is too firm, sure, it can handle any amount of juices and condiments, but your teeth are so busy struggling to get through the crusty exterior (big problem with authentic bagels and kaiser rolls), that you don’t notice that your cheese or (God forbid) your meat item is escaping from out between the bun halves and heading straight for the sidewalk or your shirt. This ciabatta roll, thankfully, is the essence of all that we like about the 21st Century — soft, yet strong.
Can’t say too much about those eggs and the cheese, unfortunately. Kylie pointed out that Alex and Aaron try to source as much as possible from within a hundred miles or so, so they may have been local yokels and cheddar. As a keeper of laying hens myself, I can tell you that the eggs were not the cheap store brand, flavorless variety you’re likely to get elsewhere.
What’s left now is to talk about the meat. The choice Monday morning was between brisket and hot Italian breakfast sausage. I’ve sampled the sausage, and it’s excellent, but, as I said, I was looking for a taste experience way beyond the range of what I’m likely to be cooking up on a weekday morn’. I went with the brisket.
Some things to know about brisket: it’s one of the eight primal cuts of beef — basically, regions of muscle groups that work together to perform support or motion functions. The areas that get the least work out (think the loin, at the top of a steer behind the ribs and before the back leg, or “round”) are the tenderest, and typically the most expensive. The brisket, on the other hand, used for corned beef, pastrami, and barbecue, is the breast muscle region, which supports more than half the animals standing body-weight. And we’re talking big animals. As you’d guess, that means those muscles have to be reinforced by lots and lots of connective tissue, which make brisket a brutally tough cut to chew — in the wrong chef’s hands.
In the right chef’s hands, however, brisket comes pretty close to a melt in your mouth sacrament, after it’s been subjected to a marinade or rub cooked low and slow, causing the miraculous softening of what would be defiant gristle. Leaving the fat cap on during long, dry cooking process, whether baking or roasting, helps the meat retain moisture.
And A-OK proves that brisket is definitely in the right hands there in their little brick smokehouse. Local beef farmers aren’t numerous enough to satisfy the appetite for barbecue in the Berkshires, so A-OK sources their brisket from Creekstone Farms out of Kansas, who buy from local farms throughout the Midwest and follow a very strict diet and care regimen, which includes humane treatment certification. In pursuit of that goal, they hired Dr. Temple Grandin to design their their slaughterhouse, which is a step or two above what most facilities do.
If you or I were to place a brisket order from Creekstone, we’d be looking at a 12–14 pound portion running us about $120. What used to be a workingman’s cut of beef (Irish immigrants building the railroad weren’t asked to choose between Filet Mignon and corned beef and just reached for the corned beef with both hands) has become the recent discovery of hipster foodies from Brooklyn to the Bay Area. The humble brisket, long a staple of Texas BBQ, is rising so quickly in price that some Southerners are alarmed. The trend was bemoaned in Southern Living late this Summer, in fact (“Bad News, Y’all: The Price of Brisket Is Climbing”).
So, NOW, when you hear that you can add a generous pile of tender, juicy, flavorful brisket to your egg and cheese sammich for JUST two bones more, it’s sounding like maybe a pretty good deal, right? Because after A-OK treats it to a salt & pepper rub, and then smokes it over maple & oak for 14 hours, you’re getting wayyyy more than you pay for, given that it’s available on its own (no egg. no cheese. no ciabatta roll.), sold by the 1/4 pound for $7 (stuff in soft or hard tacos with cheese and salsa and be epic). As part of the sandwich,
I chose to go with a waffle-cut dill pickles, onions, and a little ketchup on my breakfast masterpiece, and I highly recommend you give that a try. My plan was to take a picture, and then a bite on premises, wrap it up, and take it home to finish. I managed the picture. I managed the first bite. And then I stood outside at the dining bar under the trees, as the steady rain turned into a downpour, and savored every last perfect morsel of the Berkshires’ best-kept breakfast secret while it was still piping hot.
NOTE: A-OK’s Barbeque’s breakfast window is only open between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m. on the days they’re open — Friday through Monday — so if you could be forgiven for never noticing the scent of this legendary breakfast in the air. Maybe you’re a late-rising artist who’s unaware that people are out and about doing stuff before noon. No signage streetside indicates what treats are being griddled up in the former guardhouse, either, and no mention of breakfast on the website either, so if this is the first you’re hearing about it, I’m honored to be the one to hip you to this better-than-fair-priced daymaker. Can’t get to A-OK in time for breakfast? Come back for the hot sliced brisket sandwich on toasted brioche with crunchy caraway slaw any time after noon.