Hunting for Authentic BBQ in the Bay Area

The glories of barbecue sauce

Here is my print/full version of this article which ran in the Bay Guardian on April 17, 2012.

Growing up in East, West and Middle America, I unexpectedly have a profound affinity to the music and food of the South. Traveling numerous Southern states, my love accelerates. Florida conch and stone crab please, as do Tex Mex and Texas brisket. But when I dream of the South, I think Deep South. Start talking Low Country and Gullah cuisine, or Cajun and Creole cooking, and I become brutally homesick for a home I never had.

Eatin’ Brisket

Then there was barbecue. And by barbecue, I mean pulled pork, just as those words are synonymous in the Deep South. Texas brisket? Naturally. Memphis ribs? Hell, yeah. But pulled pork, that tender, shredded, fatty mound of piggy goodness for me is the pinnacle of BBQ. Don’t even get me started on sauces. South Carolina mustard or thick, sweet Kansas City sauce? I’ll take all, thank you. A proper sauce turns impeccable meat into ecstasy.

One of the more memorable journeys the Renaissance Man and I ever took was a two week road trip through four Southern states for BBQ, music, food. Proudly a California girl the larger part of my life, in this glorious state of endless riches, I rarely find barbecue comparable to my Southern exploits… even from those who claim they are Southern natives. There are whispers of true BBQ here, but often something indefinable is lacking. The problem commonly lies in sauces, smoking techniques and woods used, or the meat’s tenderness (I’m sorry: it ain’t real BBQ if it’s not fatty). Even delicious ‘que is missing a certain raw, gut-level sense of place outside the South.

CatHead’s picnic tables

Regardless, we have some worthy Bay Area spots to satisfy ‘que cravings. Over the years, Uncle Frank’s is the best BBQ I’ve had in California, which tragically closed last fall. His brisket was thick with fat, served in the back of a dodgy dive bar in suburban, staid Mountain View. In SF, Johnson’s Bar-B-Que cornered Arkansas-style pulled pork, though sadly, it closed as the owner recently passed away.

Of those still open, Bo’s Barbecue out in Lafayette specializes in solid brisket. On a Golden Gate Park golf course is an unexpected gem, Ironwood BBQ, strong on pulled pork. Years ago, Brother-in-Law’s BBQ on Divisadero morphed to Lilly’s and became Da Pitt. Though past its glory days, it’s still a worthy detour, emitting glorious smoke aromas down the street. What of ever popular Memphis Minnie’s? I must admit that despite a love for their rowdy Southern tunes and spirit, I can’t get behind the lackluster meats and watery sauces.

Dining at Cedar Hill

We go through waves of ‘que openings and we’re in the midst of another now. My recent number one was an upscale barbecue/Southern restaurant all the way up in Novato. Southern Pacific Smokehouse unexpectedly closed after merely months of opening, despite the tenderest pulled pork, smoky brisket, plus a killer cocktail and American whiskey menu (best cocktail bar yet in Marin). Their secret was a 2,000 pound Ole Hickory Smoker where meats were slow smoked over hickory wood, then placed in a steam box to temper smoke dominance and impart a tender finish.

Here are five recent BBQ openings:

SNEAKY’S BBQ, 1760 Market Street (at Octavia), 415-431-4200
Sneaky’s BBQ is served out of Rebel Bar from Wed.-Sun. They step outside the traditional with items like Kurobuta pork belly, but more than any other newer ‘que joint, they get Carolina-style pulled pork right – among the best in town. Only down side is price with a single platter of meat and two sides being $17 or a two meat combo $26, compared to $12 and $18 for the same options at CatHead’s BBQ.

Sauces: Vinegar BBQ, spicy jalapeno/habanero, South Carolina mustard, Rooster (creamy version of spicy sauce)

CatHead’s smoker

Stand-outs: Aforementioned pulled pork is tops here, as is South Carolina mustard sauce (perfection together). They bring it with Creekstone Farms brisket and baby-back ribs. Sneaky’s is to be commended for using all natural, hormone-free meats, smoked with locally cut almond wood. Sides ($4) include a classic coleslaw, and fresh, not soggy or overcooked, collard greens. Cheeky points for Rebel’s glorified gay biker bar setting with a motorcycle as the room’s centerpiece.

