In the never-ending hunt for the best barbecue in the East Bay, this month I scoped out three restaurants north, east, and south of Oakland, the bull's-eye for Bay Area 'cue. All three earned readers' nominations for the 2004 Best of the East Bay. I've discovered that reader ballots are a prime source for restaurant tips: When somebody thinks his local joint is better than the already established top dogs, you want to know why.
Each place did something well -- albeit, in the case of Ernie Goods in Pinole, only one thing. Goods moved to Pinole three years ago from Richmond, where he had been barbecuing for more than twenty years. He learned the trade in New Orleans, where his parents owned a few restaurants.
His beef brisket, though, was disappointing -- cut into little chunks, not sliced across the grain, and not slow-roasted long enough to melt the collagen and concentrate the beef juices. The half chicken had sucked up the most smoke -- a mix of hickory, oak, and fruit wood -- which grounded the sugary edge of Goods' sauce, but boy, did the meat take some gnawing. And the ribs looked perfect, edged with a deep ring of hot pink caused by nitrates from the wood ash reacting with the myoglobin in the meat -- until you tried to bite into the chewy meat.
But Goods' beef links -- well, they were great. And customers know it. Goods told me and my friend they sell out all the time. "Some people just turn around and walk out when they find we're out," he said. The skins crisped in the smoker, but kept the fat trapped inside so it only burst out when the links were cut, making room for Goods' sauce to soak back in.
His coffee-colored mop sauce is high contrast, equally sweet and puckery. The funky caramel taste of the molasses becomes more predominant as you move up the heat scale. One piece of advice: Stop at medium.
But barbecue isn't just about the smoke or the sauce, which is also known as the "mop," because that's what pitmasters slather it on with. True 'cuers pay attention to a third element, too: the rub. The dry spices that you rub into the meat before you start it smoking eventually carry its flavor all the way through after the first, sharp hits of the vinegar and sugar in the sauce dissipate.
At Perry's Food for the Soul in San Leandro, that spike of salt, black pepper, and chiles goes a long way. Perry's wasn't the gutsiest barbecue I've ever tasted -- Stephanie Perry focuses on keeping the meat juicy rather than imbuing it with smoke, and she uses sweeter, milder applewood -- but it was probably one of the most finessed.
Perry, who doesn't look grizzled enough to be a pitmaster, got her start in the business many years ago entering chili and barbecue cook-offs with her dad. She graduated to barbecue catering. When a restaurant called Barbecue and Seafood Unlimited folded a year and a half ago, she took over the space, complete with a built-in smoker imported from St. Louis. The smoker and walk-ins take up most of the tiny restaurant, but if you get one of the two tables you're free to sit and eat.
Food for the Soul's menu includes fried fish, but on my visit I stuck to the chicken, ribs, and ball-tip (a finer-grained, leaner cut of the bottom sirloin butt found next to the tri-tip). All three came out tender -- even the chicken breast -- and not charred. What's rare in this part of the country is that Perry's tomato-based sauce wasn't overly sugary, but nicely balanced with a hint of cumin.
Tipped that the side dishes were as good as, if not better than, the barbecue, I was disappointed that we didn't arrive at Perry's in time for greens and yams. She'd sold out. Homemade coleslaw -- again, sweet and tart but not too much of either -- and a scoop of creamy mac 'n' cheese doubled my feeling that I'd missed out on something good.
You're in good company at Kinder's in Pleasant Hill: Look above the counter and you'll spot signed tributes to its sandwiches from Joe Millionaire, Bachelor Andrew Firestone, and a bunch of football players -- the Kinders frequently barbecue for the Raiders and the A's. On a Saturday, the combination deli and meat market approaches maximum population density. The frat-punk staff jostles for a place at the sandwich board, and suburban families do the same on the other side of the counter.
Kinder's eight-year Pleasant Hill location is the second-oldest store in a 25-year-old family operated chain. John Kinder's first store was in Richmond, but now his grandsons run markets in Concord and Pleasant Hill, and oversee franchises in Tempe, Fairfield, Benicia, Chico, and soon Danville and Hercules. They cater, too, barbecuing anything from prime rib to shrimp to order.
The Pleasant Hill store, the only one you can sit and eat at, sells a small selection of nice-looking top-level USDA Choice cuts of beef and pork, including bags of marinating tri-tip and chicken breasts, and seemingly dozens of different brands of barbecue sauce. Stacks of sliced meats and cheeses fill the deli end of the counter. But customer after customer steps up to ask for the ball-tip.
Kinder's signature sandwich is a beautifully buttery, lean cut of beef sliced warm and folded into a soft roll with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. The ball-tip is barbecue at its most minimalist: The beef isn't heavily rubbed, sauced, or smoked, but slow-roasted until velvety. In the sandwich, there's just enough barbecue sauce -- rich and fruity, but not as sugary as ketchup -- spooned on top to moisten the beef but not compete with it for your attention.
Two of the barbecue sandwiches on the menu belong to the Jimmy Buffett and Bud Lite school of backyard grilling. A marinated chicken breast sandwich had been licked by a little flame, but the meat didn't absorb enough smoke to be 'cue. And the anodyne hot-link sandwich tasted as anonymous as a hotel room, with none of the sloppy fun of Goods' fatty, chile-strafed links.
But Kinder's barbecue beef sandwich is as messy as you could ask for. The Kinders shred some of their ball-tip, coat it in a salt-bomb of a spicy tomato-based sauce, and stuff it into a hollowed-out baguette along with shredded cheddar and chopped red onions. It was all kinds of flavorful. Just like it should be.
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