I have been promising a blog-post dedicated to local BBQ for some time. This has been an interesting self-assignment and I’ve probably dallied far too long, but it is a very interesting subject, with deep roots and STRONG opinions. And it also doesn’t photograph well, so I thought I’d kick things off with some pickles!
First of all, MY opinions. And some facts. Born and raised mostly in California, I have grown up with the common American vernacular of “barbecue” being predominantly a verb which more accurately should be “grill”. This has driven me crazy for decades. As in: “We are going to barbecue some steaks tonight.” NO. You are going to GRILL them. Likewise, it is also a noun referring to the appliance on the porch on which you barbecue (grill) things. In a couple months, all the barbecues at Home Depot will go on sale. 99.9% of them are GRILLS. These are the uses of the word I grew up with, always had a problem with, but didn’t quite know WHY. Until I moved to the Central Coast, I had never heard *barbecue* as a noun to mean an actual food or food genre, as in: “For lunch today let’s get barbecue.” Barbecue had always been something you DID to meat, not something you ate. Of course, the vast majority of my readers–at least those familiar with the local cuisine–will know I am talking about Santa Maria Style BBQ–and its tri-tip peculiarity.
I’ve had Santa Maria BBQ several dozen times since moving here. It’s basically a bad cut of beef rubbed down with whichever patented (and ofttimes expensive) secret combination of salt, garlic and pepper the maker subscribes to, and grilled over a combination of red oak wood and coals. You can buy it at EVERY restaurant locally, the fabrication and sale of the special grills for this purpose is a several-million-dollar business, while the fascination with it completely escapes me. I actually held a “SM BBQ” at my house once many years ago. It is served with linguica, piquito beans, garlic bread and tossed Caesar salad, ALL–or ANY–of which is better than the meat. And far-and-away the simplest group-meal to put together. When I asked around how to cook it, I was told “Black on the outside, pink on the inside, you can’t ruin it.” Above is FIRESTONE GRILL‘s version of a popular way it is served EVERYWHERE. Fat slabs of tri-tip slammed between two pieces of bread and drizzled with BBQ sauce. I have forced myself to eat this dish on numerous occasions in order to somehow develop an appreciation for this ridiculously popular sandwich (and the version at Firestone is regularly trotted out as the finest example). It is inedible food designed for literally the lowest-common-denominator of diner.
Here we have the other common way the local grilled tri-tip is served–from every street-corner in Santa Maria to every community park in Atascadero and many restaurants in between. This time at OLD SAN LUIS BBQ–a place everyone INSISTED I must visit to experience the “best there is”. Working through the stupidly-complicated ordering–and seating–and paying–process in a long line of people CLEARLY without dining standards OR tastebuds, a “for here” order is thrust at you in a paper clamshell and you are pointed toward the plastic service. Opening it presented cold, Parmesean-dusted garlic “French Bread” from every church potluck you have ever attended, beans boring and bland enough for a vegan, and yes, of course: more of that cool, tasteless tri-tip shoe-leather.
So let’s talk about Pulled Pork, as we weed out the also-rans toward real BBQ. This technically doesn’t even require a “barbecue”. I like pulled pork, and it is on LITERALLY EVERY menu, from banh mi to salads to sliders to tacos (please dear god no) and of course just a classic sandwich. Here we are at MO’S SMOKEHOUSE BBQ in downtown SLO (I went to the Pismo Beach location too) and I’m not going to get all carried away glowy or critical of this preparation of “barbecue” because it’s pretty hard to fuck up. I mean–it is always well-seasoned, never tough, runs down your arms and drips off your elbows–what’s to hate? JEFFRY’S WINE COUNTRY BBQ pretty much wins all from me in the pork department. His pulled, banh mi and loin Cubano are easily the best in the area. Likewise chicken and ribs–two other ubiquitous ‘BBQ’ menu items. We’re not going to talk about either of them either, as I consider both of them impossible to fuck up too. OK, let me re-phrase that. If you screw either up, it is so embarrassing it doesn’t even deserve discussion. I have it on pretty good authority you can probably buy rotisserie chicken at Albertson’s that is better than most BBQ places, but I don’t order chicken out. Life’s too short to eat chicken at a restaurant. And ribs? That’s a whole ‘nother blog, son. Moving on… see this sign? Notice anything missing? Yup.
Should we talk about all the also-rans now or later? Alphy’s Broiler Arroyo Grande and RIBLINE Grover Beach provided the two most embarrassingly bad dining experiences imaginable, with BBQ LAND in Santa Maria a close third. I don’t want to come off as elitist (TOO LATE), but the demographic who eats the common forms of barbecue around here is probably the easiest group to please. They want it greasy (and bland), salty (and uncomplex), in huge portions (but cheap), lots of Diet Coke and bread, fast and loud, with service uncomplicated and definitely informal. This is obvious at all the places in this paragraph but ESPECIALLY the three just mentioned. San Luis Fish & BBQ only barbecues fish. The afore-mentioned Firestone I’d sooner put a gun in my mouth than survive the endless drove of bros and Fres-necks… Number 461? Number 463? Number 461 please. Mo’s in SLO is quite nice inside since the remodel, Pismo hasn’t changed a lick; Old San Luis BBQ an absolute trainwreck; McKlintock’s and AJ Spurs and Jocko’s: more tri-tip; tried to eat at Grill Hut in Morro Bay–all they have is pit-beef; called and Googled dozens of places and menus–none of which serve real BBQ. Scotty’s in Atascadero and Brickhouse in Morro Bay are both closed (as has the aforementioned Alphy’s).
