The West's best BBQ; spicy ribs and tangy brisket: here's Sunset's barbecue hall of flame.
Put it all together and it's as American as Willie and Waylon, bebop and the Mississippi Delta blues, a good-time food that skips over cultural and social divides. It's down-home and never highfalutin, slow-cooked and eaten fast, a sometimes sweet and always smoky feast that fills the gut as it feeds the soul.
The West is a barbecue frontier, a region unburdened by the orthodoxy of such hot spots as Texas and the Carolinas. The region's one indigenous style, the oak-smoked tri-tip of Santa Maria barbecue (see p. 109), has created a cult of 'cue on California's Central Coast, but it remains a local phenomenon.
That said, the West is to barbecue as Switzerland is to international relations: Neutrality should not be mistaken for a lack of interest. Based on the overwhelming and often passionate responses we received to a simple request printed in our August 2003 issue--"Help us find great barbecue"--the full gamut of styles can be found here. And in some surprising places too.
San Francisco's Lower Haight district is a neighborhood teetering between grit and gentrification, east of the once-fabled Haight-Ashbury intersection. It's certainly not without its own counterculture ways: A medicinal cannabis club operates openly on the street.
They're smoking at Memphis Minnie's Bar-B-Que Joint too--brisket, ribs, pork, sausage, and chicken in a big old smoker. The venerable contraption has been dubbed Wilbur by the joint's owner, a self-described one-time chubby little Jewish kid from Brooklyn named Bob Kantor. It all seems fairly improbable, until you learn that the restaurant's namesake is Kantor's Memphis-born mother and that his father owned butcher shops.
Kantor, however, only came to barbecue after years in the culinary business--and almost by accident. He was working as a consultant for a restaurant when its owner suggested they put some barbecue on the menu.
"I started doing research, and within a week, it was like something grabbed me and shook me," Kantor says. And so 11 years ago he began a Frodo-esque journey, a veritable hickory hajj, into the backwoods and back-street citadels and shrines of American barbecue.
Kantor recalls a time in East Texas when he was introduced as a Californian, and there were hoots and whoops and shouts as the crowd questioned whether he planned to barbecue tofu and sprouts. Others he met envied his quest, his opportunity to explore and discover the variations in barbecue, from town to town, from wallow to hollow.
Indeed, all his peregrinations taught Kantor just how localized barbecue can be. He heard about longtime pit masters using the inner spring of an old mattress to hold the meat while they estimated the proper smoking temperature by the distance that flies hovered off the top of the pit, 6 inches being optimal.
Alas, this particular homegrown technique proved to have more anthropological than practical value. But Kantor emerged from his explorations with a clearer understanding of barbecue and his own place in its cosmography.
"I felt like a wandering minstrel, passing the word," he says. "I'm an unabashed traditionalist, and my overriding concern, in 2004 as I sit here, is that we will lose barbecue in its entirety."
Then he returns to his roots to convey his sense of urgency, declaring, "Barbecue may go the way of the true New York bagel."
The word barbecue is generally believed to come from the Spanish word barbacoa, which describes a pit-cooking technique first observed in the West Indies. Traditionalists believe that the only true 'cue is slow-cooked and smoked over wood; anything else is just not the real deal.
Still, with that simple standard, there is ample room for divergence and invention.
Take the wood. In the Southern tradition of barbecue, hickory is the primary wood and is burned down to coals before the meat--almost always pork--is cooked directly over it. In Texas the preference is to cook indirectly, using whole oak or mesquite logs placed to the side of the barbecue to create a smokier flavor in the meat, which is typically beef. These are only the most broadly drawn variations. Some pit masters use pecan or almond wood. Some only want dry wood, while others mix in green wood to slow the cooking process.
And for us, the eating public? Righteous barbecue is whatever you grew up with, be it pulled pork or spareribs, brisket or beef ribs, served dry, in vinegary sauces the shade of a faux Tuscan finish, or in musky, tomato-based tarns as dark as a Oaxacan mole.
