Bay Area Bites Guide to the 10 Best American-Style Barbecue Joints in the East Bay

Big spareribs with spicy sauce at T-Rex. (Kim Westerman)

I grew up in the American South, in Western North Carolina, to be exact. Even more exacting — in fact, specific to the side of Lexington you happen to fall on — are the competing styles of meat and sauce embraced wholeheartedly and unequivocally by devotees of eastern versus western. In other words, never the twain shall meet.

In California, many people think “barbecue” is anything cooked on a grill; this article is not for them. It’s for those interested in the best of the mostly oak-smoked, mostly Texas-style barbecue out there, as well as a few other exemplary styles represented, including Southern (sometimes known as Black American), North Carolina and Kansas City.

Let me know, in the comments below, if I’ve missed your favorite spot.

While it looks like a dive joint from the street, BBQ Hut is a spiffy-clean operation with a “low and slow” cooking motto. Owner Earl Moffett, a local whose father was from Mississippi, runs the place with his son, Chris. There are only four meats on offer, and that’s because these are what the pit-masters know: ribs, chicken, brisket and links. We tried the ribs and the brisket, and both ended up at the top end of my list. Moffett promised, without giving away any trade secrets, that his ribs are consistently tender, and these certainly were. He uses baby backs, rather than the more common St. Louis cut, because they’re meatier and better absorb his famous dry rub, which seems to hold the key to the success of all his meats. Our ribs were just-browned on the top and barely hanging on to the bone, perfect in every way. The brisket was among the most tender I tried, too tender, in fact, to be sliced, which was fine by me, and laced with just the right amount of fat. They were out beans, so I ordered collard greens, which came, speckled with chile flakes, in a tiny cup, and potato salad, simply made with mayo, mustard and pickle. The homemade sauces, hot and mild, are tomato based.

Sponsored

BBQ Hut
6400 Shattuck Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94609
Ph: (510) 285-6628
Hours: Tues-Sat, noon-8pm; Sun, noon-5pm; closed Mondays
Facebook: The Bbq Hut, Oakland, Ca. (not very active)
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

Everett & Jones Barbeque is the biggest and longest-standing operation on this list, founded in 1973 by Dorothy Everett, her eight daughters, and one son-in-law (a Jones). Everett was a single mother who defied all odds with the success of her business; there are now four locations (Berkeley, Hayward and two in Oakland), and her famous sauce is available by mail order and in many Bay Area supermarkets. It’s way too sweet for my taste (the sweetest of all sauces represented on this list), but is a good representation of a popular Southern style, and the hot version, still quite sweet, packs a fair amount of spice. When I called the Jack London restaurant (the location I visited for this review) to learn more about the style and the cooking process, I was told that “no information is given to customers,” a rather off-putting response. While this is my least favorite of all the local barbecue spots represented here, E&J does a nice job with the two meats I tried: ribs and homemade links. Though lean, the ribs were tender and pleasantly smoky, and the links, made from coarse-ground beef, were also perfectly smoked. I recommend asking for the sauce on the side, so you can dress the meat as you wish. The mac and cheese had a nice, crisp crust, and the collards were not cooked to death, which I appreciated. Potato salad was a neutral sauce-absorber, with just a bit of mayo and pickle, maybe a tiny bit of mustard. Baked beans were indistinguishable from what you can readily find in a can. Still, the meat is worth pursuing; just get takeout and sauce it yourself.

Watch Check, Please! Bay Area's review of Everett & Jones Barbeque

Everett & Jones Barbeque
126 Broadway [Map]
Oakland, CA 94617
Ph: (510) 663-2350
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11am-10pm; Fri, 11am-midnight; Sat, noon-midnight; Sun, noon-10pm
Facebook: Everett and Jones Barbeque
Twitter: @everettjonesbbq
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

There’s a decided Louisiana influence at Genny’s BBQ in East Oakland, evidenced by the gumbo on the weekend menu, as well as red beans and rice as a barbecue side. The meat here is serious business. We took our ordering cues (pun intended) from owner Virginia Roberson’s daughter, whose favorite meats are the ribs and the lemon-pepper chicken. The former are chopped into bite-sized pieces that are easy to handle with your fingers, despite the nearly caramelized sauce. Even the spicy version is a bit too sweet for me, but it was balanced with a substantial kick, and the sides also contributed to this equation. The potato salad is mayo-driven, with a bit of mustard and pickle, more mashed than chopped, and a good magnet for the meat juices. The mac and cheese was loaded with cheddar and creamy throughout. The lemon-chicken managed to be good even though it was cooked for much longer than I’d have imagined appropriate. The skin was caramelized a bit, the meat smoky and tender. Collard greens, with a small red-pepper kick, were a divine side dish, and the red beans and rice a welcome departure from the traditional sides. The cornbread muffins also tended toward the sweet side, but loaf bread is available if that’s not your style.

