BBQ with a side of patriotism

As a food writer, I have more local places to get to than I can keep up with, and more are opening all the time, so I don’t get to many chain restaurants.

But then my LEO editor told me he’d be interested in reading a Taste Bud column on Mission BBQ. Mission is a chain that was launched in 2011 by a couple of guys, Bill Kraus and Steve Newton, who wanted to honor veterans of war and, really, anyone who has served, be it military, firefighters or police. An honorable pursuit, to be sure. And what’s more American than barbecue?

But they took it a step further — the place is covered in military, police and fire memorabilia, from photos to helmets to signs. One wall features jerseys and helmets from the four, major military collegiate football teams. Motivational slogans adorn the walls with messages such as, “Choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”

I went to the location in Clarksville, Indiana, coincidentally located on Veterans Parkway — there’s also a location in St. Matthews on Shelbyville Road — to meet my friend Butch for lunch. The Clarksville location was having a special tribute to Korean War veterans, offering them free sandwiches all day. Two were in attendance while we were there.

Along with the honorable, well… mission… the line moves quickly, and the staff is extremely friendly. A trio of cashiers helped make that possible during this visit, and each register was adorned with the name of the person taking the order. You pay and then seat yourself, and they call your name when your order is ready. (At one point, I heard one of the employees shout, “Order up, Miss Tracy!”)

One of my favorite aspects of the place is that if you want a plate of just meat, they’ll accommodate you. That’s a great option for people on a gluten-free diet. If you aren’t sure what you want, you can get a sample tray of two or three different meats. I got one with brisket and turkey, along with a side of macaroni and cheese.

Another of my favorite things about Mission is that you can buy ribs by the bone. So, if you aren’t hungry enough for a rack, just get two or three, and you can mix and match between baby backs and Kansas City-style spare ribs. I got one of each. Butch played it safe with a pulled pork sandwich and a side of baked beans with bacon.

Seven different sauces will greet you at your table, among them Texas Twang, Tupelo Honey Heat, KC Classic and Bay BQ. My absolute favorite was North Carolina Vinegar, which is heavy vinegar with a spicy kick. I could take a bath in that stuff (but I won’t).

We got about three bites into our food when the clock struck noon. A prerecorded announcement let us know it was time to sing the national anthem. Without hesitation, every last person stopped what they were doing to take part — hats came off and everyone stood to face the huge U.S. flag hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room.

A good two-thirds of the diners sang along to a loudly-played recording of the anthem. I noticed everyone waiting in line was taking part. About halfway through, I saw a woman come out of the bathroom. Her mouth dropped open and her eyes got big when she saw what was happening, but she quickly snapped to, covering heart with hand and jumping into a verse. The scene was surreal, like something in a movie.

“Now I kind of expect a game to start,” Butch said after we sat back down. I was just glad no one knelt in protest — that might have started a riot.

While the food we had was good, it wasn’t the best barbecue I’ve had in town. The smoked turkey was absolutely delicious, and the brisket was solid, I found the ribs to be a little dry, although the flavor was pretty nice. Everything was lightly smoked, which, for my palate, is a good thing.

But after that National Anthem experience, I can’t stop thinking about the opening to a joke that I still can’t seem to finish. It would go something like this:

“So, Colin Kaepernick walks into a Mission BBQ …”

What happens next? Trying to come up with a punch line is going to keep me awake at night.