Amarillo can be a tough place for barbecue purists. Chris Virden is trying hard to make good barbecue at the three-month old Virdinski’s, but he can’t always make it the way he’d like to. In addition to his dozen years working for a local steakhouse, Virden is also a serious contender in the barbecue competition circuit. He knows competition style barbecue won’t fly in a restaurant setting. The flavors are just too bold and too sweet to enjoy a full serving. His preferred cooking method isn’t exactly the stripped down Central Texas style either, but he’d like to at least be able to put out a plate of sauceless meat. The locals won’t let him.
Shortly after placing my order with the server, my combo plate arrived on a rectangular white plate. The attention to detail was obvious from the custom stamped butcher paper covering the table, the burlap table accent, and the blue mason jars as water glasses. The sides showed that same care with a potato salad that was more brunoise than dice (but with too much sweet pickle), onion rings with a pillowy batter amped up with garlic and a little sugar, and beans heavy with chili powder and cooked on site rather than coming from a can. He even added a small side of apricot jam as an homage to the Panhandle stalwarts of Dyer’s and Sutphen’s. A walk through the kitchen revealed bundles of green beans about to be wrapped in bacon for a dinner side dish to go along with hand cut steaks grilled over mesquite coals. These were the detailed steps that made me wonder why the final flourish on my plate was an overly generous ladle of sauce.
Chris Virden insists that his customers not only demand sauce on their barbecue, they also demand that the saucing be done for them. He tweeted a photo to me of a plate from the day after my visit that had been sent back to the kitchen for a lack of sauce. A side order of sauce had been provided with the order, but they needed more. Virden also insists that anything other than falling off the bone ribs will draw complaints, so he has simply acquiesced. Such is life for a barbecue purist in the Panhandle.
Although the flavor was good in those ribs, it was hard to get past the mushy texture. Brisket suffered the same fate. It was sliced very thick lest it crumble apart. The smoke and seasoning were both spot on, but the pot roast texture left me thinking of just that. A well smoked version of pulled pork was the winner on the plate. It only suffered from that heavy blanket of thick sauce with the familiar worcestershire flavor of Head Country barbecue sauce. After Virden said he made the sauce himself, he quickly admitted that it was really a doctored up version of Head Country. It’s just cheaper than starting with scratch ingredients, he noted. For the pork, a thinner more acidic sauce would have been a great complement, but Virden laughed at the idea of folks in Amarillo embracing anything but a sweet tomato based sauce.
At the risk of painting Virden as a complete victim of circumstance, I must note that both Tyler’s and Spicy Mike’s in Amarillo routinely serve their barbecue with sauce on the side and have admirable pork ribs with meat still clinging to bone. Maybe all the locals unhappy with that type of barbecue are just now migrating to Virdinski’s.
No matter the customers’ taste in meat, I hope they at least finish their meals with some banana pudding. It is without a doubt some of the finest that I’ve eaten anywhere. The wafers are even homemade, which is usually a gimmicky way of providing a cookie unequal to a boxed Nilla wafer. However, these cookies were more buttery and crisp, and far more than a gimmick. The pudding beneath was chocked full of bananas, and had none of the nasty flavors of a boxed mix. This was real made-from-scratch pudding, and I nearly ordered another one to-go.
While Virden seems frustrated, he definitely has the passion for cooking, and the skill to put out great food. While I didn’t love this version of his barbecue, he’s working with the right equipment and has some great menu items in place to build from. If he’s willing to stick his neck out a bit, this could be one of few great barbecue joints in this part of Texas.