If smoky flavor is the sine qua non of barbecued meat, then sauce is the desideratum. Barbecue without sauce is like the ocean without swell: beautiful, but where’s the fun? As much as meat choice, barbecue sauces in the American South adhere to regional varieties. The sweet sauce of Kansas City barbecue, thick in texture and heavy on the sugar, is most common across the U.S. KC-style sauce is a variation on Memphis-style sauce from the land where spare ribs reign supreme, which is thinner and sharper, higher in vinegar to cut the fat, but sweet enough to add a new dimension to the barky, lean spare ribs. Back in the day, Memphis pitmasters innovated the Carolina vinegar sauces, which are the progenitors of all. Little more than vinegar, pepper, and chili, vinegar sauce was originally used as a baste to moisten and penetrate meat as it smoked. It also splashes fantastically over the rich, fatty pork shoulder or whole hog of Carolina 'cue.
Better and more exhaustive lists exist, but the aforementioned styles sum up 95% of the barbecue joints in America, and maybe 100% in San Diego — though that remains to be seen as the barbecue survey continues!
888 Prospect Street, La Jolla
Bubba’s Smoke House BBQ shows just how important sauce can be. The restaurant makes an exaggerated play of the South, sporting a name like “Bubba” and incorporating soul food staples like sweet potatoes (erroneously labelled “yams” in one instance), collards, fried pickles and okra, and some delicious sweet tea. Although uncharacteristic of posh La Jolla, the place has rolled with it since 2009 and shows no signs of weakness.
Bubba’s sauce comes in two varieties, both medium-thin and pungent. The sweet sauce has a velvety touch of sugar that complements the sharp acidity. The hot sauce shines. Cider vinegar lends bite, while the sauce gets its kick from chipotle peppers. Those chipotles hint more at California and the Southwest than at the “barbecue belt,” but the delightful effect gives Bubba’s sauce true character. Spice-sensitve souls will find it quite lively, but spice lovers will have no problem slathering it on everything at the restaurant, and in great quantity. Sauce-making, whether barbecue or bechamel, is all about balance, and Bubba’s hot sauce treads a fine line with certitude.
As for the meats, they remain the consistent, perfectly average product of a self-contained smoker. They lack the deep, smoky flavor of pit barbecue, but still maintain the tenderness of slow cooking. They compare equally to, say, Lil’ Alex or BBQ House, but little needs to augment the exacting definition of barbecue in the land of smog control beyond what’s been said. Bubba's meats tend more towards the dry and crusty side. Service without sauce at all, only dusted with dry rub, is an option for the ribs. Still the basic premise is the same.
Most importantly, at Bubba’s, whatever you get will be OK so long as it’s covered in that fantastic sauce.