Fire, with Little Smoke 

Looney's isn't for barbecue purists, but don't let that stop you.

This is a story about a couple of entrepreneurs who turned brains and will power into restaurant success. Only the restaurant isn't a success yet — a fact that one of those entrepreneurs, 21-year-old Andrey Ayrapetov, would probably dismiss as a tiny detail. As Ayrapetov tells it, only bozos can't figure out success. They make it all complicated, or get caught up in little things. Like the food.

Early last summer, the boy genius whose parents immigrated from Moldavia had a month-old Cal philosophy degree and a history of feeling his way through cooking gigs he wasn't remotely prepared for. In high school he'd taken up catering — even engineered a whole sushi spread for twenty rich guys in Palo Alto, all by himself, despite the fact that he'd never twirled up a spicy tuna roll in his life. Ayrapetov says it was the shining success of his teenage catering career.

That summer night at Jupiter, the downtown Berkeley pizza-and-beer garden, Ayrapetov broke into an overheard conversation about the restaurant's wireless order-entry system. Ken Looney was a middle-aged guy who'd once owned a chain of daycare centers. He envied Jupiter's bustle, and figuring he could create even more of it with food that would be as much of a draw as pints of 12 percent ale. Both had ideas about barbecue. Ayrapetov had been perfecting some geeky, Alton Brown-style jury rig, balancing smoldering flowerpots on a Weber barrel grill.

It's hard to think of Looney and Ayrapetov and not flash on the Bill Murray-Jason Schwartzman partnership of Rushmore: unlikely, goofy even, but crackling with energy. By the end of the summer they'd picked up Hua Hin, a failing Thai joint in a Modernist stand-alone with clogged drains and trashed bathrooms kitty-corner from the Cal campus. One month later they opened Looney's Smokehouse — a record time in a city infamous for leisurely licensing. It must have smelled like fate.

But if Looney's sparks a Jupiter-size following, it'll smell less like fate and more like baby-back ribs. Long-cooked fatty meats doused in sweet, tomatoey sauces are perfect here in the shadow of the university, where food scores best when it's cheap, vivid tasting, and greasy enough to satisfy THC-stoked appetites. It has to survive the noise and distraction that swirl around a table of ten, and compete with splayed-ankle Tony Parker lay-ups unwinding on the projection screen. In other words, heaps of meat, not much subtlety, and lots of sauce.

By that criterion, Looney's is already a success. The high, loftlike space has a heavy dorm-lounge vibe, from the Cal rope pennants, pot-leaf stickers advertising Hemp Ale, and a beer-stein poster that reads "Academically challenged, but I'm drinking at a gifted level." And the food is unapologetically student-sized. Order the three-rib combo, and what shows up is an almost-frightening pile of charred, meat-flocked bones. Pork spare ribs and baby backs are a double meditation on the interaction of bone and muscle. On the baby backs, which are uniformly about four inches long, the flesh was softer, almost plush, with obvious marbling and a thin layer of fat that didn't quite render out. Spare ribs had long, gracefully curving bones with thin cushions of flesh, firmer and stringier but still with plenty of delicious meat. The third heap — a single beef rib, the equivalent of a prime rib with a thick cap of meat attached — was the scariest. Sawed open with a steak knife, the beef was beautifully medium-rare but pocked with thick globs of unrendered fat. You'd pretty much need to be a starting power forward to process that mix of cholesterol and calories.

What's striking about all the smoked meats here is that they aren't really smoky. Ayrapetov prefers smoking over almond, with a little oak thrown in to punctuate the barbecue with a few strokes of sharp, sweet smoke. But almond logs give off really mild-tasting smoke, and there's so much almond in Looney's mix that the meats end up with a perfume so restrained it seems almost prim. Nothing I tasted had the penetrating, smoldering-campfire quality of joints like Berkeley's T-Rex.

Here, the 'cue is first smeared with a rub Ayrapetov calls Cajun-Creole, a mix of spicy (like cayenne) and herby (like dried oregano). Cooks jab the meats with forks to let everything penetrate, then smoke the various cuts in an Ole Hickory Pits smoker. "Just like the one Mike Mills says to use," Ayrapetov says. You get the feeling he and kitchen manager Wes Keneau dip into Mills' book Peace, Love, and Barbecue a lot.

Take the sauces. Instead of settling on just one, the kitchen produces an anthology of regional styles. There's Girly-Man Sauce, essentially a Carolinas-style moppin' sauce: vinegar-based, thin, and not at all spicy. You know, as though only manly men have the balls to handle a little capsaicin, the chemical compound that makes chiles hot. There's Kansas City-style sauce (both spicy and mild), a slightly grainy purée that tastes like canned tomato and molasses. The Texas sauce is a hybrid, vinegar-spiked, chunky from bits of tomato and onion, and with the warm bite of cumin. It's a bit like some loose, tamarind-laced Indian chutney.

Given the scant smoke in Looney's meats, the sauces are essential. Without sauce, the trio of protein clumps on the Bar-B-Que Combo fall far short of yummy. Shredded chicken had a bland taste and chalky texture, pulled pork felt a little greasy, and finely sliced brisket had a flavor that was mostly beef fat and steam. But plastered with Kansas City sauce and piled in a kaiser roll, the brisket tasted fantastic, even though the soft roll quickly became about as useless and floppy as a couple of damp hotcakes. Likewise, unlike the dry shreds, a BBQ chicken dinner had flavor and a bit of moisture underneath a craggy layer of grill-induced creosote. And the pulled pork tasted great piled into potato skins with more Kansas City sauce, a handful of melted tangy cheddar, and sour cream — the kind of gut-busting appetizer meant to delay the inevitable full-on beer buzz.

You get the idea. Looney's isn't a place to go all barbecue purist, discussing pit techniques as you reminisce about your rib crawl through Memphis. At its best, Andrey Ayrapetov's meats offer moist, richly fatty starting points for meals to sex up with strong-tasting sauces and more. Even when the food disappoints, it still satisfies in the way uncomplicated guy cooking does. And you can just about taste the owners' scrappy passion to make this place succeed.


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