Kantor believes that many places use their sauces as a way to cover up their lack of smoking technique. He serves four different sauces but leaves it up to the customer to decide which to use and how much to put on the meat.
"Sauce could be the demise of true barbecue," he says. "Speaking as an old-time sexist, I believe that people who think it's the sauce that makes the barbecue also think that clothes and jewelry make a beautiful woman."
As with any art, barbecue combines accumulated traditions with individual creativity, resulting in something original that nevertheless reflects that which preceded it. Perhaps that's why a great barbecue joint is more akin to a community institution than most other restaurants, its owner no mere restaurateur but the bearer of generations' worth of collective culinary wisdom.
In a cluttered back room at Phillips Bar-B-Que in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, the walls are covered with photos of youth sports teams sponsored by the restaurant and honors received by its owner, Foster Phillips. A native of Keatchie, Louisiana, Phillips has operated this barbecue spot--a takeout-only business--for 23 years.
The parking lot is perfumed by the plumes from the big, brick-clad smoker. The lines are invariably long, as regulars await taut-skinned links suffused in a chile-fired sauce, or deep, dusky ribs that give only a hint of tug as teeth pull meat from bone.
"My goal is to give customers the same taste in their mouths that they left with the last time they were here," Phillips says. "When they come back, I want them to pick up that same taste, to keep that taste, to hold on to that flavor."
Phillips began barbecuing while in high school. He comes from a family of nine children, and his mother taught household chores to all the kids, boys included. "The only thing I didn't learn well was washing and ironing," admits Phillips.
Barbecue has been an ongoing education for Phillips. "Before I opened, I went to every walk-in barbecue joint I could find and studied meat in every way that I could," he says. "I still go around too, maybe bring in food from three or four places and share it with my employees, to let them see what's going on.
"I've always wanted to be best at whatever I do," Phillips says, "whether it paid big or small. It's hard for me to believe that anyone works harder than me to keep it right. It's just hard to believe."
Barbecue is indeed hard work--so time-consuming, in fact, that its true believers contend that the effort alone acts as a disincentive to practicing the traditional method. Proper smoking can take 15 hours, and staff must be carefully trained in the way of the barbecue master.
"It has to be nursed and prodded, watched and tended," says Dan Darroch Sr., owner of Hap's Pit Barbecue in Phoenix. "To really have a good rib, the time, temperature, and smoke draft all have to be right. So do the rubs. You're dealing with a thin piece of meat between two bones. More is not better, and less is not better. It's about doing it right. For me, there were thousands of pounds of trial and error."
That said, Darroch will take the hard work of barbecue over the hard work of his former occupation, running a used-car lot, any day.
With a father from Virginia and a grandfather from Texas, Darroch was never a stranger to the verities of barbecue. He barbecued as a hobby and began experimenting with smokers. He eventually spent 18 months or so creating a smoker that he mounted on an old Chevy pickup chassis.
In 1994 he set up a few card tables and began selling barbecue at his used-car lot near Sky Harbor International Airport. Darroch sold so many sandwiches that first Saturday, he began to rethink his future. He opened his two restaurants in 2001 and now employs nine members of his family.
"You sell cars with the right intentions, but they do break down. And, believe it or not, a lot of people don't make their payments, and as a result you have to go pick up their car," he says.
"So I was never sent a Christmas card by anyone I had to repo. But barbecue? Everyone is happy and excited and thanks you afterward. And it's a consumable product. They're always back the next week--or the next day--for more."
RELATED ARTICLE: THE WEST'S 10 BEST
Dig into barbecue with a Western attitude at Bo's. 'Cue-friendly wines by the glass are to be had with your naturally raised Niman Ranch ribs and brisket. But those pork spareribs are smoky and succulent, the deep-charred brisket shreds with a fork, and the sauce on the side is tangy and complex--a testament to Bo McSwine's Mississippi credentials (he was trained by his mother; the recipes are hers). $$; call for hours. 3422 Mount Diablo Blvd.; 925/283-7133.
