4020 Bonita Road, Chula Vista
Another entry in the barbecue-without-a-smoker category is Lil’ Alex BBQ (4020 Bonita Road, Chula Vista), a self-described “mesquite wood grill” where the meats get their smokiness from a smoky grill instead of the authentic barbecue pit. It’s a more recent entry in the local barbecue scene. The restaurant’s sign has a picture of a little, smiling dude wearing a bib on it; supposedly lil’ Alex himself, somebody’s kid. Cute story.
Lil’ Alex is an “order at the counter” style joint, much like BBQ House and others, which is the de facto service for local ‘cue. If its quiet, someone will bring the food. Otherwise, expect to get up and walk across the dining room. The cashier hands guests buzzers that go off when the food’s ready. That’s a cool idea, albeit an unnecessary one.
Barbecue is slow stuff. Whether smoked in an open pit or in an eco-friendly oven, there’s no rushing the process. The cuts of meat used in barbecue tend to be tough and sinewy: pork shoulders and spare ribs, briskets and Boston butts. Rife with connective tissue, those meats need to be cooked at great length and low temperature, more than twelve hours in many cases, in order to break down the tough tissue. When done properly, fibrous collagen melts down to silky gelatin and excess fat renders from the meat. That’s why good ‘cue is so tender. Many BBQ restaurants struggle to keep the tricky cooking schedules that barbecue demands. They get behind and try to fly the orders, which leaves the meat tough and unappealing. Meat clings to bones, bits of connective tissue remain behind, even the bites of meat don’t have the right succulence. The signs of rush-job 'cue are obvious.
Lil’ Alex BBQ gets it right in that regard. The ribs, both pork and beef, give up tender mouthfuls of meat with barely any resistance. About $20 buys a whole rack of "baby back" ribs or five beef ribs. Smaller portions are available. Thick coats of sauce, blistered over the hot grill, coat the ribs with a thick, sticky, sweet, tangy shell. The crust that forms under the grill’s influence is a complicated, fatty, crispy delight.
Totally different in taste, the restaurant’s tri-tip comes in thin slices, almost shaved, with thick sauce ladled over the top. $13.95 for a plate with two sides. It resembles a fine roast beef, tender and moist, instead of the brash and smoky tri-tips that some places favor. It may not have the bold flavor of crazy Southern BBQ, but the texture demands respect.
In barbecue, patience is a virtue. The fact that somewhere like Lil’ Alex can make good enough ‘cue without orthodox equipment proves that the time invested may be of greater importance than the methodology.