The East Bay’s BBQ Hall of Fame
A Long Simmering Barbecue Tradition Comes to a Boil
Oakland has always had a few good barbecue joints. With the city’s strong African-American community, barbecue restaurants date back at least as far as the Second Great Migration (1940–1970), when 5 million or more black people moved from the southeastern United States to points north and west, including California. The genre is celebrated by people of all backgrounds, of course, with the primary ingredient being something the Bay Area has in abundance: a love of food. Recently, barbecue has
captured the imagination of several Bay Area chefs, and there’s been a slew of openings on both sides of the bay: CatHead’s BBQ, Cedar Hill Kitchen + Smokehouse and Southpaw BBQ & Southern Cooking in San Francisco and Smoke Berkeley, B-Side BBQ, Phat Matt’s BBQ and Smokey J’s in the East Bay.
Barbecue as a culinary tradition has its roots in the indigenous communities of the Caribbean and South, with Taíno people of the West Indies and the Timucua of Florida. Written references to barbecue in the South begin with journals of German physician and explorer John Lederer, after he traveled in the American southeast in 1672. Heated (so to speak) debate is ongoing regarding the true definition of barbecue, with many fans of the art dismissing anything cooked quickly over a fire as “grilling.” This camp reserves the term barbecue for smoked meats prepared in the “low-and-slow” fashion, meat which is typically rubbed with spices and rests for hours, even days, over hardwood or charcoal fires. Some argue that the word barbecue is strictly a noun, referring to the meat produced from said cooking, while others liberally use the term as a verb (“I’m barbecuing”), adjective (“barbecued beef”) or a noun meaning an event, such as “we’re having a barbecue.”
There’s also the matter of style, which varies widely by region, with, very broadly speaking, the deep South known for pork, and beef more common in the West, i.e., Texas brisket. Sauces vary across the Carolinas, but in general they are known for sharp vinegar sauces, while Kansas City and deep Southern barbecue have sweeter tomato-based sauces. In the Bay Area, many chefs like to take a “best of” approach using classic preparations for each cut of meat they prepare. Others say they have developed their own signature style. Indeed, barbecue is never a simple formula and can be a very personal expression. Many factors, from the weather to the meat quality to the spice blend to
the mood of the chef, could be considered significant in this mode of cooking that is, for many, a form of art.
What follows is an ode to this art form, recognition of the establishments worthy of being included in an East Bay BBQ Hall of Fame. As you venture out to acquaint yourself with the East Bay’s new barbecue players or revisit old favorites, remember that barbecue is at its core a spiritual endeavor. The chef who makes good barbecue must be patient and may find solace in the process of preparing the food. For some chefs, making barbecue is like meditation. As you sit down to a plate of barbecue, take a moment yourself to consider how much effort went into the food before you.
It is essential to take one’s time when eating barbecue. It’s when you think you’ve finished eating the rib that you should keep going. In the best barbecue, you’ll find you have more to chew on there, that the flavor is growing and developing. Let it. The spices in the sauce may gain strength as they rest on your palate. Don’t be afraid to experience the fat. Consume a bit of the fat in the brisket. Relax and don’t worry about what you look like as you eat. Barbecue is a messy food that is best eaten with hands, and it’s expected that diners will chew on bones, removing and discarding them only after they’ve been thoroughly worked over. Ponder your own thoughts as you do this. In this way, the meditation of the chef is transferred to the diner. It is a gift.
Tina Ferguson-Riffe, the chef-owner of one of Berkeley’s newest barbecue joints, may have studied cooking at the California Culinary Academy and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but her first inspiration was the pie made by her Aunt Audye. With her aunt’s tutelage, Ferguson-Riffe would go on to win a blue ribbon for the Best Apple Pie at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas and a blue ribbon for the Best Chocolate Pecan Pie at the Blanco County Fair and Rodeo in Johnson City. “I was raised on Texas barbecue,” she says, and after tasting her melt-in-your-mouth, hickory-smoked beef brisket, you’re bound to believe her. Ferguson-Riffe counts among her influences her father, a hunter who hot- and cold-smoked meats in a barbecue pit outside her family’s Grand Prairie, Texas, home. She also credits the exposure to Southern traditions she has gained since moving to the Bay Area in 1987. “So many African-Americans migrated here from the South and the Carolinas and brought with them those ‘send-you-to-heaven-and-back-without-dying’ recipes,” she says.
