2302 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
When the short-lived branch of the Barbecue Pit on University Avenue closed, North Park remained without ‘cue for a good while, until BBQ 81 opened up with the promise of ribs and tri-tip on El Cajon Boulevard. The restaurant earned an overly enthusiastic first look in the Reader, but it has had time to mature, and get a more objective look from the perspective of “All Things BBQ.”
When all is said and done, BBQ 81 makes a bid to own the “mesquite grill” category of barbecue. The big, smoky grills behind the restaurant impart good flavor to the ribs and tri-tip, but the end product doesn’t quite measure up against Southern-style pit barbecue that’s been smoked for hour after hour. The tri-tip remains very good, because the grill can create flavorful roast beef.
One vexing issue is that BBQ 81 uses baby back ribs.
In part, the popularity of baby back ribs (which are cut from the ribs near the spine of a small hog) is due to the insanely popular jingle from a certain fast casual restaurant, which isn’t even a barbecue joint. It’s not entirely undeserved, since the back ribs are more tender and easier to cook than spare ribs (which are cut from the belly side of the rib cage). Back ribs can yield a more consistently tasty product, especially under sub-optimal barbecue conditions. The problem is that spare ribs have more potential flavor, and, while they represent a bigger challenge to the pit master, they yield a more delectable finished product when done correctly.
Baby backs tend to be more expensive, and, on BBQ 81's menu, they're really the only item that's overpriced.
The petite bones of meat in a rack of baby backs represent a more civilized kind of barbecue; a barbecue that doesn’t want to see you gnawing at bones for the last shreds of meat; a barbecue clean enough for N’Sync.
But barbecue is cooking at the edge of civilization, and the neat package of baby back ribs doesn’t fit the primal image.