Chef Edwards Bar-B-Que
Yes, barbecue is all about the meat, and it's great at this cheery green-and-white corner spot, particularly the beef hot links, the brisket, and the popular Piggly Wiggly roast pork sandwich. But what sets chef Earl Edwards apart is his selection of healthier-than-usual sides like yams, green beans, and black-eyed peas. Eat in at one of the six counter spots if you can. $; closed Sun--Mon. 1998 San Pablo Ave.; 510/834-9516.
Having made the transition from First Avenue honky-tonk to first-rate barbecue restaurant, this downtown rib mecca has lost none of its authenticity or charm. And the bar at the back hops. Pork, beef brisket, and chicken come from the pit, dry rubbed and slow-smoked with apple-wood and hickory, and served with all the fixin's, Texas-style--beans, slaw, cornbread, and even hush puppies. $$; closed Sun--Mon. 2203 First Ave.; 206/956-7427.
Hap's Pit Barbecue
Onetime used-car salesman Dan Darroch Sr. began offering barbecue at his Phoenix car lot; if he'd thrown in a slab of his spareribs, he could have moved a 1984 Yugo with a bad carburetor. Now he has two family-run outlets, with topflight barbecue and a few surprises, including smoked lamb with a distinctive mint sauce and Old Settler Beans, a blend of three beans, beef, and bacon. East Side: $; closed Sun; 4801 E. Washington St.; 602/267-0181. West Side: $; 3201 W. Indian School Rd.; 602/279-8090.
Jabo's Bar Be Q
GREENWOOD VILLAGE, CO
Owner Dwight "Jabo" Lawson is a bona fide barbecue king, treating loyal patrons to royally smoked pork ribs, brisket, Polish hot links, and pork shoulder, all of which pair perfectly with the sinful sweet-potato fries. Myriad sauces (60 combinations in all) stroke the meats, while the savory scones slathered with honey butter inspire a trip all by themselves. $$; closed Sun--Mon. 9682 E. Arapahoe Rd.; 303/799-4432.
Memphis Minnie's Bar-B-Que Joint
Don't tell our bosses, but Memphis Minnie's may have been the most extensively researched restaurant in magazine history. Bob Kantor's brisket and tender St. Louis-style pork ribs are among the highlights, but save room for the sides, especially the "pot likker" greens and organic stone-ground corn muffins. $$; closed Mon. 576 Haight St.; 415/864-7675.
Mr. Cecil's California Ribs
SHERMAN OAKS AND WEST LOS ANGELES
Jonathan Burrows opened his first rib joint in one of the last surviving 1940s-vintage Chili Bowl restaurants. Purists will say that Burrows's smoke-free technique disqualifies even his tender beef ribs and juicy baby backs from true 'cue status. But he doesn't call it barbecue, even though you probably will once you taste it. Sherman Oaks: $$$; 13625 Ventura Blvd.; 818/905-8400. West Los Angeles: $$$; 12244 W. Pico Blvd.; 310/442-1550.
Soft-spoken though he may be, Foster Phillips has a presence that immediately commands respect. Take a bite of his perfectly crusted, tender spareribs, and respect may turn to reverence. The meat's smokiness works perfectly with the complexity of the sauce (blending the extra-hot with the medium is the way to go). The deeply smoked chicken also tempts, and we have friends who pledge unwavering fealty to Phillips's rib tips. $$; closed Sun. 4307 Leimert Blvd.; 323/292-7613.
Q4U Hickory Smoked Barbeque
WEST VALLEY CITY, UT
As 'cue master "T" Brown says: "Call the dogs in, put the fire out, the hunt is over!" T and wife Becci serve up hickory-smoked ribs, chicken, and brisket, Southern-style, cooked low and slow in this Salt Lake City suburb. We also love his "pig-a-licious" sandwiches, catfish, and real sweet-potato pie. $; closed Sun. 4655 South 4800 West; 801/955-8858.