What makes Smoke Berkeley stand out, however, is not its allegiance to Texas style but Ferguson-Riffe’s freewheeling California-inflected inventions. On her menu, her signature dish, tea-smoked salmon, appears side-by-side with pulled pork, and sides are just as likely to be brown rice or zucchini fritters as potato salad or coleslaw. The food is well seasoned. Fresh garlic makes its presence known in the baked beans and fresh chiles play a role in the “Mexican” mac ’n’ cheese casserole. “I am bringing all the cooking skills I learned in Texas, California and France together at Smoke Berkeley,” says Ferguson-Riffe, whose staff includes graduates of The Bread Project of Emeryville and Richmond-based Rubicon, where she worked when she first moved to the area. The combination of her skills and the spirit of her team is magical, and after you’ve experienced her barbecue, you must try the chocolate pecan pie.
Smoke Berkeley, 2434 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 548-8801, www.smokeberkeley.com, 12–7 p.m. Tue.–Sat.
Joshua Kemper opened his homey “Q-House” in 2011 with the goal of getting back to the basics and cooking something he enjoyed eating. “It’s important as a chef to be creative and original, but let’s not forget things are traditional for a reason,” says Kemper, who was born in Texas and raised in the Bay Area. His Berkeley establishment, just a few blocks North of the long-shuttered Flint’s of legend, is bringing some deep barbecue cred back to the South Berkeley/North Oakland/Shattuck Avenue corridor. He smokes his brisket and pulled pork for 12 hours over mesquite, maple and whiskey barrel wood, and he coats all his meat with brown sugar and his own blend of spice rub.
Kemper, a proud alumnus of Berkeley High (class of 1996), was a fan of Flint’s in its day. “They were rude and dirty, but they were the best,” he says. Smokey J’s offers a great deal of charm, with a few tables inside and a station where guests can help themselves to complimentary iced tea and pickles. The pickle juice is proffered as a hangover cure. Skillet cornbread and pecan pie sit on the countertop, and a huge rotisserie turns plump chickens, which offer their juices to a bed of potatoes roasting beneath. Kemper takes his chicken seriously, brining and soaking it, then cold smoking it with whiskey barrel and maple chips before slow roasting it in the rotisserie.
Kemper, who taught himself to cook as a child and worked his way up from dishwasher to the higher rungs of the molecular gastronomy scene, brings technical skill and a strong work ethic to his operation. He makes all his food in-house, from the garlicky hot links to crisp-on-the-outside, light-on-the-inside cakey cornbread. His is an excellent mac ’n’ cheese, with al dente noodles and a sharp, creamy smoked cheddar cheese sauce; and he hand-cuts his french fries before cooking them in beef tallow. He makes the potato salad with pork jowls he cures and smokes. (The restaurant’s flyer has a joke on it: “Vegetarian menu: coleslaw & water.”) He also assembles a genuine Frito pie with layers of the crunchy corn chips, meat chili, cheese, jalapeños, green onions and sour cream. He uses leftover barbecue meat in the chili, so it’s not based on low-quality ground chuck.
And the star of the show at Smokey J’s, the barbecue, does not disappoint. Kemper uses his “Papa’s sauce,” a peppery-vinegar bath in the Carolina style, for the “wet” pulled pork. The brisket shows Kemper’s Texas roots with generous marbling, a good rub and sauce offered on the side. The chicken lives up to all the effort put into it, and you should also sample the poultry sausage, seasoned with sage and brown sugar. The meats are so well prepared, they need only a touch of sauce, but Kemper’s sauce is a gem, dark and spicy, with a heat that builds and stays with you in a pleasant way.
Smokey J’s, 3015 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 647-8442, www.smokeyjbbq.com, open 12–9 p.m. Wed.–Sun.
Tanya Holland, the chef behind West Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen and its much lauded cornmeal waffle, has struck on success again with B-Side BBQ, her culinary barbecue restaurant. Cornmeal-fried okra, St. Louis ribs, seriously popular brisket and knockout pickled vegetables will have you coming back for more. Holland only uses sustainable meat of the highest standard, and although she says things at B-Side are still evolving, the meat, from smoky chicken to jerk-style baby back ribs, is already right on point. Perhaps the location has helped. As Holland points out, the stretch of San Pablo Avenue (between 33rd and 34th streets) where the restaurant stands was historically a “barbecue belt.” The space she took over, complete with a giant rotisserie smoker, had been home to many barbecue joints in years past.
What Holland makes today, however, is unique. “How I cook barbecue is a culmination of my formal French training, my heritage and my 25 years of experience cooking professionally,” says Holland, who is of African-American descent. Although she grew up in New York, Holland is the daughter of two Southerners — her father is from Virginia, her mother Louisiana — and when Holland was young, the pair were active in a gourmet-cooking club with five other couples that exposed Holland to multi-ethnic and international flavors. “My style really is my own, and I’m not following any regional style. For that reason, I’m calling our barbecue ‘Oakland Style.’ Like Oakland, my influences are diverse and authentic.”
