Lots of people (including the Reader’s late restaurant critic, Naomi Wise) have asked, is barbecue solely the province of black America? From the standpoint of pure heredity, barbecue’s roots lie in the black communities of the rural south, and some people still say that African-American pit masters retain true mastery of smoke, dry rub, and sauce. That question is fully unanswerable, since it relies on matters of taste, but there’s no doubt that barbecue has black roots.
7820 Broadway, Lemon Grove
Notable black figures on the wall at Barnes BBQ
Barnes BBQ (7820 Broadway, Lemon Grove) is a great jumping off point to look at that undeniable relationship. Posters of famous figures from black history line the walls on one side of the dining room, interspersed with historic photographs of early black families from San Diego’s past.
The restaurant claims Texarkana, Arkansas origins, which puts it outside the traditional brackets of barbecue styles. Geographically, we’re talking a hop, skip, and a jump to Texas, which shows in the food.
Barnes’ sauce, in which the restaurant takes great pride, is sweet and sticky, though not overly thick. It doesn’t have a distinct style, though “excessive” is a kind of a style, and the cooks at Barnes like to slather it all over the pork ribs. If anything, "sweetness" is the dominant flavor at Barnes, often to its detriment. Even the peach cobbler suffers from too much sugar, despite the excellent pie crust.
Of note: Barnes gets it right in that cobbler should be topped with pie crust, whereas crumble uses a crumb topping.
Despite the restau’s humble look, Barnes smokes up a decent rib. They’re not Wrangler good, but the ribs have a smoky taste, tender meat, and sufficient cooking that the little cartilaginous bones in the ends can be crunched up and eaten rather than spit out. Asking for the super-sweet sauce on the side might be a good idea.
Barnes BBQ's unsatisfactory pork sandwich
More promising, at least on the surface, is Barnes’ chopped pork shoulder. To read the menu, it’s as if the lucky diner were about to step straight into the Carolinas and sample 'cue at its most archaic.
Meager portions of insufficiently smoky meat, coarsely chopped and doused in sauce (which is really just “OK”), won’t do it. Promises broken.
Even more than the barbecue, Barnes’ claim to fame is the “99-cent soul food” menu of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, braised greens, cornbread, and smothered pork (chopped pork shoulder and gravy over rice), among other staple dishes of soul food cooking.
If barbecue’s heritage is in question, soul food’s certainly isn’t. The African-American community owns soul food, part and parcel. While barbecue has spread beyond the metaphorical boundaries of black America, soul food has not been co-opted by white people to nearly the same extent. The two styles are intertwined to the point that many barbecue restaurants put soul food side dishes on the menu. Barbecue remains smoked pork and beef, despite the variety of styles. Fried chicken and collard greens may be delicious; but 'cue, they are not.
Still, the earliest pit masters would have been black men and women in the deep south, without whom there would be no 'cue at all!