Chopped and sauced roast at the BBQ House in OB.
5025 Newport Avenue, San Diego
The barbecue orthodoxy argues over much, but stays firm on one thing: barbecue must be smoked.
That assumption demands to be challenged.
As the late Naomi Wise, the Reader’s former restaurant critic, pointed out, smoking’s not so easy in California. Zoning and health department controls (beloved by politicians and hated by restaurateurs) complicate matters, making big, smokey barbecue pits hard to install. Many barbecue restaurants in San Diego (and elsewhere) opt for a combination of slow cooking and grilling to simulate the conditions of traditional barbecue. Others utilize some form of the Alto-Shaam, a programmable, self-contained smoker that can yield excellent results.
Touring SD’s ‘cue scene, both of those options will to come up over and over again. The dirty little secret of barbecue is that they can both be good, as long as they’re done well.
Ocean Beach’s BBQ House (5025 Newport Avenue, 619-222-4311) is in the former category of what we might call Cali-Cue. Not that we will call it that, because that’s a terribly foolish term. Still, the restaurant could be a gold standard for how to do ‘cue without the ecological encumbrance of a massive smoker. They also nail the ambiance of a friendly neighborhood restaurant. Anecdotes abound of friendly people at the restaurant, as opposed to the surly pit masters one might expect.
At the BBQ House, it’s all about the “roasts.” Huge cuts of pork and beef linger beneath heat lamps, reminiscent of a Mexican carnitas joint like the delectable Estilo Michoacan in City Heights.
Roast meat chillin' out at the BBQ House
Service on BBQ House’s roasts is as plates of chopped meat served with side dishes (beans, coleslaw, etc.) and garlic bread. In terms of actual barbecue, the OB shop’s fare runs closest to a Carolina ‘cue, where the meat is chopped and served with thin, zesty, vinegar or mustard sauces. Finding some of that in San Diego would be a treat! BBQ House’s sauce is thick and sweet, made there in huge stockpots if the website’s photo gallery is to be believed. While not super-duper smokey, the roasts are tender, flavorful, and generously portioned. A $13.99 plate could feed two normal eaters.
The side dishes taste of mass-production. Nevertheless, canned beans (if that be the case) and pre-made slaw served in good condition (as the sides at BBQ House are) are better than handmade stuff kept poorly, or generic sides served stale and off-temperature (like at Kansas City Barbecue).
As if to prove just how California ‘cue can be, BBQ House chops the roast meat and fills a BBQ burrito. Beans and slaw nestled alongside slow-cooked pork? Delightful and beautifully Californian! Perhaps even the show stealer, although the restaurant’s take on a sloppy joe, using the crispy ends and trimmings of their roasts, is an inspired dish--and much closer to a real burnt end, to boot!
BBQ House even offers a substantial selection of vegetarian dishes. That may be OBecian to the core, but it's certainly not approved by any of the barbecue authorities (which really exist!) that codify what constitutes legit 'cue.
While BBQ House may not be the spitting image of a real barbecue pit, it’s a good restaurant in its own right, and it proves how much can be done with non-traditional equipment.