You’ll taste that authenticity in dishes such as barbecue-baked beans made with white beans, bacon, ham hocks and burnt barbecue ends. It’s a side that is also a meal unto itself. The baked yam wedges are another side dish of distinction. Often, restaurant sweet potato fries are frozen, but B-Side’s are freshly cut and simply baked until they caramelize slightly and they are then sprinkled lightly with salt and pepper. Like Holland herself, the food at B-Side embodies natural beauty.
B-Side BBQ, 3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, (510) 595-0227, www.bsidebbq.com, open 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Tue.–Sat.
Phat Matt’s BBQ
A local couple, Matt and Charlotte Gonzales, are the chemistry behind this much-beloved barbecue joint, which opened on Telegraph Avenue not far from MacArthur BART in 2009. Matt was a legendary backyard barbecue master, and one year Charlotte secretly signed him up for the Alameda County Fair rib cook-off. Gonzales took the surprise challenge in stride and managed to place in the first round. One competition lead to the next, and the Gonzaleses soon took their barbecue public by selling their food at the Grand Lake – Oakland Farmers Market. The reception was hugely positive, and the pair eventually made the leap to a brick-and-mortar business.
The brisket is not to be missed, and all the meat, from Memphis-style pork ribs to smoked tri-tip, possesses big, smoky flavor. The light, airy coleslaw is a refreshing contrast to the meat, as are generous portions of sweet cornbread. According to Charlotte Gonzales, Matt Gonzales is an over-achiever. “Good isn’t good enough for him,” she says. “He’s always pushing himself, hence the different weekly specials we do at the restaurant, i.e., BBQ spaghetti, BBQ smoked meatloaf, homemade beef sausage links, etc.” One such creation that’s worth trying is his smoked candied bacon. He candies it with maple syrup instead of brown sugar and sometimes coats it in semi-sweet chocolate. As if that weren’t enough, says Charlotte Gonzales,
“Matt started playing around again, and crumbled the chocolate bacon in the batter of our pecan pie before baking it. I was like, this is so over the top good.”
Phat Matt’s BBQ, 3415 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 879-7294, www.phatmattsbbq.com, open for lunch and dinner Wed.–Sun.
Everett & Jones Barbeque
E&J is the gold standard for Bay Area barbecue. The family-owned business, which was founded by Dorothy Everett with her eight daughters and one son (and son-in-law James Jones) in Oakland in 1973, still turns out simple, bold fare from three local pits: Berkeley, Oakland and Hayward.
The family shows its Alabama roots with a dark, sweet, spicy sauce that’s so good they had to bottle it for sale. Try some over the creamy potato salad, and you’ll almost forget to eat your meat.
Everett & Jones Barbeque, 126 Broadway Oakland, (510) 663-2350, www.eandjbbq.com (locations also in Berkeley and Hayward), open daily for lunch and dinner.
Bo’s Barbecue & Catering
Owner Bo McSwine (his real name) brings a great love of community to his work. He was raised in Chicago, but frequent trips back to the family farm in Grenada, Miss., informed his approach to food and cooking. “It started there with the women,” says McSwine. “The women make time. They manage things. Sunday was a church day in the South. You’d smell your sister’s hair burning on the hot comb. There were big pots on the stove, and Mama would put me in charge of them. You learn how to make things from potato salad to cornbread to succotash, gumbo, etc.”
After a career in education, helping children with special needs in the clinical psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley, McSwine decided to give of himself in another way and professionalize his long-running, and much sought-after, barbecue making. In 1999 he opened Bo’s in Lafayette, and it was — and remains — the pinnacle of soul in the 925.
McSwine’s approach is austere. It’s all about the meat, which he sources carefully from vendors such as Niman Ranch. Sides are minimal and with a Bay Area touch: a small piece of crusty baguette, spring mix salad greens and a dab of light potato salad. The restraint of the sides brings the richness of the meat, be it brisket, ribs or chicken, into clear focus. His barbecue magic keeps a line out the door, and his devotion to working with youth through music has kept jazz and blues artists coming through the place to make appearances. You can catch live music on Saturday nights.
Bo’s Barbecue & Catering, 3422 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-7133, www.bosbarbecue-catering.com, open 11:30 a.m.– 9 p.m. Tue.–Sun.
Haig and Cindy Krikorian toured the United States to sample the best barbecue coast-to-coast before opening T-Rex in 2005. Today, chef Ryan Lafferty oversees the 24/7 smoker operation, and guests continue to enjoy excellent brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken wings, among other meaty offerings, along with gourmet salads and the coveted orecchiette (pasta shaped like little ears) mac ’n’ cheese.
