4645 Carmel Mountain Road, San Diego
6955 El Camino Real, Carlsbad
Will a North County Southern-style barbecue created by a Bronx-born Italian American become the next Jack in the Box? Maybe not -- but how about the next Rubio's or Sammy's Woodfired Pizza? That's the kind of growth that chef Joey Maggiore is hoping for with his new mini-chain, Joey's Smokin' B-B-Q, and he may just succeed. Let's face it -- south of Oakland, there's not a lot of long-smoked barbecue in California, and when the craving hits, nothing else will do. There are already three Joey's locations -- the original in Carlsbad, a newbie in Carmel Valley, and a booming franchise in Idaho, the land that "Q" forgot (until Joey's remembered it). Basketball players Luke and Chris Walton have bought into the concept, with plans to open an outpost in Manhattan Beach in two months; other branches are in the works for Orange County and Irvine.
What makes Southern-style barbecue different from backyard steaks grilled on the Weber? First, it's cooked "low and slow" over smoldering hardwood (or wood chips) in an enclosed smoker, rather than grilled over a hot fire fueled by briquettes, mesquite branches, or gas. Often, Southerners rub barbecue meats with an aromatic spice mixture before cooking; they may also baste during cooking with a strongly seasoned liquid (as in your typical Texas "mop and sop" -- the mop is the baste, the sop is the thicker sauce applied just at serving, so the sugars won't blacken in the heat of the pit). Meats emerge from a smoker imbued with the flavor of whatever wood has been used for fuel. Inexpensive cuts (like brisket and tri-tip) that can be tough and gristly when cooked on high heat turn tender when slow-cooked in smoke. After all the work and patience, you've got yourself a mouthful of flavor.
Some say smoked barbecue was developed mainly by African Americans in the South, as a way to make the most of tougher, bonier pork cuts that "the big house" passed along. Another story credits the invention to German immigrants who settled around San Antonio and expanded their old-country sausage-smoking traditions to include hunks of beef. But there were earlier traditions of Native Americans slow-smoking meat and fish all along the Pacific Coast and in the Caribbean Islands, so -- who knows who really started it? (Even in high-country Nepal, the best Sherpani cook I encountered hung the week's yak meat over her juniper-fueled fireplace, resulting in the tenderest, smokiest yak I ever tasted.)
A few years ago, Joey Maggiore, then owner of Joey's California Bistro in Coronado, realized that he, too, had a craving for genuine barbecue. Hoping to spend more time with his growing family, he sold his bistro to a corporation. A week's trip to Memphis, a few days in Texas, a consultation with a retired Memphis BBQ chef, and Joey's Smokin' B-B-Q was hatched.
The sauce is at least as important as the smoke in barbecues of any sort. Rather than trying to replicate "family secret" sauce recipes from the region and produce them in the quantities needed for future franchisees, he contracted instead with a large food-service company. Joey "auditioned" four sauces at his original location in Carlsbad. All too soon, he discovered that authentic Deep South flavors hold little appeal for So-Cal palates. Most locals rejected the vinegary Carolina-style potion and the smoldering Texas-style sauce. The two survivors -- called "suh-weet" and "mild-spicy" -- are offered in chafing dishes at a condiment table opposite the order counter, near the iced tea and soft-drink dispensers. The "suh-weet," resembling Memphis-style pulled-pork sauce, is thin, bright red, light, and tomatoey, with a brown-sugar flavor. The "mild-spicy" is heavier and sharper, with tomatoes, molasses, and a hint of vinegar, much like bottled sauces from the supermarket. If you like a spicier sauce, table condiments include Tabasco and good Louisiana-made Red Rooster hot sauce, which adds flavor as well as a kick.
Joey also experimented with the buns. First he tried brioche-dough buns from St. Tropez Bakery, the closest local equivalent to Memphis's fluffy pulled-pork sandwich buns. He loved them, but patrons asked for firmer, dryer, hamburger-type buns, so he switched to shiny-topped potato-flour buns. Some diners wanted packaged supermarket-style white bread (the staple of soul-food BBQs), but Joe nixed that idea -- he doesn't like the stuff.
Even the equipment had to be adapted to California customs, since many zoning ordinances either ban full-size pit barbecues (because the smoke is considered a pollutant) or charge extra to license them. Instead, Joey chose smaller, self-contained electric smokers that use hickory (or other hardwood) chips. (With their automatic settings, these machines also require less skill to control than old-fashioned pits, so they produce more uniform, idiot-proof results.) By the time he'd adapted to local laws and tastes, Joey was no longer producing Southern "Q," but So-Cal "Q" -- more an homage to Memphis than anything you'd find in Memphis itself.