B Side BBQ

CATHEAD’S BBQ, SoMa (1665 Folsom St. at 12th, 415-861-4242)
Nate’s BBQ had quite a following – and coveted home delivery. It recently morphed to CatHead’s BBQ from Tennessee native Richard Park and Pamela Schafer, easily one of the city’s best BBQ options and thankfully still offering delivery. Smokers stand tall behind a long counter. Vegetarians get a nod with cornmeal-crusted BBQ tofu. Mains are wonderfully priced at $7 with a mini-CatHead biscuit and pickles, while a platter with two sides is $12. Of note: their large biscuit is described as the size of a cat’s head

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Stand-outs: They had me with Coca Cola-smoked brisket. A subtle sweetness permeates the uber-smoky beef. Ribs are also strong, the best of any place listed. The secret is extra fat, rendering the meat fall-apart tender. All sides ($4 each) are vegetarian, including mustard or spicy habanero slaw. Collard greens taste healthy, a fresh change of pace from traditional collards, though I miss the ham hocks.

B SIDE BBQ, Oakland (3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-595-0227)

Old-timey photos line the walls at B Side

Tanya Holland of West Oakland’s beloved Brown Sugar Kitchen opened B Side Barbeque a few months ago, a hip, comfortable space lined with photos of African American cowboys, the air rich with smoked meats (look closely and you’ll see Tanya and her husband in one of the old-timey photos).

Sauces: Hot vinegar, Carolina mustard or traditional
Stand-outs: Pulled pork is tender and lush in Carolina mustard sauce, but they shine with smoked brown sugar-rubbed brisket ($9 half order; $16 full order). Fatty beef sings with sugary crust. Ribs are succulent. A side of fresh, spicy coleslaw ($4), light on the mayo, is a happy companion. Food is prepared with care, a step above many East Bay ‘que joints.

CEDAR HILL, Marina (3242 Scott St., 415-934-5403)

Wood for the smoker in the back at Cedar Hill

The Marina has itself a BBQ restaurant. Small, welcoming and lined with rustic artwork and paraphernalia from Texas to the Carolinas, Cedar Hill is a win for the neighborhood. The ‘que is not as soul-satisfying as in the South, but has plenty to offer with Southern dishes like Cajun shrimp on Anson Mills grits topped with Andouille sausage and piquillo peppers ($17), or sweet tea-fried chicken ($7.50-$19 for a quarter to whole chicken).

Regional Southern paraphernalia line the walls

Sauces: Texas red, KC mop sauce, South Carolina mustard, North Carolina vinegar
Stand-outs: Tender smoked pork ($4.50-16) wins out over Texas beef brisket ($4.50-16), while Memphis baby back ribs ($5-25) were a little dry. Worthy sides ($3.50-$11.50, portion to quart) include a fresh, bright coleslaw, or pit beans glorified with burnt tips. Ruth’s buttermilk pie ($5) with graham cracker crust is a creamy delight. Extra points: they serve bottles of North Carolina’s classic wild cherry soda, Cheerwine.

SOUTHPAW BBQ, Mission (2170 Mission St. between 17th & 18th, 415-934-9300)

Honey Bunny cocktail

Southpaw BBQ has the most welcoming, festive atmosphere of any of the new ‘que joints with house beer brewed right in the dining room, additional beers on draft (like Bruery Mischief, Brother Thelonious, Deschutes Green Lakes), and a playful cocktail menu offering Sazeracs made with Germain-Robin craft brandy and tea syrup.

Sauces: Alabama white sauce, Eastern North Carolina, South Carolina mustard, sweet potato habanero, sweet chili vinegar, Memphis
Stand-outs: Slightly smoky Honey Bunny cocktail (blanco tequila, red pepper, orange and carrot juice, agave) is lively and fun.

Southpaw ribs

Their pimento cheese ($5), served with celery and old school white bread, is not near as addictive as at neighboring Hog & Rocks. Platters ($14-19) come with cornbread and two sides. Much as I wanted to love their ribs, brisket and pulled pork, they bordered on either dry or not as flavorful as other ‘que joints.  Though not barbecue, fresh, flaky catfish ($14) from Louisiana is my favorite here: comfortingly fried and not at all fishy.

Southpaw BBQ welcomes on Mission Street