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All Things BBQ: the Wrangler Family Barbecue

In the wilds of East County, true pit barbecue awaits, ready to teach us all a thing or two about honest-to-goodness 'cue

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
Place

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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The Golden Age of something

A direct correlation to the boringness of life
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
Place

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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The Golden Age of something

A direct correlation to the boringness of life
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Tijuana's Fotocolor, digital and Covid victim

Since the public events like weddings are forbidden, we’d struggle a lot
Comments
8

"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.

Dec. 9, 2013

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.

Dec. 9, 2013

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.

Dec. 14, 2013

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

Dec. 31, 2013

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.

Dec. 15, 2013

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.

HOWEVER.

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!

Dec. 16, 2013

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

Dec. 19, 2013

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

Dec. 20, 2013

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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