Is it myth or truth that white men can’t “Q”? (Got your attention? Kickle kickle.) Barbecue — meaning Southern-style barbecue — is a black art indeed, requiring a magical confluence of technique, timing, and taste-buds — and a smoker. A majority of America’s top pitmasters (including the Oakland and Chicago franchises of the South) are African-American. East Texas Q is different, with a whiter shade of smoke: San Antonio’s renowned German smokehouses, creating great bacons and sausages, have made a powerful contribution to Texas barbecue, and may have been the original inspiration for all of America’s smoked Q. Reputedly, LBJ (remember him?) was a great amateur pitmaster at his ranch on the Pedernales River, just west of Austin.
To barbecue fanatics, only smoked Q is true Q, not the suburban backyard “barbecue” of heavily sauced protein sizzling over briquettes in a Weber (much less, some newfangled gas grill the size and price of a used SUV). Direct-flame cooking is not Q — it is grilling. Southern BBQ is, first and foremost, smoking meat “low and slow” on indirect heat (with just enough air to keep the flame from dying out), over wood — mainly chips or charcoal nowadays — until the meat tastes smoky and the long, gentle cooking tenderizes the flesh so you don’t even need teeth to eat it.
Some pitmasters use a complex dry-rub of mixed spices on the meat (e.g., Memphis ribs); some use only salt, pepper, cayenne, and brown sugar. Others use a wet marinade, or a “mopping sauce,” as they call it in Texas, periodically swabbing the meats with a flavorful liquid throughout the smoking process (as done for a good Texas-style brisket). At the end comes “sopping sauce” — barbecue sauce — spooned over the meat, and/or brushed on to caramelize as the protein gets a final, crisping finish over direct heat on a grill. Not all sauces resemble the sweet-tangy, maybe-spicy tomato colloids like those from the supermarket; they vary regionally. Some (e.g., the vinegar-mustard pork sauces of North Carolina and Alabama) bear no resemblance to KC Masterpiece.
In the South, sides gravitate to soul food — cornbread, mac and cheese, smoky greens, sweet potatoes, peach cobbler, sweet-potato pie. In Texas (and San Diego too), they run to church-picnic dishes such as potato salad, mac salad, green salad, fruit pies. Baked beans and coleslaw seem common to all regions.
But barbecue in San Diego rarely has “black magic,” since, due to the relatively low percentage of African-American residents (compared to the South or Chicago or Oakland), it’s never become a regional specialty like, say, fish tacos. Our most popular purveyor, Phil’s, is not a real Q but a mesquite grill, finishing pre-cooked unsmoked meats over direct heat. So if you’ve got a Southern-schooled mouth craving the deep smoke, tangy regional sauces, and soulful sides of Southern Q, you’re generally in for disappointment. It’s not a question of race, finally, but of region. When Big Jim (now retired), a tall ol’ bubba from Alabama, opened his eponymous BBQ in Encinitas, he proved that those of the Caucasian persuasion can Q — if they have the taste of the South in their mouth.
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1127 W. Morena Boulevard, Linda Vista
Frankie “The Bull” Terzoli isn’t a Southerner, but he’s obviously been there: he had me at filé gumbo and kept me at cornbread. A local who competed on America’s Top Chefs (came in high, didn’t win), he’s that rare San Diegan chef with some built-in Southern soul.
Outside the restaurant is an iron sculpture of a rampaging black bull. The interior has a quasi-Western saloon look. The ambient music is a tasty tape that co-owner Tony Iaquinta created, gentle Latin American sounds ranging from Oaxacan folk-tunes to Cuban and Brazilian tropicalismo.
On the patio (there’s only one heat stanchion, so dress warmly) a sepia mural depicts cowboys cooking over campfires, and a peculiar craft object made of an old wine-barrel depicts a well (please don’t drink from it!) with a big stuffed black bird (convincing enough that local crows sometimes attack it) perched on the pump. Quoth the raven, “Nevermore” — which is what we were saying about ever getting any food, until we tortured a passing staffer into disclosing the procedure: You place your order and pay at the counter inside (like a fast-food joint), and somebody will deliver it to you. Another secret: The restaurant’s beer and wine license is pending, and they’re being ultra careful, so I’ll hide the trick inside the curtains of parentheses, and take the blame — but please be adult about this and follow instructions. (If you must BYO beer or wine, be over 21, be quiet, and be as super-sneaky paranoid as a Nixon-era pothead when one ounce was a felony bust and the Feds were aprowl. Don’t force the staffers to notice what you’re doing. Eat on the patio, hide your stash in a backpack or the like under the table, and take your empties with you when you go. To get glasses, ask for water without ice — water is served in opaque cardboard take-out glasses. Unwanted H2O can go into the “well” sculpture. Really, these seem like good people, so please don’t endanger their license application by flaunting your sins!)
The owners understand the Louisiana custom of lagniappe, “a little something extra.” Soon after we sat down, Tony brought out a ramekin of andouille sausage in a sauce as spicy-sweet as Tony himself. (At the end of dinner, he brought another ramekin of fresh mozzarella balls seasoned with salt and pepper, as a palate-cleanser.)
The dish not to miss is the spectacular filé gumbo — thick, rich, emphatically piquant, dark as Hades, loaded with bay shrimp, shredded chicken, andouille, red and green peppers, and carrots, based on a foundation of deepest-mahogany, near-smoky roux (Louisiana’s long-cooked flour-and-oil blend.) Best filé gumbo in SD since Juke Joint closed, equal to Louisiana’s finest! Three cheers for line-chef Mike, who stirs that ol’ black magic nonstop for 45 minutes. It doesn’t include rice (no room for it in the tiny kitchen). No prob to me (who needs those carbs?), but it’s spicy enough that some may miss it. To soothe your mouth, the dish comes with a superb corn muffin (included on all barbecue plates, too) enlivened by sweet corn kernels and bits of jalapeño — so moist and creamy, it tastes like it’s been buttered from the inside. It’s better than Southern cornbread, which dries out even as it cools. (Grrrr-eat for breakfast the next day, if you can save one.)