Is it myth or truth that white men can’t “Q”? (Got your attention? Kickle kickle.) Barbecue — meaning Southern-style barbecue — is a black art indeed, requiring a magical confluence of technique, timing, and taste-buds — and a smoker. A majority of America’s top pitmasters (including the Oakland and Chicago franchises of the South) are African-American. East Texas Q is different, with a whiter shade of smoke: San Antonio’s renowned German smokehouses, creating great bacons and sausages, have made a powerful contribution to Texas barbecue, and may have been the original inspiration for all of America’s smoked Q. Reputedly, LBJ (remember him?) was a great amateur pitmaster at his ranch on the Pedernales River, just west of Austin.
To barbecue fanatics, only smoked Q is true Q, not the suburban backyard “barbecue” of heavily sauced protein sizzling over briquettes in a Weber (much less, some newfangled gas grill the size and price of a used SUV). Direct-flame cooking is not Q — it is grilling. Southern BBQ is, first and foremost, smoking meat “low and slow” on indirect heat (with just enough air to keep the flame from dying out), over wood — mainly chips or charcoal nowadays — until the meat tastes smoky and the long, gentle cooking tenderizes the flesh so you don’t even need teeth to eat it.
Some pitmasters use a complex dry-rub of mixed spices on the meat (e.g., Memphis ribs); some use only salt, pepper, cayenne, and brown sugar. Others use a wet marinade, or a “mopping sauce,” as they call it in Texas, periodically swabbing the meats with a flavorful liquid throughout the smoking process (as done for a good Texas-style brisket). At the end comes “sopping sauce” — barbecue sauce — spooned over the meat, and/or brushed on to caramelize as the protein gets a final, crisping finish over direct heat on a grill. Not all sauces resemble the sweet-tangy, maybe-spicy tomato colloids like those from the supermarket; they vary regionally. Some (e.g., the vinegar-mustard pork sauces of North Carolina and Alabama) bear no resemblance to KC Masterpiece.
In the South, sides gravitate to soul food — cornbread, mac and cheese, smoky greens, sweet potatoes, peach cobbler, sweet-potato pie. In Texas (and San Diego too), they run to church-picnic dishes such as potato salad, mac salad, green salad, fruit pies. Baked beans and coleslaw seem common to all regions.
But barbecue in San Diego rarely has “black magic,” since, due to the relatively low percentage of African-American residents (compared to the South or Chicago or Oakland), it’s never become a regional specialty like, say, fish tacos. Our most popular purveyor, Phil’s, is not a real Q but a mesquite grill, finishing pre-cooked unsmoked meats over direct heat. So if you’ve got a Southern-schooled mouth craving the deep smoke, tangy regional sauces, and soulful sides of Southern Q, you’re generally in for disappointment. It’s not a question of race, finally, but of region. When Big Jim (now retired), a tall ol’ bubba from Alabama, opened his eponymous BBQ in Encinitas, he proved that those of the Caucasian persuasion can Q — if they have the taste of the South in their mouth.
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1127 W. Morena Boulevard, San Diego
Frankie “The Bull” Terzoli isn’t a Southerner, but he’s obviously been there: he had me at filé gumbo and kept me at cornbread. A local who competed on America’s Top Chefs (came in high, didn’t win), he’s that rare San Diegan chef with some built-in Southern soul.
Outside the restaurant is an iron sculpture of a rampaging black bull. The interior has a quasi-Western saloon look. The ambient music is a tasty tape that co-owner Tony Iaquinta created, gentle Latin American sounds ranging from Oaxacan folk-tunes to Cuban and Brazilian tropicalismo.
On the patio (there’s only one heat stanchion, so dress warmly) a sepia mural depicts cowboys cooking over campfires, and a peculiar craft object made of an old wine-barrel depicts a well (please don’t drink from it!) with a big stuffed black bird (convincing enough that local crows sometimes attack it) perched on the pump. Quoth the raven, “Nevermore” — which is what we were saying about ever getting any food, until we tortured a passing staffer into disclosing the procedure: You place your order and pay at the counter inside (like a fast-food joint), and somebody will deliver it to you. Another secret: The restaurant’s beer and wine license is pending, and they’re being ultra careful, so I’ll hide the trick inside the curtains of parentheses, and take the blame — but please be adult about this and follow instructions. (If you must BYO beer or wine, be over 21, be quiet, and be as super-sneaky paranoid as a Nixon-era pothead when one ounce was a felony bust and the Feds were aprowl. Don’t force the staffers to notice what you’re doing. Eat on the patio, hide your stash in a backpack or the like under the table, and take your empties with you when you go. To get glasses, ask for water without ice — water is served in opaque cardboard take-out glasses. Unwanted H2O can go into the “well” sculpture. Really, these seem like good people, so please don’t endanger their license application by flaunting your sins!)
The owners understand the Louisiana custom of lagniappe, “a little something extra.” Soon after we sat down, Tony brought out a ramekin of andouille sausage in a sauce as spicy-sweet as Tony himself. (At the end of dinner, he brought another ramekin of fresh mozzarella balls seasoned with salt and pepper, as a palate-cleanser.)
