Big. Meat. Smoky. Hot.
Yes, it was a macho, sweltering, one-syllable experience when we sampled Big Al's Pit Beef in Essex the other day. And, hey, there is nothing like a pit-beef dinner once in a while, especially at a perfectly competent, reasonably priced place such as Al's.
It isn't much to look at, a little shack dominated by an enormous ventilator hood on top, sitting on a busy stretch of Eastern Avenue in Essex. Inside the un-air-conditioned eatery is a counter with a couple of stools, an enormous fan stirring the hot air, a few copies of community newspapers and not much else.
Big Al's menu runs the gamut from shank to flank -- with meat taken from cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and an occasional crab. There are no salads, although there are some wraps, all, of course, with meat.
Service was efficient, and given the heat in the kitchen, one might forgive the staffers for their lack of joyfulness.
Everything ranged from adequate to good.
The pit-beef sandwich ($3.99) was the standard thin-sliced variety and came with a nice smoky flavor. A little barbecue sauce added some needed pizazz. A turkey-breast sandwich ($3.99) had a heaping pile of shaved meat. A barbecue pulled-pork sandwich ($4.29) was delicious, with a tangy sauce and, again, plenty of meat. The chicken steak sub ($4.99) had nice chunks of breast on a fresh roll.
We devoured the bacon hamburger ($3.79) -- a delicious slab of beef topped with sweet, crunchy bacon. Onion rings ($2.79) got way too soggy on the long ride home. Boardwalk-style french fries ($3) were better. Nobody was too impressed with the chicken tenders ($3.99). Our consensus was to stick to the burgers, barbecue and pit beef.
Big Al's does not do desserts.
Big Al's opens in the morning and serves breakfast, including eggs, bacon and, yes, scrapple. You also can call ahead and pick up your food from a drive-in window.
Big Al's Pit Beef
Food: ** 1/2
Waiting area: **
Where: 210 Eastern Blvd., Essex
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Saturday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Pit beef and other sandwiches, burgers, subs, ribs and chicken wings, $3.29 to $8.99; credit cards accepted