Given the upscale neighborhoods he's targeting, Joey couldn't buy just any beef ribs. He went with precious Kobe, most of it from Snake River Farms in Idaho. (No, Snake River's cows don't drink beer, nor do they get beer massages. They're just a prime breed, raised with care and rich feed.) Kobe longhorn beef ribs are monster-sized, apparently cut from Paul Bunyan's Babe, the Blue Ox. They're tender and gloriously fatty, with great beefy flavor.
Baby back ribs come in three different costumes: sweet ribs are glazed before grilling with the suh-weet sauce. Wet ribs are glazed with the mild-spicy sauce. Both are so tender, you don't even need teeth. Dry-rubbed ribs -- Joey's version of ribs he'd tasted in Memphis -- have no glaze but are sprinkled with Joey's own spice rub after smoking (and before grilling). They seemed tougher than the others. One of the secrets I learned from a master Southern pitsman in Oakland is that meats develop deeper, cooked-in spice flavors when you massage in the spice rub before smoking -- that way, the fat in the ribs is imbued with the spice blend and "bastes" the meat with those flavors as it renders. (I also like a lot more garlic in the rub -- after hours in the smoker, it mellows out, tasting more sweet than "garlicky.")
The lazy-smoked BBQ chicken plates offer a choice of sizes and colors. We found the white meat moist and the dark meat spectacularly succulent. The glazing sauce is the "suh-weet."
House-made hot links are well seasoned in the Louisiana manner and boast a good, coarse texture, but they're extremely salty. I'd take them home to toss into red beans 'n' rice and make the beans with less salt to compensate. I wasn't impressed with the too-dry beef brisket. It's been smoked so long (14 hours) that all the fat has rendered out. This is why Texas barbecues use a mopping sauce on brisket, not just for flavor but to seal in moisture. One lunch hour, I tried a Kobe beefburger. It was huge and looked good, but the default here is to cook it well done and then some, which I consider a waste of great meat. (And with this, too, I'd prefer a softer, fluffier bun.)
Joey's offers a wide choice of side dishes. "Mama's downright addictive BBQ beans" (per the menu) comes with most entrées, along with coleslaw and cornbread. The beans are pretty standard BBQ beans sweetened with molasses, pleasant enough but not remotely addictive. The coleslaw is in the KFC mode (the only food on KFC's menu that I consider edible), creamy but clean and crisp and not a sugar-bomb. Cornbread means corn muffins. One visit they were about normal, but the next time the batter was unevenly mixed, leaving the bottom crusts hard and heavy.
The French fries that come with the burgers are standard fast-food fare. The sweet-potato fries would be a healthier and more flavorful alternative. Mac'n'cheese is creamy, gooey, and cheesy -- soul food for your inner child. The hush puppies lack the typical Southern onion or scallion bits, but they're light and tasty with crisp surfaces and soft centers, like cornmeal Tater Tots. Potato salad here is bland, mainly just potatoes and mayo -- awfully white and utterly non-Southern. We didn't get to try the collards or the corn, nor (new to the menu) the fried pickles. I'd bet on the latter. As for house-made beverages, the lemonade tastes "homemade" and not too sweet, while exiled Southerners will relish the sugar-loaded iced tea, made just the way their mouths remember.
For dessert, the requisite sweet-potato pie is returning to the menu in a week or so; alas, it was off at the time I visited. I didn't try the other choices, which include lava cake, cheesecake, pecan pie, and cookies.
Last night, some friends from San Francisco breezed through town and brought us a little "care package" of doggie-bagged ribs and pulled pork from Memphis Minnie's on Haight Street -- the smokiest barbecue west of the Pecos. The meats were marvelous, but Joey's did not suffer overmuch in comparison. If you're used to regional Southern barbecue, and you've read some of the food blogs raving about Joey's, adjust your expectations. Every dish here has been carefully formulated to appeal to only one region of the South -- and that's sunnin', surfin' Southern California. Yet So-Cal "Q" is way better than no "Q" at all, and that's why I'm betting that Joey's will be fruitful and multiply.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Joey Maggiore grew up in a Sicilian restaurant family. Originally from the Bronx, they moved to California when he was young. "My father owns six restaurants," he says, "here and in Phoenix, including two in Carlsbad, Tuscany and Tommy V's.
"My first restaurant was Joey's California Bistro in Coronado. I loved the area and the people, but I got bought out by a company out of Phoenix. They offered me good money, and I decided it was the right time. I live in Carlsbad, I'd gotten married and had two kids and another one on the way, and I decided that with these late hours -- two in the morning -- it was starting to kill me. I said, 'Let me come up with something different.' My wife was happy to hear that.
"After I sold the restaurant in Coronado, we were trying to decide what to do next. 'No one's doing barbecue,' I said, so we went to Memphis, and I fell in love with the food, the way they smoked it. I really didn't know anything about it, and it blew my mind. It was unbelievable, really good, and I said, 'Let's try it!'
"Then we went over by Texas and saw how in the different regions they do different things to the meats. The one I liked in Texas was a chain restaurant called Red Hot and Blue Barbecue. It was a quick-serve, with a lot of to-go, kind of like what I'm doing, only a little bigger. I wondered if it was a chain or an individual place, and then I started seeing them on every corner, so I went in and talked with the managers. They said they did really good business, and that's when I decided to do quick-serve style, that it would really work in California. Every restaurant I went to, I wanted to take a little piece of what they did and perfect it.