So where are we in my TOP 5 BBQ on the Central Coast list? Well, there isn’t going to be a TOP 5. First of all, there aren’t five places around here that make real barbecue. Real barbecue involves a SMOKER and BRISKET. This is going to really piss off Arroyo Grande, but there will be no grilled tri-tip on my BBQ list. Just not going to happen. It is not food. Secondly, the three places I found with real barbecue were all so good, working so hard to authenticate and perfect it, the service and presentation was so good at each: I can’t justify throwing one or more of them under the bus in order to produce a perfectly scored list lifting any one to a heralded position in a field so close.
Number 3 on my list has to be CENTRAL COAST MEAT MARKET. The first thing you notice about CCMM when you walk in: everybody in the dining room you would have over for dinner at your house. This is a common theme of my TOP 3 and is in STARK contrast to the clientele of some of the also-ran’s listed above. I don’t want to pick on BBQ-eater but Jesus Christ, people: Take a shower. Mix in a salad now and then. Are those your daytime pajamas or night-time pajamas? CCMM is the newest kid on the block and great lengths have been gone to to assure a Texas experience for Californians. THERE IS NO TRI-TIP ON THE MENU. Modern, clean and streamlined, the visible smoker, full-view meat-cutting, counter-ordering experience is fairly straight-forward with a variety of sides. Service is on paper-covered trays with plastic service (this loses a point with me) and little cardboard trays with GENEROUS sides. Brisket is your choice of “fatty” or “lean” and a knife is redundant on the fatty. Meat is moist and beautiful, mildly seasoned and VERY smoky. Sweet tea, Dr. Pepper and a couple of strange fruity red soda-pops are available (sorry, no CheerWine). A proprietary table-sauce comes in regular and spicy and the regular is fairly reduced, grainy with spice and nice–sweetishly–flavored. Bread is plain slices of regular white bread pulled from a bag (another point off). Beans thickly sauced with pulled pork throughout, nicely seasoned and not spicy. No accoutrements other than your sides in meal. Take-out of all products by-the-pound available. When they run out, they run out. CENTRAL COAST MEAT MARKET PISMO BEACH
Number 2 is up in a part of San Luis Obispo I rarely dine, at G. BROTHERS SMOKEHOUSE. Easily the oldest of my three, the former J.D.Boones up on Foothill has only been G.Bros for a decade. Counter-ordering and large quiet dining room adjacent with take-out of everything by-the-pound. There IS tri-tip on the menu, but it doesn’t jump out at you–you kinda gotta look for it. Brisket is BEAUTIFUL, perfectly seasoned, well-integrated smokiness and served on an actual plate with silverware and coleslaw. Beans are a wonderfully-sauced slightly-spicy endeavor with possibly ham hocks or pork belly chunks. Bread goes back to ‘French bread’, but nicely done, not soggy or tough or otherwise midwestern potluck-y–it’s a perfect, lightly garlicked, toasted crusty roll with a touch of butter. A near-salsa-bar selection of house sauces are in a side cooler: Red, yellow, green, salsa, spicy, sweet–you name it. If you’re in SLO and want good BBQ–no matter how allergic you are to that Foothill strip–with no fuss about parking and a staff quite attentive to the quality of your experience, G.Bros is your place. G. BROTHERS SMOKEHOUSE SAN LUIS OBISPO
Well, there’s only one left, and my favorite of this tiny group HAS to be SLO BREW. “But-but-but,” I hear you say, “Slo Brew???” Yup. And there’s several reasons. Tom Fundaro’s slow-smoked brisket is the real dealio, tender and beautiful, not relying necessarily on slicing to minimize grain. Drippingly moist, amazingly well-seasoned, with smoke not the dominate nuance. It comes topped with a non-obtrusive salsa, nowhere near the profile of BBQ sauce OR Mexican salsa. It’s just good, and a seamless accompaniment. Table-service downtown–or counter-service at SLOBrew Rock–it is served on a paper-covered board sans beans or slaw: instead there are house-pickles and sweet onions. Bread is fat slabs of gloriously white stuff, with a breath of butter and visiting the griddle momentarily. The pile of meat always includes a variety of chunks pulled from his HUGE smoker parked behind the restaurant. There is NO tri-tip on the menu. Of course with SLObrew, a serviceable winelist comes with the meal, lots of great beer, and–downtown–a full cocktail bar. Unlike the other two restaurants where BBQ is the focal-point of the menu, at SLObrew the brisket and Carolina pig is merely an aside on a full menu of other great items.
There’s SO little separating these three restaurants on this list. All three make a wonderful brisket, and this project has been entertaining and educational–but not always fun. It’s fun when you walk in and everything clicks and you get what you want and everything is quality. It is NOT fun when your time and tastebuds are insulted by people with no standards in flavor-integration or service–merely stuffing calories into unthinking customers. I’ve never been to Texas–or anywhere in the South–so I am not trying to write a tutorial or end-all guide to Barbecue. Hell, I spelled it with a Q the first 40 years of my life. I have a LOT of followers in the areas mentioned, and I am sure there are parts of even the food I LIKED which appear odd or even hilariously wrong to those steeped in Southern BBQ standards. But this is California, baby! It will never be the same. And, for what we have available, these three stand well out.
Next week we review every chocolate cake in town.
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