Smoke Signals the Stomach 

Three East Bay BBQ joints, each with its own strength. If only they could join forces.

There's a rumor that supermarkets pipe the artificial smell of baking bread through the store just to make people hungrier. They must have learned the trick from barbecue joints. Sometimes, I'll be driving down San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley with the windows down and I'll pass Everett & Jones. I have to marshal all my willpower not to veer into the parking lot.

But my favorite thing about ordering barbecue is walking through the door. That primeval campfire smell, and the anticipation that within minutes I'll be burrowing away into a rack of ribs, sauce dripping down my forearms, is intoxication enough.

With barbecue, though, I know that transcendence is somewhere out there. I'm under perennial assignment from our editor, who spent many years in Little Rock, to identify East Bay barbecue covered, not in the sweet tomato-based sauce of Kansas City and the Deep South, but other varieties such as the mustard-based glazes prized in South Carolina or vinegar-and-black-pepper style of the eastern Carolinas. So occasionally, when my body can handle it, I make another sweep in search of that perfect combination of smoke, spice, and meat.

On my latest foray I visited three barbecue places, where I found some damn fine meat and some damn awful meat, a heap of charm, and a mountain of decent potato salad. Each restaurant did some part of the process right -- the smoking, the rubbing, the slow-cooking, or the saucing. But the holy grail? Still elusive.

Trip one took me to Roderick's BBQ and Seafood in Pleasanton, which came the closest to my highly subjective gold standard. The restaurant's spotless, almost anonymous interior reflects its strip mall surroundings, but the Williams family (Roderick and company) warms up the place.

Roderick's young daughter, who jockeyed with her teenage brother to run the restaurant while her mother stood watch behind, took our order. Three guys sharing four plates of barbecue -- enough food for a tailgate party -- made her curious, so she checked in with us every five minutes to make everything was fine and then sat down at the next table over to eat dinner, eavesdropping as surreptitiously as an eight-year-old knows how.

Roderick's serves up big, big food: two sides with each order of meat, and your choice of bread or marvelous thick-crusted, cumin-scented hush puppies. The greens, tender and liberally studded with bacon, disappeared quickly, as did the cheesy mac 'n' cheese and mashed sweet potatoes the texture of Cool Whip. We only had belly space to dab at the rest.

Other than the hot links, which tasted a little too processed, the meat was exquisite. I didn't get overwhelmed by smoke; the stainless-steel smoker, named "Gabrielle," turned the chicken, ribs, and brisket into tender, fatless cuts of meat. It took little work to suck the meat off the Alabama-style ribs, and the strips of brisket barely held together long enough to be sliced. I just wasn't conquered by the molasses-heavy sauce. It was pleasant but verged on the edge of too sweet, and didn't quite let the smoky flavor of the meat come through.

Visit two: Carmen and Family Bar-BQ, which has been around since 1979. It has outposts in Hayward and Fremont, both run by the Kelly family. I visited the Hayward restaurant run by Carmen Kelly.

Smoke fills the bare-bones room, with a dozen tables and a lunch-style Formica counter where the to-go orders wait. The menu is also bare-bones: four types of meat, one side (potato salad), and a single dessert. You can get a stack of Wonder-style wheat bread with your meal, or if you spring for an extra buck you can get a fat, moist cube of cornbread, large-grained, cakey, and sweet.

The thing that makes Carmen's worth visiting is the sauce. It's as dark as jerk sauce, molasses-sweet but not syrupy, and melds with the substantial smokiness perfuming the meat. The medium was spicy enough for me, because the hot was hot. You could see the chunks of chiles in the sauce and feel them trail down your throat for a good five minutes.

I sopped my bread in the sauce to avoid the disappointment of the meat. Maybe you need to hit the place at lunch, because by dinnertime everything was so overcooked that it bordered on inedible. The chicken pulls away in thin, dry slabs. And the ribs -- well, there was a core of tender pork at the center, but the lean upper crust was so blackened and dry that it made jerky look tender. I had to peel off huge chunks and set them aside. That hurt.

The only meat that wasn't overcooked was the "sliced beef," or brisket, which was undercooked -- tender but a bit chewy, since the brisket hadn't been cooked long enough to melt away all the collagen holding the fibers together. The pair of guys who ran the smokers and the older woman who handled the customers were as nice as could be. I left stuffed but dissatisfied.

My last stop, with only a couple of days to recuperate and exercise between visits, was Texas Original Barbecue and Seafood on the west edge of downtown Oakland. The owner, Homer Sheppard, comes from Austin. When he opened the place fifteen months ago, he commissioned two murals to decorate the walls of his tiny storefront. One, predictably, is a map of Texas decorated with Texas-like stuff. The other portrays four of Sheppard's heroes: Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Kennedy and, um, Ronald Reagan.

A friend and I asked the counter guy if the four-item combo was enough for two people. He smirked and said, "Sure." I figured he was giving us a "boy, are you guys cheap" look until he started bringing out the food. The first tray had two baskets of fries, stacks of lidded plastic tubs of sides, and a heaping plate of barbecue. The second tray was just as packed. I brought home enough for two more people, all for less than $20.

What stood out about Original Texas were the layers of spices. An assertive, peppery dry rub that sank into the meat as it cooked added a sharp, aromatic tingle that presaged the sultry, sweet burn of the sauce. The spice rub gave the chicken legs the most flavor of the three restaurants. And Original Texas's beefy, dense hot links were the best of the three. But the ribs and briskets relied heavily on the sauce for their flavor, and I wasn't thrilled with the sauce. Worst of all, the brisket, the pride of Texas barbecue, was even chewier than Carmen's.

So for now, I'm still looking for the perfect barbecue -- e-mail me if you know of a place that would satisfy my editor's criteria. But at present I've got a new all-star daydream. Sheppard rubs the meat. Roderick cooks it. Then Kelly slathers a couple cups of his sauce on top, making sure there's enough left over to stain my shirt with.

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