Genny’s BBQ
6637 Bancroft Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94605
Ph: (510) 777-1200
Hours: Wed-Sun, noon-8pm; closed Mon-Tues
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Facebook: Genny's BBQ PIT

Let’s hear it for hushpuppies! Perdition Smokehouse, an upscale barbecue spot on Berkeley’s University Ave., is one of the very few places around that serve hushpuppies, something that I consider a staple of the genre. And they also pay more attention than most to where their meat comes from, serving only hormone- and antibiotic-free animals. We arrived right at the beginning of lunch service and tried the just-finished pulled pork, made from Duroc shoulder, dry-rubbed, and smoked over oak. It was just fatty enough to maintain tenderness throughout, pulled into largish chunks punctuated by delicious burnt ends. For sides, we chose the vinegar-based coleslaw (delightfully without sweetness) and the meaty cowboy beans, which were chock full of more burnt ends. Next to the brisket, just tender but firm enough to slice, we ordered the brown-crusted mac and cheese and boiled corn on the cob. The brisket was ringed by a thin layer of beautifully browned fat. The style here is Texas, but it’s not a bossy Texas. Meats arrived unsauced, so you can choose from house, spicy, mustard, and vinegar, all of which are proportionate in terms of sweetness and acidity — sophisticated, if you will. And back to the hushpuppies. While I might add a bit of onion and scrap the honey butter, the hushpuppies themselves are moist, unsweetened, and, frankly, a requirement, as are the homemade pickles.

And Perdition is a place you should also consider for its oft-rotating list of beers, some of which are unusual. I tried a wonderfully funky production, Almanac Dogpatch Sour, made with brett, a wild yeast that lends a sour flavor, which I enjoyed enough to make a mental note to come back and see what else I might discover. One tip: Because the service is hofbrau style, the meat sits under heat lamps, which can dry it out. If you get there early for lunch or dinner, right after the meat comes out of the smoker, it’s less likely that you’ll fall victim to this otherwise unavoidable problem.

Perdition Smokehouse [CLOSED 10/11/15]
2050 University Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94704
Ph: (510) 900-5858
Hours: Sun-Thurs, noon-11pm; Fri-Sat., noon-midnight
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Facebook: Perdition Smokehouse
Twitter: @Perditionbbq
Instagram: perditionsmokehouse

Phat Matt’s BBQ, on a nondescript block of Telegraph Ave. in Oakland that isn’t trendy yet, Matt and Charlotte Gonzalez quietly do what they’ve been doing for 30 years, first in Chicago and then at Bay Area farmers markets: smoke meat. The menu offers a mix of styles, which made me a bit skeptical. With Charlotte as coach, we tried two meats, the ribs (always an indicator of a pit-master’s skill) and the North Carolina-style pulled pork. The ribs were spot on, tender, browned, slightly fatty, served with a fairly spicy tomato-based sauce on the side. The pulled pork had great flavor, but there wasn’t anything particularly North Carolinian about it, given that the style there is either coarse- or fine-chopped, rather than pulled. Still, it was a solid rendition of pulled pork, one of the most lightly smoked I tried. Many local chefs won’t reveal what kind of wood they smoke with, but the kitchen here is transparent. Oak is the wood of choice for its neutrality relative to mesquite and hickory. We tried two sides, a serviceable mac and cheese that could’ve used a bit more time in the oven and a lovely potato salad with minced onion. Mexican Coke in a bottle hits the spot alongside.

Phat Matt’s BBQ
3415 Telegraph Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94609
Ph: (510) 879-7294
Hours: Wed-Sat, 11am-7pm (or sell-out); Sun, 11am-6pm (or sell-out); closed Mon-Tues
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Facebook: Phat Matt's BBQ
Twitter: @PhatMAttsBBQ

Don’t be deterred by the gigantic menu at Sauced BBQ & Spirits in Livermore, which is all tricked out with nachos, chili and tater tots; the straight-up barbecue is destination-worthy. St. Louis-style ribs are rubbed with a mix of spicy and mildly sweet flavors and slow-smoked over white oak. It seems that a bit of the rub is sprinkled on at the end, and the meat is then sauced with the sweetest of their four homemade concoctions, called “pig candy.” I scraped off the sweet stuff and replaced it with their delicious “tin roof,” which contains more hot spice, and little dab of “hot tin roof,” which is habañero-laden. Both are delicious with the medium-smoky, tender meat. The pulled pork is among the best I tried all month, studded with burnt ends and super-juicy. Sides were also made with care, including cheesy jalepeño grits (the furthest I was willing to go off the tradition grid) and deeply smoky baked beans. The coleslaw had shredded apples, giving it a sweet acidity, and the mac and cheese was equal parts creamy and tangy with cheddar. If it hadn’t been noon, and 90 degrees in the shade, I surely would have partaken of one of dozens of Bourbons on the list. Instead, I had a lovely house-brewed IPA, with just the right amount of bitterness to help me digest all that fabulous fat and spice.

