4705-H Clairemont Drive, San Diego
I spent all last summer without a lick of barbecue crossing my lips. So by late fall, the craving for the taste of smoke reached a crisis. I began a quest for new "Qs" and found two of them. (Actually three, but the chef/owner of Willy's BBQ in Mount Hope had health problems that forced him to shut down his BBQ shack. I wish him well.)
When I go out for "Q," I'm looking for something very different than open-flame grilling (whether the flames are fueled by charcoal, gas, or electricity). I seek Southern-style smoked barbecue, because "Q" is fundamentally a Southern art. There are great schools of it up north in Kansas City, Chicago, and Oakland, true, but these were created largely by southern emigrants and their offspring. The art is most often brought to its peak by African-Americans, but anyone can play -- so long as they play by the rules. And the first rule is that smoke comes before fire.
"The tasting of barbecue is a precise affair involving an assessment not merely of quality but also of authenticity," writes food-folklorist Lolis Eric Elie, editor of the fine new essay collection Cornbread Nation 2: The United States of Barbecue (Southern Folkways Association, University of North Carolina Press). "While it is possible to enjoy tender, well-seasoned meat bathed in barbecue sauce, I make a distinction between good food and good barbecue. Good barbecue must be smoked over hardwood or charcoal, and the flavor of that fuel must penetrate the meat....And barbecue should be tender. Merely placed in close proximity to a fork, brisket and pork shoulder should yield with little additional effort. Ribs should separate from the bone without excessive pulling and tugging. The difficulty is cooking the meat long enough to attain this degree of tenderness and smokiness without drying it out."
The second issue for me lies in the flavors added to the meat, since meat by itself isn't all that interesting. Slopping on barbecue sauce as a marinade before smoking is a sure sign of inauthenticity, and a near-certain route to a nasty layer of charred sugar besmirching the surface of the meat. Texas barbecuers (especially white guys) often use a wet marinade or baste, which they call "mopping sauce," and in Kansas City, some "Qs" immerse their pork ribs in a savory spiced brine, but most southerners rub the meat with a dry-spice blend (homemade or store-bought) -- salt, pepper, paprika, plus dry mustard, garlic powder, whatever.
After that comes the sauce. If you travel through the South, every hundred miles or so you hit a different regional sauce, plus all the individual variations thereof. South Carolina's mustard-based sauce is thin and yellow, Memphis's sauce is red, light, and tangy, and rural Tennessee's can be incendiary. Louisiana's runs sweet and lemony, and the sweet-sour, tomatoey Texas sauce (called "sopping sauce" by the natives) is the model for the bottled sauces in the supermarket -- and for the sauces served at most California barbecues. But even if a sauce resembles the bottled stuff, I'm always looking for more than two-dimensional sweet-tart flavors. I hope for those extra dimensions and eccentricities that make some barbecue chefs' "secret sauce" recipes into secrets worth guarding.
Finally, there are the side dishes. For the past few decades, soul food and barbecue restaurants have meshed their menus. Many soul-food restaurants now have genuine smokers, while more and more barbecues serve a full array of soul-food veggies. At my ideal barbecue, a vegetarian -- not a vegan -- could make a great "Q" meal from sides and desserts without a bite of animal protein.
San Diego County has two barbecues that would probably meet Lolis Elie's standards, and emphatically meet mine: Big Jim's in Encinitas, and Barnes Bar-B-Que in Lemon Grove. Those are the ones to beat, but both are in out-of-the-way communities. Hence the search for more centrally located "Q."
Lightnin' Jack's is in the outdoor food court of a multiplex theater in a vast mall in Clairemont. It sits next to a Greek place called Dino's. Both are owned by Dino and Edna Zane. He's Greek, she's Californian. Their barbecue joint isn't a joint, but clean and cute and a little self-conscious, with black-and-white Western-themed pictures on the walls and 30 inside seats. Outside, some 60 more seats are arranged around umbrella-shaded tables. Some chairs, inside and out, are barstools with metal "saddles." I feared spinal torture, but the saddles curve comfortably around the anatomy, even if your hindquarters are past their lissome youth. The sound system plays the blues. The owners ducked my dozen phone calls, so I never found out whether the name of their eatery is a combination of blues greats Lightnin' Hopkins and Champion Jack Dupree or if it's merely a made-up name that sounded cool.
The staffers are young and friendly. They did, however, give the peach cobbler that I paid for to somebody whose takeout order was larger, so I never tasted the premier dessert. You gotta watch that stuff.
Hidden inside the kitchen, Jack's lays claim to a Texas-style pit smoker burning hickory wood. The meats that emerge aren't the smokiest, but they're tasty. The pork ribs are tender and moist, and the brisket carries enough smoke flavor to pass muster in Texas. The beef ribs are on the tough and chewy side. The chicken (I opted for dark meat) is tender but tastes fast-grilled over flame, rather than slow-smoked. The Texas-style sauce is a sweet-tangy tomato blend with Liquid Smoke to accentuate the wood flavors. It's ordinary but enjoyable.