T-Rex, 1300 10th St., Berkeley, (510) 527-0099, www.t-rex-bbq.com, open daily for lunch and dinner.
By Special Order Only
Stephanie Perry may make the best barbecued chicken on planet Earth. Perry, the former owner of Perry’s Food for the Soul in San Leandro, learned to cook at the knee of her father, Sam Perry, an Oakland native. Sam Perry was a star athlete (a track and field standout at Oakland Tech in his day) who learned to cook from his father, a Southerner and one of the first African-American chefs in the Navy.
“Every time we would barbecue,” says Stephanie
Perry, “My dad would put me in charge of the meat. I had to man the grill. He taught me how to evenly season the meat to ensure that every bite was delicious. He showed me how to slow cook over indirect heat to make sure that the meat was smoky and tender.”
Every bite is delicious, and it’s good to think of two generations of Perry men smiling down from heaven on the family daughter carrying on the culinary tradition. You want this woman catering your next party.
Perry's, (925) 435-9867, www.perryscatering.com.
In addition to private catering, Albert Rayford and his crew dish up pork spare ribs, pork rib tips, chicken and links every other week at the Kensington farmers market (10 a.m.–2 p.m. Sundays at the Colusa Circle). Fat Daddy’s can also be found on Saturday’s at the Kensington Chevron station on The Arlington.
Check the Twitter feed, call or visit: Twitter@FatDaddysBBQ05, (510) 224-8273, www.fatdaddysbbq.net.
Out of Town Hollas
The line says it all.
2145 Coast Highway, Pacifica, (650) 359-7427, www.gorillabbq.com, open Wed.–Mon. for lunch and dinner.
Glorious, heavenly piles of smoked meat with chef-made seasonal sides in an upscale setting with a killer soul soundtrack.
3900 D Bel Aire Plaza, Napa, (707) 224-6600, www.barbersq.com, open daily for lunch and dinner.
Gone, But Not Forgotten
It was always a no-frills affair and hours were spotty even when it was in business, but we’ll always cherish the memory of the deep-charred, sweet-spicy sauced Flint’s. Closed permanently in 2010.
The downtown Oakland spot had an old-timey charm and sweet-sharp sauce. We miss you, Chef Edward! Closed in early 2012.
Another real-deal joint that breathed its last in 2007. RIP.
Cityside BBQ Joints Pop Up All Over SF
Cedar Hill Kitchen + Smokehouse – The Marina (of all places), 3242 Scott St., San Francisco, (415) 834-5403, www.cedarhillsf.com, open daily for lunch and dinner.
CatHead’s BBQ – SoMa, 1665 Folsom St., San Francisco, (415) 861-4242, www.catheadsbbq.com, open for lunch and dinner, Wed.–Mon.
Sneaky’s – Formerly housed inside Rebel on Market Street, moving to the Mission and slated to reopen in September, www.sneakysbbq.blogspot.com, (415) 431-4200
Southpaw BBQ & Southern Cooking – The Mission, 2170 Mission St., San Francisco, (415) 934-9300, www.southpawbbqsf.com, open for dinner (and open late) Wed.–Mon., and Sunday brunch.
The Dancing Pig – The Castro, 544 Castro St., San Francisco, (415) 529-2797, www.thedancingpigsf.com, open daily for lunch and dinner.
Honorary Mentions (Just the Ribs)
These two places aren’t full barbecue establishments but merit mentions for their barbecued ribs and killer side dishes.
Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen – Cajun mixed grill includes baby back ribs with bourbon barbecue sauce, spicy link and excellent grilled shrimp. Order a side of hush puppies with honey butter and you’re in business. Other great side dishes on offer include the red beans and rice, baked mac and cheese and Brussels sprouts. 2261 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 548-6900, www.angelineskitchen.com, open Tue.–Sun. for lunch, daily for dinner.
Nellie’s – Barbecued baby back ribs are always on the menu at this West Oakland soul food joint, with a yellow potato salad in that perfect barbecue vein. 1155 Third St., Oakland, (510) 625-1350, www.nelliessoulfood.com, open Wed.–Sun. for lunch and dinner.
Barbecue Best Practices
- Remember that most barbecue places that aren’t full restaurants close early. They’re often closed by 8 p.m.
- Barbecue is a labor of love frequently made by enthusiasts-turned-business people. These places are not always run like clockwork. Think family affair rather than corporate conglomerate. It pays to do your research and even place a phone call before you get your mouth set on some ribs. Barbecue heartbreak is hard!
- Try to eat barbecue hot, as soon as possible after you get it. If you must reheat, do so gently in an oven.