Robert Bush 2 p.m., Jan. 18
First look at BBQ 81
University Height's brand new barbecue spot breaks out the mesquite and gets it right with the tri-tip.
BBQ 81 is fully operational in University Heights. Big news for uptown San Diego, which has had nothing but Brazen Barbecue in recent years. There’s some clamor over whether BBQ 81 (2302 El Cajon Boulevard, 619-255-1958) is a “real” barbecue joint, since the restaurant doesn’t have an actual smoker.
That’s just silly talk.
There are styles of barbecue whereby thin strips of marinated pork get their smoky flavor from grilling over an open flame. It doesn’t matter how the smoke gets in, as long as it gets there somehow. Look out behind BBQ 81 and get an eyeful of the huge, black mesquite grills. As the meat grills, smoke fills the covered grill and escapes out of the chimney at one extreme. The process imparts smokiness to the meat. The scent of woodsmoke has hung over the neighborhood since 81 opened up.
That said, 81’s technique is better suited to some meats than others. The restaurant’s tri-tip has a lot of promise. When it’s good, grilling is the ideal means for cooking tri-tip. It’s hard to do correctly, but it looks like BBQ 81 has it figured out. Pulled pork, on the other hand, needs a smoker. Whether 81 will be able to make a winning pulled pork without hours in the smoker is still up in the air. It’s a little too early to make a judgment call on the restaurant as a whole, but the current pulled pork is more like a meaty jelly after being braised into oblivion. If the kitchen can figure out how to deliver good pulled pork, it’ll be quite the coup.
One of the problems that BBQ places face is that they get ahead of behind on cooking schedules. It happens because barbecue takes a long time to cook, and scheduling that kind of production schedule can be a terror. Chefs end up rushing things, or overcooking meat because it doesn’t sell fast enough. Consistency goes to hell, the spot gets a rep as poor ‘cue, and it’s all downhill from there. Watching BBQ 81 in the coming months will reveal whether the shop can keep things rad, or cave to the difficulties of operating a consistent barbecue restaurant. Those of us who like BBQ have our hopes up.