Barbecue is literally the slowest of slow foods, not a sauce, but a process, a ponderous and primitive one often measured in days as much as hours. It's much more than mere technique. Like a Bedouin goat roast or a Hawaiian luau, barbecue is a festive carnivorous rite, the sort of party humans all over the world have thrown ever since they could catch the beasts they wanted to eat. Barbecue is a distinctly American tradition, however, and it warrants esteem in our food culture, one that increasingly values authenticity, heritage, and, importantly, a bargain. Historically, barbecue began as poor food. Indirect smoking with hardwood chips and charcoal renders sumptuous feeds from large, inexpensive, uncompromising cuts of meat the non-wealthy can readily afford. Today, due to trend as well as economic circumstance, food writers and chefs champion sustainability, rhapsodize about nose-to-tail eating, and fetishize la cucina povera across cultures. Hip local foodies head to starred eateries to scarf humble ribollita and marrow, and food glossies aggressively explore the homey cooking traditions of everyday people in distant locales.
Even though food tied firmly to a place invariably tastes best in its native setting, barbecue should have a stronger presence here. Sadly, like real bagels and perfect pizza slices, there's something about it San Francisco doesn't quite get.
L.A. export Baby Blues BBQ sits in an old pharmacy storefront on Mission Street at the base of Bernal Hill in San Francisco. The restaurant headed up the S.F. Chronicle's flimsy "new-school" Bay Area barbecue round-up back in February. In the article, the proprietor described his establishment's style as a hybrid, with dry rub from Texas, greens from Kansas City, and grilled shrimp from New Orleans. While only one of those things necessarily has anything whatsoever to do with barbecue, I withheld preliminary judgement, assuming I'd look for proof in the pork. The same writer, Amanda Gold, penned a largely favorable review less than two months later, hailing Baby Blues' offerings as "spot-on," and singling out the brisket and ribs in particular for accolades.
The brisket was, in fact, good -- shredded, not sliced as is customary, slightly sweet, with a broad, warm flavor that belied the stringy appearance. On the other hand, the chicken was desert-dry and the pork shoulder shockingly tasteless. Sauce helped but it shouldn't have been necessary. Good barbecue doesn't truly need sauce, maybe just a splash of vinegary Crystal. The Baby Blues macaroni and cheese was pretty tasty but that came as no surprise. The tidy tureen of pasta, butter, cream, and cheese congregated in creamy, crust-topped ooze resembled a miniature version of one of the less flamboyant goofily greasy things you'd see on thisiswhyyourefat.com. Pork and beans: dreary canned ones of various stripes, topped with some of the same tasteless pork shoulder. Mashed sweet potatoes: one-dimensional and cloying. Great sides are not a prerequisite for even serviceable barbecue but they sure help, especially when a bunch of people are trying to eat until they can't walk.
Dodging categorization is no boon when it comes to barbecue. Homogenizing its varied nuances with the perceived intent of garnering broader appeal smacks of desperation or at least excessive compromise, not inclusivity. Barbecue pit-masters, are curators of sorts. They consciously nurture and carry on a tradition, just making something they really, really know exactly the way they think it should be made for anyone who happens to be interested. Diners prize authenticity when it comes to regional Italian fare; they should when it comes to barbecue as well.