Sauced BBQ & Spirits
2300 First St., #120 [Map]
Livermore, CA 94550
Ph: (925) 961-1300
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-12:30am
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Facebook: Sauced BBQ & Spirits
Twitter: @saucedbbq
Instagram: saucedbbq

Smoke Berkeley, a takeout spot next to a car wash in West Berkeley, is one of the friendliest places on the list. Servers chatted me up as I waited for my food, asking me about my weekend plans, whether I was going to the Pride parade, and what my kids liked to eat. In this meandering conversation, I learned that everything here is made from scratch, with the wise exception of Acme buns for sandwiches. When I answered yes to the question of spicy sauce, the server handed me a little cup of pulled pork and coleslaw floating in the spiciest sauce I tasted over the course of a month’s research. And despite the fact that chef-owner Tina Ferguson-Riffe hails from Texas and, hence, embraces the barbecue style of the lone star state, this sauce was a worthy competitor for the vinegar-based North Carolina sauce I dearly love. You can bet I asked for some to take home. I carried home two meats: The pulled pork was medium-smoky, very moist and tender, and the tea-smoked salmon was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Sides were equally delicious. Coleslaw was tangy and slightly sweet, while potato salad veered more toward earthy and creamy. The baked beans tasted as if they’d been made over a camp stove, and I mean that in the best possible way. The restaurant is also one of the few of its genre that considers the sourcing of ingredients. Most of the produce comes from Maria Catalan’s organic farm, and Ferguson-Riffe says she’d like to do even more to include local meats and vegetables on the menu.

Watch Check, Please! Bay Area's review of Smoke Berkeley

Smoke Berkeley
2434 San Pablo Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94702
Ph: (510) 548-8801
Hours: Tues-Sat, noon-8pm; Sun, noon-6pm; closed Mondays
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Facebook: Smoke Berkeley
Twitter: @smokeberkeley

Smokey J’s BBQ is a tiny, aromatic place on Shattuck Ave. in South Berkeley, self-described online by chef and owner, Josh Kempner, as Kansas City-style in some places and Texas in others. But Kempner is from Texas, and he has a way with North Carolina-style pulled pork as well, so I’m not quite sure how to describe it. I love his transparency around his process, though, which may just be indicative of his own local style. Meats are dry-rubbed, then smoked outside on the sidewalk, over a combination of mesquite, maple and whiskey-barrel chips. Everything I’ve ever had here has been top-notch. On the most recent visit, we ordered the pulled pork, moderately smoky with a few dashes of chile-infused vinegar sauce and a sprinkling of the dry rub. For me, this is neck and neck for number one with Perdition’s version, and may take the edge by way of said vinegar sauce. The brisket is also tied for first place, in my book, with BBQ Hut’s, and shares its affinity for a chopped, rather than sliced, presentation. Sides are completely homemade, including killer baked beans made with a chicken and pork broth crafted from leftover meat bones, a vinegar-based slaw, and a potato salad that has some mild barbecue sauce in the mix. I have yet to try the homemade French fries cooked in tallow, but I will just as soon as I can. This might be the best overall barbecue place on the list, all things considered.

Smokey J’s BBQ
3015 Shattuck Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94705
Ph: (510) 529-4511
Hours: Daily, noon-9pm
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Facebook: Smokey J's BBQ
Twitter: @SmokeyJBBQ

I discovered Smoking Pig BBQ Company in Fremont (there’s another location in San Jose) by way of a friend who used to live nearby. Indeed, it’s a worthy destination for oak- and applewood-smoked ‘cue, as well as homemade sides. The ribs are dry-rubbed and smoked for six hours at low heat, resulting in a deep brown exterior and moist, tender middle, all the way to the bone. The “pulled pork” was more cubed, and not as fatty as I might’ve like, a bit on the drier side, but nonetheless tender. Homemade fries were a treat on the list of side dishes, as were the very rich and smoky baked beans. Mac and cheese could’ve used some browning, but the pasta was cooked al dente and the coleslaw a nice middle between tangy and sweet. But the ribs, oh, the ribs: perfection on a plate.

Smoking Pig BBQ Company
3340 Mowry Ave. [Map]
Fremont, CA 94538
Ph: (510) 713-1855
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-midnight
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Facebook: Smoking Pig BBQ Company Fremont
Twitter: @SmokingPigBBQ1

T-Rex Restaurant & Bar, in West Berkeley, is a place I don’t think about much, but it’s a real contender in the barbecue space. The odd location it occupies — a two-story stucco building in a retail corner — belies the worthy barbecue action going on inside. The ribs are not baby back or St. Louis style, the local trend, but spareribs, bigger and meatier, and sauced with a not-too-sweet Kansas City-style (tomato-based with molasses) sauce. And because I’d never tried it here, I also ordered the Texas-style brisket, a nicely marbled cut that was simply dry-rubbed and slow-smoked. The hand-cut Kennebec fries were crisp and nearly greaseless, and the apple cabbage slaw was a good acidic side choice. Mayo-based potato salad was full of egg and chives. T-Rex has a huge menu of other items, but the smoked meats are the reason to come.

Sponsored

T-Rex Restaurant & Bar
1300 10th St. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94710
Ph: (510) 527-0099
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:30am-10pm; Fri, 11:30am-11pm; Sat, 10am-11pm; Sun, 10:30am-10pm
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Facebook: T-Rex BBQ
Twitter: @trexbarbeque
Instagram: trexbbq13

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