In a pulled-pork sandwich, a barbecue specialty of Memphis, the pork needed more pulling -- the pieces were chunky, not shredded. The meat comes, as it should, on a burger bun with coleslaw piled on top. The peppery slaw, however, substitutes showers of sugar for the calmer sweetness of grated carrot more typical of Memphis's best.
Fried catfish is another option. There's a salty spice mix in the cornmeal coating, swathing moist cat that tastes as if it was raised in clean water. I prefer the catfish plate to the sandwich, because the latter comes drenched in so much Louisiana-style hot sauce you'd be hard-pressed to guess what's under the h-h-hot.
Among the sides, steak-cut fries are tasty in the usual way. Potato salad has skin-on new potatoes with a fluffy texture and no hint of the South in the seasonings. Sweet-potato fries are greaseless and charming. The hush puppies are light-textured and oniony, with a delayed whomp of hot pepper; it hits as you swallow. Other choices include fried okra, jalapeño poppers, onion rings, baked beans, and mac 'n' cheese.
Next day, I headed to Pacific Beach, where another new "Q" called Stickee Fingers is home to the only known smoker in the PB area. Since it opened last spring, the owners have changed the spelling of the first name -- maybe the Rolling Stones were claiming copyright violation.
The bright room has a handful of tables, big windows, Mexican folk art, and chile posters. Outside, there's a wooden patio with a few more tables and an oil-drum smoker, which is where the meats are cooked. The chef, Sonny Choudo, presides at the counter. I asked him about his odd accent. "I'm an Egyptian Jew from Mexico City, where I ran bars and nightclubs," he said. "Then the crime there got so bad -- I actually had friends who were kidnapped -- I decided to get out and learn to cook. I spent two years studying at culinary school in Israel and working in hotel kitchens there. That's probably why I sound like a combination of Spanish and Middle Eastern." His mother has been living in La Jolla for 20 years, so he decided to move to the San Diego area.
After cooking at several local restaurants, including the pan-Latin cuisine at the Gaslamp's (now extinct) Tango Mango, he attempted to make a go of a similar nuevo Mexicano restaurant in PB. "The more people came in to eat, the more money I lost, because I needed to hire more people," he said. After traveling in the South and eating barbecue all over Texas, he converted the space to a barbecue. A local friend, a former barbecue chef, taught him the basic recipes. His business partner, New Englander Wes Slack, now does most of the cooking from Sonny's "recipe book," while Sonny works the front of the house and the financial side.
I tried the largest combo plate with a quarter-rack of ribs, a quarter chicken, and brisket. The meats are smoked over hickory-wood chunks, the best of all barbecue woods because the smoke is sweet-tasting. The pork ribs are tender to the bone. (Sonny swears they're not parboiled or pressure-cooked, just smoked and then grilled to reheat and crisp them.) The brisket is shreddy and smoky, and the chicken is reasonably tender and even smokier. Unfortunately, under the smoke, the poultry tastes like those family-size bags of cardboard legs -- it's hopeless fowl even when well-cooked. Since I last ate there, a smoked turkey leg has become a popular addition to the menu.
The meats are rubbed with an unassertive dry-spice blend: I found the flavors one-dimensional, and the barbecue sauce is a basic model, with tomato up front, not much tang on top, and minimal bass back-up. It needs more something -- molasses? Worcestershire? Liquid Smoke? -- anything except more tomato. Above all, I'd wish for "medium" and "hot" options, like the kind they offer up in Oakland, because the default version is bland.
Given that you're not getting a Memphis-style sauce, the pulled-pork sandwich is decent. Choose the potato-bread hamburger bun (not the French roll, which is too thick for this dish). The meat comes topped with a terrific coleslaw, combining crisp red and white cabbage, carrot, vinegar, and celery seed. It's the most complex and authentic flavor combination in the house. My one quibble is that the pork shoulder butt (a fatty cut) is cooked by a technique that rids it of nearly all its fat -- lean meat isn't what you want when you get a craving for a traditional good-and-greasy Memphis sandwich.
I also tried the BBQ wings, which are marinated and grilled in the house barbecue sauce; the taste is similar to KFC's version. The Louisiana "hot" links are mild but flavorful, like a Creole take on kielbasa. Potato salad features skin-on red spuds with a dressing of mashed egg yolk, mayo, and chopped pickle. The flavor is slightly sour, but not quite Southern -- it lacks mustardy piquancy. Baked beans taste genuinely baked and are pleasant but not riveting. They beg for a soupçon of Liquid Smoke (and maybe some chopped smoked pork) to seduce them out of Boston and into the land of Dixie "Q." Other choices include shoestring fries, house-made potato chips, and onion rings.
The house salads are options for your side dishes, and they're good. I tried romaine hearts with a Caesar dressing, which to my joy tasted of anchovies. The kitchen was out of sweet-potato pie but did offer alternates. The brownie is light, cakey, and cocoa-based. The cheesecake is weighty and so rich that every bite demands contemplation.
My smoky leftover meats and sauces from both barbecues later went into a homemade Brunswick Stew. The Virginia-Kentucky versions of that American classic involve squirrel (or rabbit, if that's what you've caught). The Georgia version uses leftover barbecue, including chicken. I chose to march through Georgia en route to the stove. Now that the stew's done cooking and I'm done writing, I'm going to go eat.