Nineteen hundred miles is a helluva long way to go for takeout ribs, but it’s as close as the West Coast gets to real Southern barbecue in the vast, burnt-end-starved terrain between here and Kansas City. Granted, you can cut the trip by about a hundred miles if you turn south at Denver and follow the scent of mesquite-smoked brisket towards Austin. If anyone tells you different, be suspicious.
Which isn’t to say we don’t have some finger-lickin’, pit-licious barbecue in these parts. But like every other cuisine we’ve tampered with (and I might say improved upon), Californians have created a hybrid barbecue that’s all our own — California-que. Doubters might call it Faux-b-que, with the same sort of eye-roll we Bay Area folk reserve for, say, sourdough bread and Dungeness crab cakes on a menu in Branson, Missouri. I prefer to think of it as regional adaptation.
And the heart of all great barbecue are significant regional differences, along with healthy doses of ego and pride. Try asking for barbecue sauce in some Texas joints and you’ll likely be kicked out. North Carolina has been mapped out according to local preferences for the amounts of tomato or vinegar in their sauce. If you travel from Memphis to St. Louis to Kansas City, the sauce tends to get sweeter by the mile and in the Deep South heat rules — along with a side of anything they can catch and throw into the deep fat fryer.
Here in the North Bay, a new breed of pitmaster is emerging, (usually sans an actual pit) but with a personal fusion of influences and flavors that are making for some seriously good eats. Sauces range from Kansas City-style sweet to chipotle-infused hybrids. A number of restaurants also use tri-tip, an historically West Coast cut of meat that’s often more tender and flavorful than the bbq standby, brisket. Sandwiches are dressed up with artisan potato rolls or fried onions, meats are heritage or heirloom (or not) and the overall vibe ranges from haute folksy to secret-family recipe. It’s a hodgepodge or flavors and tastes that draw from the best of the country but are uniquely our own. So it ain’t Kansas City, but it’s close enough.
After eating through ten top picks in Sonoma and Napa, here are my recommendations…
BarbersQ: Haute-folksy barbecue with a definite Napa vibe. Though originally underwhelmed, I’ve warmed up to the tasty beef brisket sandiwch, an open-faced monster topped with fried onions. The minimalist interior, booming 80s soundtrack and squeezed-in-seating can be a turnoff, but you won’t want to miss the Rancho Gordo beans with ham hocks and chocolate bourbon pie. BarBersQ, 3900-D Bel Aire Plaza, Napa, 707.224.6600. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Buster’s Southern BBQ: You know the spot. It’s been at the crossroads of Hwy 29 and Lincoln Ave. in Calistoga like, I don’t know-forever. Most of us blast on by on our way to fancier Napa affairs, afraid of a little sauce on our shirts and tri-tip stuck in our teeth. It’s so un-Napa. So paper-plate and picnic table un-chic, where ordering’s done at a screen window and the eating’s done on the parking lot porch. Tri-tip can’t be beat and yes, Buster’s still around every day.Buster’s BBQ, 1207 Foothill Boulevard, Calistoga, 707.942.5605.
Bounty Hunter: Pull up a saddle at this downtown Napa winebar and bbq eatery. The scent of their back-door smoker and beer-can chicken sizzling on the grill perfume the block and pay off on the promise of some sweet fusion-que. One of my favorite picks for California-style barbecue, Bounty Hunter serves up great smoky ribs, pulled brisket and pork with their own chipotle, mustard & vinegar and sweet-hot red sauce. Kind of a surprise for a winebar, but in true California style, they’ll guide to to some barbecue-friendly wines like their Broken Spur Dry Creek Zinfandel or Campfire Red. 975 First St., Napa, 226.3976.
Red Rock Back Door Barbecue: A true “joynt”, Red Rock’s a local hangout in a crummy location, no parking, sticky checkered tablecloths and barely enough room to hold a fork (so skip it and use your fingers). Grab a pint of their delish pulled pork to go. 1010 Lincoln Ave, Napa, 252-9250.
Porter Street Barbecue: A local, family-run operation with great sandwiches, one of my very favorite sweet, smoky sauces and fresh-made peach and cherry cobblers that will make you forget your troubles.500 E Cotati Ave., Cotati, (707) 795-9652.
Lombardi’s Barbecue: Long lunch lines and a smoking barbecue out front tell you all you need to know about the homemade sauce, ribs, pulled pork and chicken at this Cotati favorite. 101 E Cotati Ave., Cotati, (707) 795-3354
Aoili Deli: This tiny Forestville deli run by husband and wife chefs Autumn and Nicholas Opitz does a great pulled pork sandwich with award-winning housemade sauce. Grab a crabcake or duck confit while you’re there. 6536 Front St, Forestville, CA 95436
BiteClub’s ‘Q Winners 2009