Totally Smoked in the Golden State
California's Take on Texas BBQ
Texas seems to export our barbecue styles as far and wide as our natural gas. Earlier this year I noted how often the aesthetic of meat on butcher paper, a decidedly Texas design is imitated on both coasts (and a few places in between). But as anyone who has recently traveled to other big cities around the nation can tell you, the popularity of “Texas-style” barbecue outside of our borders seems to be on the rise. California, for all of its crowing about itself, has even jumped on the trend. I wanted to see what our geographical rival could churn out, so I traveled to Southern California and the Bay Area to find out if the food made just for pretty pictures or if there was some good barbecue to eat.
It quickly became apparent to me that anything that can be referred to as a Texas-style barbecue scene on the West Coast is still in its infancy. The oldest place on my list (below) is just four years old, a mewling toddler. I’ve written about the barbecue on the East Coast, particularly the New York area, and Californians have some catching up to do when it comes to quality, especially compared to those in Brooklyn, like Delaney Barbecue and Hometown Bar-B-Que. But that should be expected. New York’s fascination with barbecue began in earnest with the 2001 opening of Blue Smoke, then Daisy May’s BBQ two years later. They laid the groundwork and have now been surpassed by a couple of newcomers. Like a fine Napa Valley wine, barbecue on the West Coast just needs a few more years to mature.
The grandfather of barbecue in the Bay Area is Everett & Jones Barbecue in Oakland. Now a small chain, it was originally founded in 1973, and still serves the kind of ribs and chicken where the sauce is poured on heavy enough that it’s hard to choose between reaching for a straw or a fork. If this is one of the few established joints in the area to draw barbecue inspiration from, it’s no wonder restaurateurs in the area turned toward Texas.
In fact, it was an eating tour through Texas that inspired Chuck Stilphen and Michael O’Brien, the owners of Perdition Smokehouse (2014), in Berkeley, to open their doors earlier this year and promise “wholesome Texas-style barbecue.”
The cafeteria set-up and the J&R smokers behind the line looked like a good start, and even the tray of meat looked impressive. But it took just one bite to see they had some fire control issues. When a fire is stifled it starts to generate dirty, creosote-laden smoke. When it settles onto the meat it creates an off smell and flavor, like an ash tray. The most uncomfortable sign is a numbness on the tongue that lasts for an hour or so. If you leave a barbecue joint with that sensation, as I did at Perdition, they need to keep their fires hotter. The excellent pickles helped to mask the aftertaste, but most of the meat went uneaten.
On the other side of the Bay is Smokestack (2014) at the Magnolia Brewery, near the San Francisco Giants stadium. The look they’re going for was a mirror of Perdition with tall ceilings, creative finishes, lots of beer taps, and a pair of J&R smokers, but they refer to the barbecue style as “non-denominational.” The meat was displayed in a glass case, so you could see all the dried-out meat before ordering it. The Thai sausage was the only item that stood out, but that was more because of the dim meats next to it. I skipped the nearly meatless beef back ribs (pork ribs were not an option) and went for the fish collar (we were in San Francisco after all). The house-made pastrami caught my eye as well, but no matter how colorful the platter, it was all incredibly dry. The chicken skin had turned to wax paper, the pastrami needed mustard, and the brisket could have used some gravy. Despite a promising bark and smoke ring, there was no smokiness at all.
The dryness became a theme all over, especially at dinner. The larger meats like brisket, are cooked in one large batch to serve lunch and dinner, then held in a hot environment like a steam table. Not even the best barbecue straight from the smoker can handle that sort of punishment over several hours.
4505 Burgers and BBQ (2014), also a San Franciscan joint, claims “we serve our BBQ to you not in KC or Carolina or Texas style, but in 4505 Style.” No matter their inspiration, some very Texan-looking spare ribs were on the menu along with the best of the briskets I tried in the Bay area. That’s not saying much. It was juicy enough, tender enough, and smoky enough, but a series of technical checkmarks doesn’t make a brisket sing. Those spare ribs, with a hefty bark that had a good balance of sweet, smoke, and spice was the winner of the day.
Speaking of new places, Barrel and Ashes (2014) in Studio City, just north of Los Angeles, had only been open for two days when I visited. Texas native Timothy Hollingsworth opened this restaurant with Rory Hermann after traveling through Central Texas. He came back to California, purchased a very un-Central Texas Southern Pride rotisserie smoker, and began serving what he calls “chef driven traditional American BBQ.” It’s unfair to critque the menu so early on. It was promising, but one item really stood out. From the handful of places I visited while in California, there was no more well-executed homage to Texas barbecue than Hollingsworth’s jalapeno-cheese sausage ring. It hit all the right notes of pepper and smoke, had a great snap to the casing, and was ringed and tied Lockhart style. It didn’t just look like Texas-style barbecue; it tasted like it too.
In relation to all the other newbies, Smoke City Market (2010), in Los Angeles, is a storied establishment. Ryan Gromfin, a native Texan, opened this joint four years ago with a partner in Sherman Oaks. The interior is much less fussy than its Bay Area brethren. It looks like it could actually fit in Texas, and so did the menu. With their motto of “Authentic Texas BBQ,” it better. Meats were all by the pound, and besides the smoked beets, the sides were all basic Texas fare as well. Pork ribs marinated overnight in a vinegar sauce were immediately off-putting, but the beef was pretty good. It was mid-afternoon when I visited, and because they smoke only one batch of beef per day in their small Ole Hickory pits, the meat’s age was showing. The fat was completely rendered out leaving the otherwise good brisket slices dry. The well cooked and smoky beef rib has the same issues. My guess is that lunch would be the meal to enjoy here if you want smoked beef.
The lone brisket from the trip that I could actually recommend was in downtown Los Angeles at Horse Thief BBQ (2013). It was opened last year by Wade McElroy and Russell Malixi, who both moved to LA from Austin. They wanted to bring oak-smoked Texas barbecue to California. I ordered from the takeout window right when they opened at 11:00am. As I waited, a sign stared down at me that read “Texas Style BBQ Cooked Low & Slow.” I couldn’t stop staring at it during the twenty minutes it took to fill my order (they very patiently slice their meat in LA), and the bold advertisement actually got my hopes up.
The tray looked right. The white bread hadn’t been replaced by some gluten-free, multi-grain loaf. There were raw onions, dill pickles, and a couple of slices of brisket with a tempting sheen of fat. Beside it were some undercooked ribs and chicken that tasted more like Cajun seasoning than smoke, but the brisket was good. The black pepper and the smoke were generous, but the slices weren’t. They were too thin, and the meat fell apart too easily. I guess one thick slice of brisket would have looked too skimpy as part of this combo plate, but I’d have been happier with a little heft.
This smoked brisket thing is new to Californians, but they’re trying. Texas-style is just starting to catch on here, and it will only mature from this point. They’ve got a ways to go, but bottom line: nothing that I found compares to the best of New York City, let alone the best in Texas.