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.
Maybe we're barking up the wrong tree even hoping to find what we're looking for at a place like Baby Blues. Throughout the barbecue belt, you'll eat some of the best barbecue in the world at church benefit suppers, desolate country grocery stores on two-lane roads, and strange little delis straddling dusty cracks in the interstate, not just at grand 'cue emporiums with bright lights and long lines.
Fittingly, in keeping with another current trend, that of back alley catering and restaurant-esque entities sprouting up all over town, the d.i.y. barbecue operations churning away on the edges of the local food scene actually best the likes of Baby Blues, Memphis Minnie's, and Big Nate's. There's definitely something appealing about outlaw status, and barbecue wears it especially well, even here. While the best pork barbecue I've had in San Francisco had to fly 2,000 miles from a deli case in Allen County, Kentucky, there are a few local super-smokers doing it right under-the-radar:
Try ordering a spread from Oakland-based Sneaky's BBQ for your next business meeting. Since 2008, the smoker-in-chief, a native of South Carolina, has been faithfully recreating the barbecue he knew back home -- husky, succulent pork shoulder with pepper-flecked vinegar-laced red sauce and racks of chewy baby-back ribs -- and delivering it, quite sneakily, in an unmarked van (red like the sauce), to homes, offices, and even park parties. It's popping off on Yelp and Chowhound for a reason. It tastes like vigilance. When you're eating it, you easily imagine the whole ritual -- the meat hitting the grill just after rush hour, and coming off, sticky-black, hours and hours later, as well as the sleepless night vigil, the sense, perhaps, of beers drunk and cigarettes smoked, of bleary eyes peering down and smudged hands reaching to open and close flutes at the proper intervals while the rest of the neighborhood sleeps.
The Broken Record is a mildly Zeigeist-y bar in the Excelsior. Chef Ryan Ostler, an alum of Boulevard, doesn't own it but he cooks from behind a wooden, windowed counter buried in the back. He's a Mission Street Food veteran, no stranger to the underground eatery game. The bar's offerings run the gamut from frito pies and amazing 'kraut-topped boar and pheasant sausages (sweet, high-flying stoner-pub party fare, yes, but not barbecue) to pulled pork sandwiches (serious barbecue). Of course, it's a chef's whim kind of place at heart. Sometimes, you show up and the pork isn't done. Or it is done, but it hasn't been carved up yet. Or it was ready hours ago and now there's none left. According to Ostler, they smoke every day, but quantities are limited. If you miss out, eat a sausage. Barbecue is not, after all, on-demand.
Baby Blues BBQ
3149 Mission St. in San Francisco