2625 Lemon Grove Avenue, Lemon Grove
Coop’s is the new barbecue with the buzz. Since opening last October, it’s already garnered one major huzzah (Candice Woo in San Diego Magazine’s “best restaurants” issue for best barbecue). On Yelp, it’s incited an ongoing war between fans of Phil’s-the-Grill (aka Phil’s BBQ, which isn’t really a barbecue because it’s a no-smoking zone) and Coop’s converts. Coop may have started the controversy himself — once he registered his business on Yelp, he told me, he posted a few rave reviews under his own name (no fakery), until the site administrators made him stop.
Coop is friendly and personable enough that he may become the San Diego ambassador for Southern-style barbecue. “I understood when I opened Coop’s that Southern California is a completely different style of barbecue,” he says. “It’s basically backyard grilling, like Phil’s, and I knew I’d have some hard work ahead to make smoked barbecue popular here. I’m on a mission to be known as the best purveyor of barbeque in Southern California, and I keep learning and experimenting to try and perfect my food.”
He grew up here and in Midland, Texas, where his father taught him the art of the Q. Hence, Coop’s is a genuine Texas-style barbecue, smoking meats “low and slow” for as long as 12 hours in a brick pit-smoker indoors or in giant steel “big boy” aqua smokers outside the restaurant. Coop’s fuels the smokers with mesquite wood or chips, red oak and/or white oak (depending on availability, all Texas Q classics). Nothing’s braised or simmered to tenderize it before it hits the smokers, but meats are rubbed with complex spice mixtures. Coop’s took over the old site of Barnes BBQ, which moved its Tennessee-style Q a few blocks north to larger quarters. The room here is so tiny that hardly anybody eats on-site, especially since there’s no beer, but on a late Saturday afternoon, patrons were lined up out the door to pick up takeout. Most had evidently phoned in their orders because the line moved swiftly.
Like Buddha in the pizza joke, my friend Dave called in our order, saying, “Make me one with everything.” One item of our “everything” didn’t arrive — the cornbread. We missed it a lot in the face of this meat-o-rama.
First taste was best taste: a huge, heaped-up “big boy” (as the menu calls it) pulled-pork sandwich on a soft roll thinly spread with mayo. The pork strips were tender, smoky, everything you want. They barely needed sauce, although the house sauce, based on ketchup and molasses, with enticing clove undertones, proved an exemplary Texas model, velvety and dark, not too sweet or thick or spicy. The standard side for pulled pork is cole slaw, which typically goes on top of the pork in a sandwich. Coop’s slaw is idiosyncratic, starting out light and tangy-sweet (no mayo, hurrah!), fresh and crisp. Then the hot stuff sneaks up. There’s a lot of visible black pepper and less identifiable barbecue sauce, which turns the slaw a rusty color — a dragon-breath slaw.
Then we hit our two Kit and Kaboodle samplers, each with four meats and two sides. The Southwestern Jerk Chicken consists of strips of boneless thigh, mopped with Jamaican jerk paste mixed with the house barbecue sauce, to calm down the heat level. I wish the newly introduced smoked-wing version had been available, because I found the poultry overcooked, but Dave enjoyed it.
Contents of fine-grained house-made sausage vary — Coop is still experimenting — but they’re mainly pork carnitas-meat and beef; sometimes chicken enters the mix. They have the smoke-ring — a ring of pink meat that shows up in fully smoked meats — but the day we tried them they were too dry. “Yeah, Saturday, they didn’t turn out too well,” Coop said later. “The guy who stuffed them into the casings left the mixture too loose, so it overcooked.” (Well, I still wish there was a little more pork fat in the mix to keep it moist. Barbecue isn’t a staple. I don’t eat it for my health, but for pure pleasure!)
Classic Texas Q (if you’re old enough, think LBJ presiding over huge briskets on the Pedernales Ranch) mainly runs to beef, whereas barbecue from the Southeast runs to pork — all coming from whichever animals flourish there. Coop’s splits the difference, covering both pork ribs and beef ribs (and brisket). Like modern pit bosses in Memphis these last 20 years or so, he’s into doing complex dry-rubs and serving sauce on the side, the better to taste the rubs undisguised. The full array of smoked ribs — pork ribs, rib tips, spare-ribs, beef ribs with their crisped surface “bark” — seemed a little dry, like the sausage, but after reheating the takeout gently in the nuker, slathered with the wonderful sauce, they bloomed like desert flowers after a rain.
As for brisket, far as I’m concerned, it’s a Texas thing: a tough, low-fat cut from low on the cow. My ethnic people saw it fit only for braising; and the Irish for pickling as corned beef. Didn’t Cookie, out on the range, making those long-simmered beans, also simmer the brisket? Anyway, the barbecued brisket here is tough and dry, just as I’ve tasted it at other Texas Qs (including some around Austin, which is NOT the barbecue capital of the state). The surface fat-layer seems to have been removed — not a good idea. It’s like going to the famous Katz’s Deli in lower Manhattan and ordering your pastrami sandwich “lean.”
The famous side dish (as per Yelpers) is the eccentric, tasty baked beans made with pineapple chunks. They’re cooked in an open pot in the smoker, so they take on a touch of smoke flavor. I didn’t much like the red beans and rice, with their mushy, short-grain rice and occasional shreds of brisket or chicken; in NOLA, the beans get to gobble up smoked pork fat from ham hocks, etc. I did like the soggy Southern vegetarian collard greens. The potato salad is the standard New Orleans version with mashed egg yolks and minced scallions, but it could use a tad more mayo to loosen it.