Ever see those People of Walmart websites/posts making fun of the outrageous, often scandalous fashion choices of the poor souls who frequent the national mega-retailer? I’ve always found those posts mean in a way that’s specific to 4chan-worshiping jerks who hide behind their online anonymity as they rush to mock the less fortunate or unusual-looking the way maggots converge on a dead cat. It’s the sort of content your racist aunt posts un-ironically on Facebook with no thought about the socioeconomic or psychological stories that those clothing choices are telling. So what’s this have to do with a food column?
As I was trying to figure out a way to frame this week’s piece on Hickory Bird (6300 Oakmont Blvd, 817-290-2061), a barbecue mini-chain whose business model is dependent on a bizarre symbiosis with Walmart – both local Hickory Bird locations are housed inside the superstores – I had to resist the temptation to be rude about the setting. As I formed the story in my mind, I imagined opening with some great shtick about the sorts of people who would seek out barbecue or chicken at their area Walmart. They’d probably be riding in on Rascal scooters, wearing polyester shorts and an American flag hat, and so on. I decided instead to sheath my snobbery, if just for a week, and judge the place as I would any other eatery. I wasn’t going to stoop down to the level of those internet jackals. Many people at Walmart experience enough grief without me piling on.
I was sitting in the sparsely appointed dining room of Hickory Bird, situated near the grocery entrance of the 37,980-acre store, and I must have watched 300 people rush by – most of them perfectly normal-looking. Where else could you reliably count on that many people strolling by every hour, besides at an airport terminal or maybe a busy mall? I see the logic of the locale, although on the afternoon of my visit, there was only one other occupied table at the peak of the lunch hour. There were also about half a dozen flies buzzing around, but I guess that’s one of the pitfalls of putting your restaurant next to an automatic door that constantly opens.
Hickory Bird touts two of its menu items above all others: the smoked chicken, which undergoes something called a “two-step smoke-roasted process,” which entails marinating the birds for 24 hours in a secret spice blend before smoking them low and slow over hickory and applewood; and the smoked barbecue pork, bone-in pork shoulder that sees the same treatment but then is doused in sauce.
As you walk in, you’re greeted by high-def electronic menus, reminiscent of those bathroom marketing signs that rotate ads. There’s another menu hanging above the walk-up counter. The prices are more than reasonable, with sandwiches and chicken tenders starting at $4.99. My guest and I both opted for a lunch combo ($7.99 with one meat, two sides, and a drink), each featuring a portion of Hickory Bird’s signature grub.
Based on just their appearance, we might as well have eaten at a middle-school cafeteria. The meats and sides were schlepped onto paper plates and delivered on plastic trays. Luckily, the food tasted better than it looked. The chicken was downright delicious, with its secret spice blend atop the crisped dark-meat skin. The broccoli and rice sides were competently bland. Slightly less successful was the chopped pork, which was plenty tender and juicy, if a little under-seasoned. The sauced drizzled on the pile of meat was cloyingly sweet. Both my guest and I agreed the fresh-tasting coleslaw, coated in a light, zingy mayo dressing, was the kitchen’s best co-star. Each lunch plate was accompanied by an airline food-level dinner roll.
Of course, as soon as we left, a couple rolled in on motorized shopping carts. At least they were fully clothed.