901 El Cajon Boulevard, El Cajon
After all that talk about barbecue without a legitimate smoking pit, meritorious as it may be, this is where shit gets real. Walk into the [Wrangler Family Barbecue]1, where a taxidermied bison overlooks the dining room and Buck Owens plays softly from the radio, and it strikes.
The aroma of woodsmoke lingers in the air, as if someone had set a campfire in the corner of the room and walked away. It creeps into the nostrils. It’s the smell of barbecue. A glance through the window into the kitchen takes in the view of the brick pit smoker, huge and stained with decades of burning hickory. Truly, the gulf yawns wide between this device and the Alto-Shaam. The Wrangler, drab as it may be, is the truth.
One bite tells the tale. The Wrangler’s spare ribs boast a thick bark on the outside, and the meat bears a pink tinge, a telltale sign that smoke and spices have penetrated the pork during hour after hour of smoking. Ham, the restaurant’s other specialty, bursts with juicy, smoky flavor. Roast beef also presents a thick jerky of crust yielding to tender, smoky meat below the surface.
Short and sweet, the menu doesn’t try to incorporate all manner of ‘cue. Pulled pork is only available Thursday and Saturday. Monday is beef stew. The rest of the time, ribs, beef, and ham compose the menu in its entirety. A combination with all three, including two side dishes, costs but $13.69 and will feed two normal eaters. Side dishes are slaw, beans, fries, or mac and cheese. Nothing more. The slaw is crisp, fresh, and green. The beans, sweet, thick, and savory. The sauce is bold, served hot and not enough of it. The menu's only real weakness is sub-par bread.
In a glass case, huge slices of assorted cream pies (only $2.99/slice) lurk alongside cottage cheese salads.
Quibblers might say that the place seems dated, or that the characters operating the business can come off a little on the gruff side. Those two things may be true, but anyone who wants to taste real pit barbecue should accept that fact that barbecue hasn’t changed much in the past seventy years, and that artists are peculiar people.
Put aside the prejudices and let the smoke take hold.