Like jazz, baseball, film noir, and comic strips, barbecue is a great American tradition that everyone — even tofu-grilling vegans — can appreciate. And yet nothing distracts and divides any random group of people like the subject of barbecue. Politics and religion are tame topics compared to the angst and recriminations aroused by loose talk of dry rubs, smokers, and indirect heating. Even pizza doesn't incite so much culinary chauvinism. What's better, pork or brisket? What about goat and mutton? Should the sauce be added to the meat before or during the cooking process, or not at all? What should go into the sauce, mustard and vinegar (South Carolina) or mayo and vinegar (northern Alabama)? Smoky hickory wood or sweet applewood? Or charcoal? Or even ... gas? St. Louis' pig cheeks or South Texas' cabeza? Let's not even bring up Indonesian satay, Argentine asado, Japanese yakitori, and Brazilian churrasco.
Yet here in California's end-of-the-continent melting pot, even the most rabid Chicago diehards have had to settle into some semblance of peaceful coexistence with their Kansas City counterparts. What helps the process along considerably is the fact that even the worst barbecue is a lot better than most of the other items on the menu, and when the barbecue is very good indeed, can fellowship be far behind?
The barbecue is very good at Smokey Blues Bar-Be-Que, an affable if rundown sort of place under the Shafter-MacArthur cloverleaf. Reminiscent in spirit of a friendly old mom-and-pop country grocery, the casual rendezvous features a barely decorated dining room with a dozen tables, a small space for live music, and a wine-and-beer bar equipped with a jukebox one-fourth filled with Jackie Wilson, the Platters, and other vintage icons. Behind the cash register are steam tables and an impressive-looking smoker imported from Mesquite, Texas.
This is where owner Carl Jackson works his magic, serving up the old family recipes his mother used to prepare down South. Ribs, links, chicken, and brisket are cooked a nice long time over oak and mesquite, letting the wood-smoke perfume the meat as it becomes more and more tender. The process was especially kind to our barbecued ribs: five huge, meaty dinosaur bones with lots of lusciously textured meat and just enough pig fat to keep things delectable. The quarter-chicken had a nice blackened skin and sweet, tender thigh meat, although the leg was on the dry side. And the link sausage was terrific: incredibly plump, moist but not fatty, with a crackly skin and an almost creamy texture. All the meats are dressed with the same sauce: a sweet, tangy, low-wattage but tasty example of the genre.
Reflecting Mrs. Jackson's Southern heritage, all dinners come with black-eyed peas, potato salad, and cornbread muffins. The peas were tender but not mushy, with that sweet-and-spicy undertone that distinguishes the best soul food. The potato salad, heavy on the sugar, the mayo, and the hard-boiled egg white, was undistinguished. But the muffins were warm and crisp from the oven, with a moist texture nicely ribboned with the crunch of cornmeal.
Other down-home side dishes are on the menu as well. The collard greens — bright, lush, earthy, and pungent — made a fine complement to the rich barbecue. The candied yams, on the other hand, were almost achingly sweet and lacking in any other flavor, and the Turkey Pan BBQ Spaghetti was reminiscent of reheated, barely flavored leftover pasta. Then there was Mom's Dirty Creole Red Beans and Rice, the star of the menu. Good Louisiana cooking is more or less impossible to find in the greater Bay Area, but this fragrant bowl of turkey meat, pot likker, and lush, smoky, soul-stirring red beans was the next best thing to a counter seat at the Acme.
Smokey Blues is not the sort of place you want to take your vegetarian buddies, although in a pinch they could put together a meal out of the collard greens, potato salad, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. We can neither recommend nor condemn the desserts, because over the course of two visits the menu's sweet potato pie, coconut cake, German chocolate cake, and peach cobbler were unavailable. Sadly.
The wine list is brief and to the point: Freixenet Brut, Clos du Bois Chardonnay, Woodbridge Chardonnay, Woodbridge Riesling (nice with the ribs), Ravenswood Zinfandel (try it with the chicken), and Beringer White Zin. Beer is also a good option at barbecue time; a small array of bottled brews is available on a fluctuating basis.
Smokey Blues is well known for the live music it hosts on the weekends, but no shows are scheduled for the foreseeable future. Drop by anyway and indulge in a big platter of peas, greens, cornbread, and, most especially, barbecue. The blues would be nice, but one great American art form is better than none.
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