Barbecue-meister Robb Richmond's combinations of oak, hickory, apple, and pecan woods produce ribs of smoky tenderness, paired with exquisite sauces--the 28-ingredient original, habanero, Mexican chocolate-spiked chipotle, or vinegary Carolina. Baby backs, brisket, and pork loin are served with homemade sides of coleslaw, crispy fries, and green chile-cheese corn pudding. $$; closed Sun--Mon. 3000-C San Pedro Dr. N.E.; 505/884-7422.
RELATED ARTICLE: More great 'cue near you
D'Millers' Famous BBQ. At this nononsense hole-in-the-wall where the motto is "the sauce is boss," the boss comes three ways--mild, hot, or the plenty spicy mix. Don't even try to ask for medium; you'll get a blank stare until you say "mix." Get your fix of succulent ribs, or try an unconventional but tasty pork sandwich. $; closed Sun--Mon. 7305 Fair Oaks Blvd.; 916/974-1881.
Sharon's Cook-house at the Old Wasney's Restaurant. It's all about the saucy, tangy-spicy ribs at this soul-food spot on the site of the long-time barbecue legend Wasney's--though the crunchy fried catfish is great too. Of the sides, the long-cooked, deep-flavored greens edged out the deliciously sweet baked beans. $$$; closed Sun-Mon. 1228 Dayton Rd.; 530/342-0452.
EAST PALO ALTO
Uncle Frank's House of Bar-B-Que. Uncle Frank Bell knows how long you have to smoke brisket (30 hours). His spicy sauce is just short of incendiary--it keeps you coming back for more. Stellar 18-hour ribs and chicken are served up with Louisiana grace and pride in this little cinder-block rectangle. $. 2417 Pulgas Ave.; 650/321-6369.
Everett and Jones Barbeque. Owner Dorothy Everett King's mother was a founder of nearby Flint's BBQ, so this family knows what's going on in the smoker. And the 'cue is rich and tender--especially the pork ribs and house-made beef links. This is a classy, sit-down spot with a full bar, cheery flowered tablecloths, and antique teakettles on the tables to hold knives and forks. $$. 126 Broadway at Jack London Square; 510/663-2350.
Big Nate's Barbeque. Former NBA star Nate Thurmond's joint in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood is infused with basketball glory. The suspiciously tall guy taking orders will recommend the mild sauce--a rich, throaty affair that goes great with succulent brisket, pork ribs, and chicken. Get it to go, as the four tiny tables don't do justice to this heap of good 'cue. $$. 1665 Folsom St.; 415/861-4242.
RELATED ARTICLE: Santa Maria barbecue
While issues of sauce and smoke ignite arguments across the South, there's a Western tradition that inspires as much passion--Santa Maria barbecue. What started in the mid-1800s on Southern California's huge ranchos as a means of feeding a large number of vaqueros continues every weekend on portable barbecues along Santa Maria's main street, Broadway. Beef sirloin is simply rubbed with garlic salt and pepper and grilled to medium-rare over red-oak coals. The beef is sliced and served with salsa, salad, and tangy-sweet pinquito beans. Stroll along Broadway on a Saturday and choose your feast. Or visit these restaurants: Far Western Tavern ($$; 899 Guadalupe St., Guadalupe; 805/343-2211); the Hitching Post I ($$; 3325 Point Sal Rd., Casmalia; 805/937-6151) and II ($$; 406 E. State 246, Buellton; 805/688-0676); Jocko's ($$; 125 N. Thompson Ave., Nipomo; 805/929-3686). Contact the Santa Maria Valley Visitor & Convention Bureau (www.santamaria.com or 800/331-3779) for more information.--SARA SCHNEIDER
--Barbecue reviews by Peter Fish, Matthew Jaffe, Steven R. Lorton, Lori Midson, Sharon Niederman, Abigail Peterson, Stacey Philipps, Virginia Rainey, Sara Schneider, Nora Burba Trulsson, and Kate Washington
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2004|
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