The dish not to miss is the spectacular filé gumbo — thick, rich, emphatically piquant, dark as Hades, loaded with bay shrimp, shredded chicken, andouille, red and green peppers, and carrots, based on a foundation of deepest-mahogany, near-smoky roux (Louisiana’s long-cooked flour-and-oil blend.) Best filé gumbo in SD since Juke Joint closed, equal to Louisiana’s finest! Three cheers for line-chef Mike, who stirs that ol’ black magic nonstop for 45 minutes. It doesn’t include rice (no room for it in the tiny kitchen). No prob to me (who needs those carbs?), but it’s spicy enough that some may miss it. To soothe your mouth, the dish comes with a superb corn muffin (included on all barbecue plates, too) enlivened by sweet corn kernels and bits of jalapeño — so moist and creamy, it tastes like it’s been buttered from the inside. It’s better than Southern cornbread, which dries out even as it cools. (Grrrr-eat for breakfast the next day, if you can save one.)
Heading due north to Memphis on the Blues Highway, we tried a pulled-pork sandwich, made from smoked shoulder: tender pork shreds, less smoky than I’d like, with a good tangy sauce mixed in, served on Italian bread from Frank’s Bakery and Gibaldi’s in Little Italy, with coleslaw on the side. (In Memphis, the meat’s typically served on a burger bun, with a tall topping of coleslaw, but Frankie wanted to be different.) The lively coleslaw would do Memphis proud, sporting a thin clean dressing with no nasty sugar-added taste, just carrots for the sweetening. Well-seasoned thin “Cajun fries” come, too, although my friends in Eunice and Opelousas might wonder what’s Cajun about them.
The smoked proteins actually tasted smoky — if less than I’d like. The menu splits the difference between the deep South, where pork and chicken dominate the Q, and Texas beef country — and adds a California touch with salmon. The chicken is tender, and smokier than the rest. The pork ribs and beef back-ribs are also very tender — I could bite through one beef bone, which gave away that the red meats are pre-steamed before smoking — manager Joey Hoisescu later confessed that they need to do this since, as a start-up, they can’t afford someone to man the smoker 24 hours (as smoked brisket requires). Moist, tender, smoked Atlantic salmon (for health-conscious eaters) comes both on sampler platters and à la carte. Texas’s beloved smoked brisket is available only as a sandwich, which I didn’t try. (I believe to my soul that only My Ancestral People really know brisket, and Jews don’t Q.)
Aside from the tangy sauce in the pulled pork (and on the brisket sandwich), there’s little sauce on the meats, just a thin glaze. Frankie’s makes two sauces (“barbecue” and a sweeter “South Carolina,” contributed by a line-cook from there, plus one that’s a combo of both). But sometimes less is more: Authentic Memphis pork ribs are all about smoke and spice rub. You can get extra sauce if you can grab a staffer (or a squeeze-bottle from the counter). Service isn’t bad, merely minimal.
Entrées offer a choice of two sides. Elegant, roasted-corn salad might come from Avenue 5, Jsix, or Nine-Ten. Mac and cheese tastes like home-made mom-comfort, not Kraft, or some mad genius’s frightful experiment. Texas beans had genuine Texas flavor but undercooked beans. If Southern Q at its best can be bone-chilling thrilling, this isn’t quite. (For that, head to Barnes’s BBQ in Lemon Grove, my favorite local practitioner.) But it’s reasonably authentic, the vibes are sweet — and that voodoo gumbo is so thrilling, it alone makes Frankie’s worth the trip.
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1201 First Street, Coronado
Lil’ Piggy’s claims to serve “Memphis style” Q. When Saint Steve (now moved to Denver, alas) ate there, he found the meat smoky enough and recommended that I try it, but when Sam and I did, we tasted no smoke at all. I don’t know what went wrong. They have a huge smoker fueled with hickory, running 24 hours, according to manager Eddie, who swears they don’t pre-cook anything — it’s all smoked all the way through.
Nonetheless, the meats seemed bland. The un-Southern sausage was an instant turn-off — what, kielbasa? The meats exhibited a range of textures: dry brisket, marginally tender pulled pork and baby-back ribs, chicken so moist and ultra-tender that even the bones were soft enough to chew.
The sauce, billed as “spicy Southern BBQ sauce,” is tangy-sweet but not what I’d call spicy, resembling the milder supermarket sauces. All barbecue orders come with white bread (just like at Southern Qs) and a choice of two sides. The sides are edible, but awfully Yankee. Potato salad features skin-on red potatoes with a mild mayonnaise-laden dressing. (A Southern one would add Creole mustard, scallions, and chopped cooked egg whites, with the cooked yolks blended into the mayo.) The coleslaw, like Frankie’s, follows the smart Memphis-style, thinly dressed and sweetened with carrots instead of sugar. The baked beans, with a pleasant molasses sweetness, are dotted with bits of meat, but the lack of smokiness in the meats negated the idea.
Since I was buying takeout, I didn’t invest in eat-now sides such as mac and cheese or corn fritters. Wish I had, because I liked Lil’ Piggy’s more than a lil’ bit better after trying the next newcomer on the list. This isn’t horrible food, but from what I tasted, it wasn’t great Q, and I don’t know why. So look at this as a preview, with final judgment pending after more meals. They did land-office business Memorial Day weekend, so whatever I think, Coronado loves ’em.