I went to the chain's newer location in a chillingly soulless mall called Torrey Hills Center. Joey's tiny operation stood out from the surrounding sterility because its decor looks warm, and faintly Old West. There are a few booths and high, round, wooden tables inside (facing a mirrored wall to make the place look twice its size) and plenty of tables outside. The decor features about a zillion kitschy rural barnyard animals in numerous sculptural media, including wrought-iron paper-towel dispensers topped with rooster silhouettes. Those paper towels in place of napkins are a clear signal: "Go ahead and get messy." You order at the counter, and they bring the food to your table when it's ready (not instantly -- this isn't McD's).
So how did Joey's measure up? In general, I found the meats less intensely smoky than a true pit barbecue can make them and the sauces less powerful and complex than those I've tasted in the South -- but you'll still find some darned good eating here. My favorite of the meats was the pulled pork, which offers reasonably credible Memphis-style flavor and tender-chewy texture. It's hard to eat the pulled-pork sandwich because the meat's piled so high on a slightly tough bun that it calls for knife and fork. But order the entrée plate, get a little cup of the "suh-weet" sauce, mix it with some Red Rooster and pour it on, then top the heap with coleslaw -- and you might find yourself saying "y'all."
Given the upscale neighborhoods he's targeting, Joey couldn't buy just any beef ribs. He went with precious Kobe, most of it from Snake River Farms in Idaho. (No, Snake River's cows don't drink beer, nor do they get beer massages. They're just a prime breed, raised with care and rich feed.) Kobe longhorn beef ribs are monster-sized, apparently cut from Paul Bunyan's Babe, the Blue Ox. They're tender and gloriously fatty, with great beefy flavor.
Baby back ribs come in three different costumes: sweet ribs are glazed before grilling with the suh-weet sauce. Wet ribs are glazed with the mild-spicy sauce. Both are so tender, you don't even need teeth. Dry-rubbed ribs -- Joey's version of ribs he'd tasted in Memphis -- have no glaze but are sprinkled with Joey's own spice rub after smoking (and before grilling). They seemed tougher than the others. One of the secrets I learned from a master Southern pitsman in Oakland is that meats develop deeper, cooked-in spice flavors when you massage in the spice rub before smoking -- that way, the fat in the ribs is imbued with the spice blend and "bastes" the meat with those flavors as it renders. (I also like a lot more garlic in the rub -- after hours in the smoker, it mellows out, tasting more sweet than "garlicky.")
The lazy-smoked BBQ chicken plates offer a choice of sizes and colors. We found the white meat moist and the dark meat spectacularly succulent. The glazing sauce is the "suh-weet."
House-made hot links are well seasoned in the Louisiana manner and boast a good, coarse texture, but they're extremely salty. I'd take them home to toss into red beans 'n' rice and make the beans with less salt to compensate. I wasn't impressed with the too-dry beef brisket. It's been smoked so long (14 hours) that all the fat has rendered out. This is why Texas barbecues use a mopping sauce on brisket, not just for flavor but to seal in moisture. One lunch hour, I tried a Kobe beefburger. It was huge and looked good, but the default here is to cook it well done and then some, which I consider a waste of great meat. (And with this, too, I'd prefer a softer, fluffier bun.)
Joey's offers a wide choice of side dishes. "Mama's downright addictive BBQ beans" (per the menu) comes with most entrées, along with coleslaw and cornbread. The beans are pretty standard BBQ beans sweetened with molasses, pleasant enough but not remotely addictive. The coleslaw is in the KFC mode (the only food on KFC's menu that I consider edible), creamy but clean and crisp and not a sugar-bomb. Cornbread means corn muffins. One visit they were about normal, but the next time the batter was unevenly mixed, leaving the bottom crusts hard and heavy.
The French fries that come with the burgers are standard fast-food fare. The sweet-potato fries would be a healthier and more flavorful alternative. Mac'n'cheese is creamy, gooey, and cheesy -- soul food for your inner child. The hush puppies lack the typical Southern onion or scallion bits, but they're light and tasty with crisp surfaces and soft centers, like cornmeal Tater Tots. Potato salad here is bland, mainly just potatoes and mayo -- awfully white and utterly non-Southern. We didn't get to try the collards or the corn, nor (new to the menu) the fried pickles. I'd bet on the latter. As for house-made beverages, the lemonade tastes "homemade" and not too sweet, while exiled Southerners will relish the sugar-loaded iced tea, made just the way their mouths remember.
