Heading due north to Memphis on the Blues Highway, we tried a pulled-pork sandwich, made from smoked shoulder: tender pork shreds, less smoky than I’d like, with a good tangy sauce mixed in, served on Italian bread from Frank’s Bakery and Gibaldi’s in Little Italy, with coleslaw on the side. (In Memphis, the meat’s typically served on a burger bun, with a tall topping of coleslaw, but Frankie wanted to be different.) The lively coleslaw would do Memphis proud, sporting a thin clean dressing with no nasty sugar-added taste, just carrots for the sweetening. Well-seasoned thin “Cajun fries” come, too, although my friends in Eunice and Opelousas might wonder what’s Cajun about them.
The smoked proteins actually tasted smoky — if less than I’d like. The menu splits the difference between the deep South, where pork and chicken dominate the Q, and Texas beef country — and adds a California touch with salmon. The chicken is tender, and smokier than the rest. The pork ribs and beef back-ribs are also very tender — I could bite through one beef bone, which gave away that the red meats are pre-steamed before smoking — manager Joey Hoisescu later confessed that they need to do this since, as a start-up, they can’t afford someone to man the smoker 24 hours (as smoked brisket requires). Moist, tender, smoked Atlantic salmon (for health-conscious eaters) comes both on sampler platters and à la carte. Texas’s beloved smoked brisket is available only as a sandwich, which I didn’t try. (I believe to my soul that only My Ancestral People really know brisket, and Jews don’t Q.)
Aside from the tangy sauce in the pulled pork (and on the brisket sandwich), there’s little sauce on the meats, just a thin glaze. Frankie’s makes two sauces (“barbecue” and a sweeter “South Carolina,” contributed by a line-cook from there, plus one that’s a combo of both). But sometimes less is more: Authentic Memphis pork ribs are all about smoke and spice rub. You can get extra sauce if you can grab a staffer (or a squeeze-bottle from the counter). Service isn’t bad, merely minimal.
Entrées offer a choice of two sides. Elegant, roasted-corn salad might come from Avenue 5, Jsix, or Nine-Ten. Mac and cheese tastes like home-made mom-comfort, not Kraft, or some mad genius’s frightful experiment. Texas beans had genuine Texas flavor but undercooked beans. If Southern Q at its best can be bone-chilling thrilling, this isn’t quite. (For that, head to Barnes’s BBQ in Lemon Grove, my favorite local practitioner.) But it’s reasonably authentic, the vibes are sweet — and that voodoo gumbo is so thrilling, it alone makes Frankie’s worth the trip.
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1201 First Street, Coronado
Lil’ Piggy’s claims to serve “Memphis style” Q. When Saint Steve (now moved to Denver, alas) ate there, he found the meat smoky enough and recommended that I try it, but when Sam and I did, we tasted no smoke at all. I don’t know what went wrong. They have a huge smoker fueled with hickory, running 24 hours, according to manager Eddie, who swears they don’t pre-cook anything — it’s all smoked all the way through.
Nonetheless, the meats seemed bland. The un-Southern sausage was an instant turn-off — what, kielbasa? The meats exhibited a range of textures: dry brisket, marginally tender pulled pork and baby-back ribs, chicken so moist and ultra-tender that even the bones were soft enough to chew.
The sauce, billed as “spicy Southern BBQ sauce,” is tangy-sweet but not what I’d call spicy, resembling the milder supermarket sauces. All barbecue orders come with white bread (just like at Southern Qs) and a choice of two sides. The sides are edible, but awfully Yankee. Potato salad features skin-on red potatoes with a mild mayonnaise-laden dressing. (A Southern one would add Creole mustard, scallions, and chopped cooked egg whites, with the cooked yolks blended into the mayo.) The coleslaw, like Frankie’s, follows the smart Memphis-style, thinly dressed and sweetened with carrots instead of sugar. The baked beans, with a pleasant molasses sweetness, are dotted with bits of meat, but the lack of smokiness in the meats negated the idea.
Since I was buying takeout, I didn’t invest in eat-now sides such as mac and cheese or corn fritters. Wish I had, because I liked Lil’ Piggy’s more than a lil’ bit better after trying the next newcomer on the list. This isn’t horrible food, but from what I tasted, it wasn’t great Q, and I don’t know why. So look at this as a preview, with final judgment pending after more meals. They did land-office business Memorial Day weekend, so whatever I think, Coronado loves ’em.
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11489 Woodside Avenue, Santee
The lighted sign in the parking lot reads: House of BBQ Dentistry Investigations.
The mind seeks to link these into a logical sequence: “The speck of charred beef rib the dentist extricated from the corpse’s molar sent Phillip Marlowe off on a quest for the perp…” Well, “perp” is right. This is a crime in the name of Q.
House of Root Canal calls itself “Chicago style.” By the time you read this, it may have changed its name to Chicago BBQ, per the owner’s plans. Does that mean Glencoe or Evanston? Because this is certainly not what Barack and Michelle doubtlessly enjoyed en route to Hyde Park blues clubs. I’ve tasted gorgeous barbecue in Chicago — and in Southeast San Diego too, from old Chicago expats manning impromptu street-front oil-drum smokers. Oy, this is not that!
I called to find out how they cook their meats: they said in the oven, then grill-crisped (charred, actually), no smoker involved. The meats taste cheap, with tough textures. On the table are two sauces, “House” (very sweet, which drenched our pulled pork) and “Spicy.” About as spicy as iced tea.
We started with a “munching plate” of appetizers — three mini baby-back ribs (sweet, no smoke), plain fries, curly fries, and battered zukes, mushrooms, onion rings, mozzarella fingers, and mild jalapeño poppers, filled with yellow cheese. All the batter-fried goods had coatings of identical composition and thickness. I can’t swear to it but have a very strong impression that they come machine-made and probably frozen from a restaurant-supply house, ready for the roto fryer.