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BBQ 81 is fully operational in University Heights. Big news for uptown San Diego, which has had nothing but Brazen Barbecue in recent years. There’s some clamor over whether BBQ 81 (2302 El Cajon Boulevard, 619-255-1958) is a “real” barbecue joint, since the restaurant doesn’t have an actual smoker.

That’s just silly talk.

There are styles of barbecue whereby thin strips of marinated pork get their smoky flavor from grilling over an open flame. It doesn’t matter how the smoke gets in, as long as it gets there somehow. Look out behind BBQ 81 and get an eyeful of the huge, black mesquite grills. As the meat grills, smoke fills the covered grill and escapes out of the chimney at one extreme. The process imparts smokiness to the meat. The scent of woodsmoke has hung over the neighborhood since 81 opened up.

Ergo, barbecue!

That said, 81’s technique is better suited to some meats than others. The restaurant’s tri-tip has a lot of promise. When it’s good, grilling is the ideal means for cooking tri-tip. It’s hard to do correctly, but it looks like BBQ 81 has it figured out. Pulled pork, on the other hand, needs a smoker. Whether 81 will be able to make a winning pulled pork without hours in the smoker is still up in the air. It’s a little too early to make a judgment call on the restaurant as a whole, but the current pulled pork is more like a meaty jelly after being braised into oblivion. If the kitchen can figure out how to deliver good pulled pork, it’ll be quite the coup.

One of the problems that BBQ places face is that they get ahead of behind on cooking schedules. It happens because barbecue takes a long time to cook, and scheduling that kind of production schedule can be a terror. Chefs end up rushing things, or overcooking meat because it doesn’t sell fast enough. Consistency goes to hell, the spot gets a rep as poor ‘cue, and it’s all downhill from there. Watching BBQ 81 in the coming months will reveal whether the shop can keep things rad, or cave to the difficulties of operating a consistent barbecue restaurant. Those of us who like BBQ have our hopes up.

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Mercy Baron Sept. 11, 2013 @ 5:45 p.m.

Hey Ian, always enjoy your food reviews. I'm a Kansas City Certified BBQ Judge and you are partly right about the smoke. In competitions, people can add liquid smoke to their Q, and we are not allowed to "judge" the smokiness of a meat. But we all agree that BBQ can mean just grilling to a lot of folks, as they do at Phils. Personally, I like Phil's meats, but they are smoked and he even admits that. I cheat a bit when I go there and bring my friend's BBQ sauce as I don't like Phil's sauce at all!

BBQ should mean low and slow cooking. We judge in 4 categories, chicken, ribs, pulled pork and brisket. We judge on appearance, taste and tenderness. Brisket is my least fave, as it is hardly ever cooked right. It's either too tough, or too mushy. We are trained to do the pull test before we sample it. I've been disappointed on my 3 visits to Brazen, as the brisket is always mushy. We are taught that if we push the meat to the roof or our mouth and it's mushy, it's overcooked. You are so right about that in a resto. I think it's quite difficult to keep meat at the right level of tenderness because of the quantity they have to cook on any given day. And Brazen competes in almost all the competitions and they win a lot. I'm guessing I've tried their meats many times outside the resto, but we do blind judging, so we never know...unless we are super familiar with someone's cooking.

So far, my fave place for ribs is Cali Comfort in Spring Valley. They have a gigantic smoker and they were trained by a guy that knows his Q, as he trains judges for competitions. Cali has been known more for their UFC fight nights and breakfasts, but they are gaining attention as a serious contender for the best Q in SD. I also like the BBQ House in OB, as they smoke also. I don't think Cali Comfort has been reviewed for their Q, but you gotta try it sometime.

If you do love sauces, I recommend Hog Heaven Sauces. Probably the best sauce I've ever tried. I think you can only get it online. Their Smokehouse and their Apple Chipotle sauces are great.

I'm looking forward to trying BBQ 81. There are a few more in SD I'm meaning to try. But so far, SD does not have a LOT of great Q. I'm from LA and there are more choices there. If you get up to the Valley, you have GOT to try Dr. Hogly Wogly's Tyler Texas BBQ....it's my favorite.


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