For dessert, the requisite sweet-potato pie is returning to the menu in a week or so; alas, it was off at the time I visited. I didn't try the other choices, which include lava cake, cheesecake, pecan pie, and cookies.
Last night, some friends from San Francisco breezed through town and brought us a little "care package" of doggie-bagged ribs and pulled pork from Memphis Minnie's on Haight Street -- the smokiest barbecue west of the Pecos. The meats were marvelous, but Joey's did not suffer overmuch in comparison. If you're used to regional Southern barbecue, and you've read some of the food blogs raving about Joey's, adjust your expectations. Every dish here has been carefully formulated to appeal to only one region of the South -- and that's sunnin', surfin' Southern California. Yet So-Cal "Q" is way better than no "Q" at all, and that's why I'm betting that Joey's will be fruitful and multiply.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Joey Maggiore grew up in a Sicilian restaurant family. Originally from the Bronx, they moved to California when he was young. "My father owns six restaurants," he says, "here and in Phoenix, including two in Carlsbad, Tuscany and Tommy V's.
"My first restaurant was Joey's California Bistro in Coronado. I loved the area and the people, but I got bought out by a company out of Phoenix. They offered me good money, and I decided it was the right time. I live in Carlsbad, I'd gotten married and had two kids and another one on the way, and I decided that with these late hours -- two in the morning -- it was starting to kill me. I said, 'Let me come up with something different.' My wife was happy to hear that.
"After I sold the restaurant in Coronado, we were trying to decide what to do next. 'No one's doing barbecue,' I said, so we went to Memphis, and I fell in love with the food, the way they smoked it. I really didn't know anything about it, and it blew my mind. It was unbelievable, really good, and I said, 'Let's try it!'
"Then we went over by Texas and saw how in the different regions they do different things to the meats. The one I liked in Texas was a chain restaurant called Red Hot and Blue Barbecue. It was a quick-serve, with a lot of to-go, kind of like what I'm doing, only a little bigger. I wondered if it was a chain or an individual place, and then I started seeing them on every corner, so I went in and talked with the managers. They said they did really good business, and that's when I decided to do quick-serve style, that it would really work in California. Every restaurant I went to, I wanted to take a little piece of what they did and perfect it.
"The recipes took me about five months of research. I looked at every menu possible -- what did Tennessee have, what did Texas have, what did all the little towns have, what they were popular for. So we could have a well-balanced menu, to where if you're from certain areas, we'll have one or two of your local items on the menu. Sweet potato fries, collard greens. We're doing fried pickles now, we're putting in mashed sweet potatoes. I went to my father's steakhouse, Tommy V's, and worked with the executive chef there to come up with a spice blend for the meat. When we finally found one that we liked, I said, 'Oh, my God, what did we put in this?' We had to go back and figure out what we'd put into it. Then I went to a spice company in San Diego that did an exclusive for me, where they would make up the spice blend in big batches so we could use it for franchising.
"We started with three different sauces and we made 'em at first, but if I wasn't there, they'd come out all different. And if they're not the same every day, that's no good. So I said, 'If we want to be as big as I hope we can be, we can't make 'em at every place. We don't have a big commissary, we're not set up for that yet.' So I teamed up with Girard's, which is a big dressing company, high-quality stuff. They had a barbecue line that they were phasing out, so I bought the rights to it for California. I kind of fell in love with the 'suh-weet' sauce. We tried four different sauces, but people didn't like the mustard-vinegar sauce or the real hot spicy sauce. They wanted one that was sweeter.
"For the meat, we use all high-quality natural meats. We wanted to have Kobe beef, because people around here are really getting into it. The Kobe ribs are hard to get. Most restaurants buy them with the chop attached, but because my father owns a steakhouse and buys a lot of Kobe, we were able to work it out with the meat supplier...
"My wife came up with the decor, with all those farm animals. She decorates all the places now, so it'll be pretty much the same at all the locations. It's a lot more homey than the other franchises and chain restaurants in the malls. People can just come in and relax.
"Just before I opened, I had a guy that came out here for a month from Memphis to help me open the place. He's a real good pitmaster, retired. He used to own restaurants there, and he taught us how to do it. Because I wanted to make sure we kept the real Southern style going. And ever since then we've been going strong. No, I don't want to be the next Jack in the Box, but I'd like to see 15 or 20 branches -- or maybe 50 or 60."