A plastic sign along the sidewalk in Lemon Grove, California, just outside San Diego, read “Texas BBQ” in bold red letters with an arrow that pointed to Coop’s West Texas Barbecue. I was way west of West Texas, but conspicuous restaurant names like Coop’s make it easy to find smoked brisket in a foreign land. The two steel smokers out front told me I was in the right place.

Bradrick Cooper, a native of Midland, opened the place in 2010. He cooks with mesquite and coast live oak trees found in California. A big barrel smoker outside is where he gets the brisket so tender; the brick smoker behind the counter inside cooks the savory pork spareribs. He also serves juicy house-made Texas hot links that get a bit of heat from red and black pepper and have snappy mahogany casings that glisten. It’s a classic Texas trinity done well, produced with the most basic tools.

Cooper also builds custom smokers. Chef Drew Bent installed one three miles north at Papalo when he opened the place last November. After he fired it up, “I immediately had people complaining, and the fire marshal showed up,” Bent said. He had to find a place off-site to smoke, and Cooper offered to let Bent, his new competition, set up the smoker at Coop’s. “The guy saved my business,” Bent said of Cooper, who exemplifies the neighborliness of a Texas pitmaster.

“Competitor” might be a strong word for Bent, who feels like San Diego has enough Texas-style barbecue already. “We need our own identity over here in barbecue,” he said, and he’s been fostering that with his food, which he refers to as Sonoran-style barbecue. It’s so named for the desert that stretches from Southern California through Arizona and down into Mexico. Bent said he got the idea while driving through a storm on his way to Tucson in 2022. “I rolled the windows down once the rain stopped, and the scent of the desert, the overwhelming scent of herbs and flora and fauna just . . . I swear I could smell smoke and barbecue,” he said.

Bent returned to California, and to his post as chef and partner at Lola 55, a taqueria he opened with partners in 2018, which was recognized by the Michelin Guide with a Bib Gourmand. But all the while, he was preoccupied with the concept of Sonoran-style barbecue. He said he searched in vain for a precedent, then set out to define it for himself. (The Los Angeles Times described Salazar, founded by chef Esdras Ochoa, as a “Sonoran-style barbecue restaurant” in 2019, and the following year chef Carlos Guerrero opened Charly’s BBQ & Grill in Tucson, serving what Tucson Foodie called a “Sonoran-inspired twist on Texas-style barbecue,” so the term did exist at the time.) When I asked Bent for his definition, he wrote, “Sonoran-style barbecue is a regional barbecue celebrating wood fire flavors, techniques, and ingredients of California, Northern Mexico, and the Southwest United States.”

Before any of those conversations, I had a few trays of food from Papalo, and it was evident that this was a different kind of barbecue than I’d had before. Bent combines a mole barbecue sauce and cherry juice for the chocolate-colored glaze on his pork ribs, which are further garnished with crushed pecans and chopped cilantro. There’s a distinct line between sweet and savory ribs in Texas, but these were a whole other category of savory and sweet, with umami and a tug-of-war between earthy and bright. An incredibly juicy boneless, skinless chicken thigh was similar, as it was coated in the tangy mole barbecue sauce and generously sprinkled with lime zest.

The rotating menu of meats at Papalo is unpredictable, except on Sundays, when beef birria and pork carnitas take center stage. Bent also leans into those hearty and comforting dishes on days when the forecast is gloomy, or at least what passes for gloomy in San Diego. I tried both on a cloudy Tuesday, loving the heavy seasoning on the pork fat that carried the flavors in every bite. The meats are smoked before braising (Papalo now uses a J&R Little Red Smokehouse smoker in the kitchen), but the smoke flavor was hard to detect in the tender shreds of birria. Locally made Sonoran-style flour tortillas come on the side, as does a molcajete salsa.

Every day at least one smoked meat is available in each of the beef, pork, and chicken categories. On day two, I returned to try the thinly sliced pork steak with a rosy red bark. I also enjoyed the pleasant chew of a beef chuck steak, a cut right next to the ribeye. The picanha, cut from the sirloin, is another of Bent’s favorite beef options, but don’t expect to see brisket all that often—Bent isn’t a fan. “I’ve never had a brisket where I was like, ‘This is worth all the hype,’ ” he said, and that’s after working for a couple weeks at LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue, in Austin, early last year, so maybe he’s just hard to please. A benefit to serving a barbecue style of your own invention is that there are no expectations of what should be on the menu. Call your food Texas-style, and you better have smoked brisket daily. 