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11489 Woodside Avenue, Santee
The lighted sign in the parking lot reads: House of BBQ Dentistry Investigations.
The mind seeks to link these into a logical sequence: “The speck of charred beef rib the dentist extricated from the corpse’s molar sent Phillip Marlowe off on a quest for the perp…” Well, “perp” is right. This is a crime in the name of Q.
House of Root Canal calls itself “Chicago style.” By the time you read this, it may have changed its name to Chicago BBQ, per the owner’s plans. Does that mean Glencoe or Evanston? Because this is certainly not what Barack and Michelle doubtlessly enjoyed en route to Hyde Park blues clubs. I’ve tasted gorgeous barbecue in Chicago — and in Southeast San Diego too, from old Chicago expats manning impromptu street-front oil-drum smokers. Oy, this is not that!
I called to find out how they cook their meats: they said in the oven, then grill-crisped (charred, actually), no smoker involved. The meats taste cheap, with tough textures. On the table are two sauces, “House” (very sweet, which drenched our pulled pork) and “Spicy.” About as spicy as iced tea.
We started with a “munching plate” of appetizers — three mini baby-back ribs (sweet, no smoke), plain fries, curly fries, and battered zukes, mushrooms, onion rings, mozzarella fingers, and mild jalapeño poppers, filled with yellow cheese. All the batter-fried goods had coatings of identical composition and thickness. I can’t swear to it but have a very strong impression that they come machine-made and probably frozen from a restaurant-supply house, ready for the roto fryer.
The coleslaw was sweet, thick, heavy with mayo. Curly fries were good but the baked beans were bland, tasting canned. Meats? Flintstone beef ribs, stringy meat heavily charred from a caramelized mop of sugar-heavy sauce, added during reheating on the grill. Pulled pork: smokeless, chewy, coarsely knife-shredded (not pulled — fingers wouldn’t do it with this tough meat), drenched in sweet sauce but still tasting dry.
Otherwise, the restaurant floats between Italian and Greek sandwiches and Angus burgers. Bloggers on Yelp like the Greek chicken sandwich. Then there’s a “Louisiana Style Cajun Chicken BBQ Sandwich” — “Cajun chicken topped with mozzarella cheese, sliced bacon, and our famous BBQ sauce.” Sounds like a Churkendoose, but maybe Sysco is selling Redi-Serv cayenne-rubbed breasts. Again, oy. Whatever you order, the owner is evidently ogling the bottom line: You gets no bread with one meatball or even a full slab of ribs, unless you pays three bucks for it. Under “Italian Sandwiches,” there’s an extra charge for cheese or peppers. Now, on Mulberry Street, charging for peppers on a sausage sandwich could bring a scary visit from the Red Swan Social Club. In North Philly, charging for cheese and peppers on Italian beef sandwiches might get you the Bristol Stomp. Opposite of Louisiana lagniappe, it’s “We’re gonna get a little something extra from your wallet.”
If the owner’s Greek, he ought to be wary of the hybris of calling this food “Chicago BBQ.” (Hey, just make it a nice Greek restaurant, fughettabout Q!)
Frankie “The Bull’s” BBQ
**1/2 (Worth a Try)
1127 West Morena Boulevard, Bay Park, 619-276-2855, frankiethebullsbbq.com.
HOURS: Daily, 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters and salads $5.49–$8.49; Sandwiches $6.49; BBQ entrées $8.49–$18.49; Samplers $22.49–$29.49; Sides $1.49. (About $20 each for a shared pig-out).
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Meats, chicken, salmon, smoked over applewood and mesquite chips, plus gumbo. No alcohol.
PICK HITS: Filé gumbo, pork or beef ribs, chicken, cornbread, corn salad, mac and cheese, coleslaw.
NEED TO KNOW: Indoor or outdoor seating. Order at the counter inside, food will be brought to you. Warm but minimal service.
Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q
(Too Soon to Rate)
Coronado Ferry Landing, 1201 First Street, Coronado, 619-522-0217.
HOURS: Open daily, 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. (till 10:00 weekends).
PRICES: Starters $6–$10; Salads $6–$11; Sandwiches $9–$11; Entrées $7–$21; combos $19–$40; Sides $2–$6; Desserts $5–$8; Kiddie plates $5–$6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Mildly hickory- smoked meats, chicken, etc.
NEED TO KNOW: No alcohol, but outdoor seating nearby to accommodate BYO. Delivery available on Coronado, elsewhere for large orders.
House of BBQ (aka Chicago Barbecue)
3959 India Street, Mission Hills, 619-298-7176.
HOURS: 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. (10:30 weekends).
PRICES: Starters $3 (for bread)–$10, sampler $17; Sandwiches $6–$9; Salads $6–$13; Entrées $10–20; Sides $2.50; Kiddie plates $7–$8.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Baked/grilled meats, fried pub-grub starters, burgers, Greek and Italian sandwiches/ salads. Wine, beer, soju cocktails.