Note the rich color and thick bark of the barbecue at the Wrangler
  • Note the rich color and thick bark of the barbecue at the Wrangler
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The Wrangler Family Barbecue

901 El Cajon Boulevard, El Cajon

After all that talk about barbecue without a legitimate smoking pit, meritorious as it may be, this is where shit gets real. Walk into the [Wrangler Family Barbecue]1, where a taxidermied bison overlooks the dining room and Buck Owens plays softly from the radio, and it strikes.

The Wrangler's front window, all dressed up for Christmas

That smoke!

The aroma of woodsmoke lingers in the air, as if someone had set a campfire in the corner of the room and walked away. It creeps into the nostrils. It’s the smell of barbecue. A glance through the window into the kitchen takes in the view of the brick pit smoker, huge and stained with decades of burning hickory. Truly, the gulf yawns wide between this device and the Alto-Shaam. The Wrangler, drab as it may be, is the truth.

One bite tells the tale. The Wrangler’s spare ribs boast a thick bark on the outside, and the meat bears a pink tinge, a telltale sign that smoke and spices have penetrated the pork during hour after hour of smoking. Ham, the restaurant’s other specialty, bursts with juicy, smoky flavor. Roast beef also presents a thick jerky of crust yielding to tender, smoky meat below the surface.

Short and sweet, the menu doesn’t try to incorporate all manner of ‘cue. Pulled pork is only available Thursday and Saturday. Monday is beef stew. The rest of the time, ribs, beef, and ham compose the menu in its entirety. A combination with all three, including two side dishes, costs but $13.69 and will feed two normal eaters. Side dishes are slaw, beans, fries, or mac and cheese. Nothing more. The slaw is crisp, fresh, and green. The beans, sweet, thick, and savory. The sauce is bold, served hot and not enough of it. The menu's only real weakness is sub-par bread.

Coconut (and other) cream pie? Of course!

In a glass case, huge slices of assorted cream pies (only $2.99/slice) lurk alongside cottage cheese salads.

Quibblers might say that the place seems dated, or that the characters operating the business can come off a little on the gruff side. Those two things may be true, but anyone who wants to taste real pit barbecue should accept that fact that barbecue hasn’t changed much in the past seventy years, and that artists are peculiar people.

Put aside the prejudices and let the smoke take hold.

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Dave Rice Dec. 9, 2013 @ 8:51 a.m.

"Dated" puts it lightly. The place hasn't changed discernibly since Grandma ran the register and my uncles learned how to man a pit in the late '50s and early '60s...I guess when you've got it right there's no reason to change.


Ian Pike Dec. 9, 2013 @ 7:32 p.m.

Mr. Rice, I had no idea you were connected to this magnificent institution of barbecue greatness. Half a dozen of my friends turned down my invitation to drive out to east county and eat here for the purposes of All Things BBQ. I personally informed them all that they missed out on a true highlight of my eating year. You should have heard the message I left on my friend's cell. I was so smitten that I had to call somebody and vocalize my entranced state of smokey blissfulness.


Dave Rice Dec. 14, 2013 @ 12:03 a.m.

It's a tenuous connection - no one from my family has worked there in at least 40 years, but growing up out east it remained a once-a-month staple in my house...and we have taken advantage of the "cook your meat in our pit" service they offer.


SourPina Dec. 31, 2013 @ 4:50 p.m.

Ian, that many people turned you down to go there for BBQ? Why? Because of the drive or the neighborhood? I'm just curious.


jnojr Dec. 15, 2013 @ 9:49 a.m.

Anyone who thinks this place is even "good" BBQ doesn't know what BBQ is. Any other place in San Diego County that bills themselves as BBQ is going to be better than this place. I won't even waste time comparing it to real BBQ from VA, NC, St. Louis, Texas, etc. Twenty years ago, Wrangler was at least tolerable. Today? Simply awful.


Ian Pike Dec. 16, 2013 @ 8:48 a.m.

What can I say, place is legit. Can't argue with that smokey taste in the meat and the nice bark on the ribs. Have yet to eat anywhere that had better.


Please point me in the right direction and I'll be prepared to stand corrected. I still have a dozen barbecue joints on my list. Won't get to ALL of them, but I still hope to find that one place that brings tears to my eyes as I sit over a pile of barbecued pork and ladle "Carolina gold" all over.

If you know the best spot, please share!


DonnaHallelujah Dec. 19, 2013 @ 3:39 p.m.

COOPS BBQ in Lemon Grove.....and I know what's good in BBQ, believe me. You won't be sorry!!


Ian Pike Dec. 20, 2013 @ 9:16 p.m.

Coops is forthcoming. And it will be a great opportunity to talk about Texas BBQ as such. Woohoo!


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