Some of those LeRoy and Lewis sensibilities came back to California with Bent. “It was fascinating to see a team of people that were innovating so much,” he said of the crew in Austin, and he admired the dedication to scratch cooking throughout the menu. “Having the same care and attention to detail in the sides to complement the meats I think definitely separates us from the pack,” Bent said of Papalo. Well-seasoned pinto beans and fluffy rice cozied up nicely together. Crumbled cotija and lemon zest dotted fanned-out stalks of charred broccolini, and the toasted breadcrumbs atop the creamy mac and cheese had the aroma of thyme and garlic.

The kitchen at Papalo shows the same aversion to waste as that of a typical Texas barbecue joint, where trimmings become sausage and leftover barbecue fortifies the beans. The ethos is best exemplified by the unconventional ice cream sundae I had for dessert. It starts with small cubes of leftover cornbread that are sautéed in butter. Those are topped with a house-made smoked pecan ice cream and rehydrated cherries. The plump cherries are actually a byproduct of the cherry glaze that’s mixed with the mole barbecue sauce to paint the pork ribs. A caramel drizzle and lime zest atop bring another pleasant clash of flavors.

Papalo got my high marks early, on day one, but I had plenty more to explore in the area. In addition to Coop’s, I was also impressed with the brisket at the Poway location of Smokin J’s BBQ, northeast of San Diego. The joint also makes a mean chili con carne with smoked brisket, which pairs perfectly with the creamy shells and cheese. After enjoying the mélange of corn, edamame, bell peppers, and onions in the succotash, I wished more Texas barbecue joints would offer it as a side. When in California, a burrito felt like the right move, so I tried the Cali J-Rito. Chunks of smoky brisket and tender pork belly melded with slaw and barbecue sauce inside a massive flour tortilla. Thick-cut fries were mixed in as well, and they remained admirably stout.

The Lockhart TX Charcuterie plate from Grand Ole BBQ. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Out in El Cajon, about thirty miles inland, Grand Ole BBQ converted an old biker bar into one of its locations. I appreciated the nod to Texas in the Lockhart TX Charcuterie plate, featuring excellent house-made hot links, Saltines, jalapeños, pickles, and mustard barbecue sauce for dipping. The cooks just need to trade out the thick wedges of American cheese for cheddar if they want that to taste just like Lockhart. And it’s not Texas-style, but I’ve got to give a hand to Phil’s BBQ for its impeccable onion rings.

Up north in Oceanside, I checked in on Heritage Brewery & Barbecue. It’s the newer location of the original, in San Juan Capistrano, which I praised heavily in 2022. Back then, owners Daniel and Brenda Castillo planned for this new spot, which opened last January, to show off California cuisine with tacos and seasonal items rather than relying so heavily on the Texas-style barbecue trays at the original. Customers expecting a copy of the original revolted, and the Castillos changed course—they are still trying to recover. What I tried from pitmaster Ari Valenzuela should make the brisket-loving crowd happy, and any Texpats will feel at home with a bowl of that bright orange queso in front of them.

Two trays from Heritage Brewery & Barbecue. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Fatty and lean slices were both incredibly juicy and perfectly tender. The house-made jalapeño-cheese sausage was popping, and the smoked turkey was spot on. Much like Papalo, Heritage excels at barbecue sides, like creamy mac and cheese with buttery breadcrumbs, charro beans with burnt ends, and even the unconventional roasted vegetables with whipped burrata. In addition to the full bar, there are several beers on draft, all of which are brewed on the premises. A crisp rice lager was the perfect complement to the heavy smoked meats. Enjoying it all on the patio on a sunny weekday in February, I realized how lucky I was to be at this cultural intersection. There aren’t many other places where you can get a tray of Texas-style barbecue this good while reaping the benefit of Southern California weather.