BBQ Killers!

James & James
5130 Third St. (at Shafter), 671-0269. Open Tuesday through Thursday noon to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 2 a.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Parking is usually easy. Muni via the 15 Third and 54 Felton. Ordering area is wheelchair accessible; bathroom isn't.

Brother-in-Laws Bar-B-Que
705 Divisadero (at Grove), 931-7427. Open Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Mondays. Parking available in attached lot. Muni via the 24 Divisadero and 5 Fulton. Takeout only; order counter is wheelchair accessible.

Leon's Bar-B-Q
1911 Fillmore (at Bush), 922-2436. (Also 2800 Sloat, at 46th Avenue.) Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Parking near-impossible. Muni via the 2 Clement, 3 Jackson, 4 Sutter, and 22 Fillmore. Wheelchair accessible.

Big Nate's Barbeque
1665 Folsom (at 12th Street), 861-4242. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m. Parking is usually possible, especially at night. Muni via the 9 San Bruno, 12 Folsom, 42 Downtown Loop. Wheelchair accessible.

Tony Roma's
126 Ellis (at Powell), 296-0902. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The Powell Street BART station and any number of downtown Muni lines are a block away. Wheelchair accessible.

Bull's Texas Cafe
25 Van Ness (at Market), 864-4288. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Parking at four public lots. Muni via all metro, Market, and Van Ness lines. Wheelchair accessible.

Everybody started to yak about El Nino, and the boy must have overheard since, next we knew, it was raining a month ahead of normal. My landlord went galumphing through the yard, pushing his humongous wheeled kettle-grill to shelter under the house's stilted outcropping. No doubt the grill will roll out again a few more times before the monsoons begin, but it was a sure sign of the imminent end of backyard barbecue season. Soon we'll be missing the taste of smoke, so it seemed an apt time to check out the array of local barbecue eateries.

There's a big difference, of course, between backyard 'Q (as I'll call barbecue for the rest of this article, to save space and typing time and to be cute) and the majority of the local professional 'Q's. Most of us head out to the yard to grill (not smoke) our foods: Unless we're devotees of some of the new outdoor-cuisine cookbooks (The Thrill of the Grill, et al.) or are otherwise really serious about 'Q, we typically cook directly over the coals and get it over with quickly, producing America's traditional nitrosamine-rich charred protein.

Most professional 'Q hereabouts isn't fast outdoor grilling but slow smoking -- typically, in a brick smoke-oven fueled with aromatic hardwood. The meats may or may not be spice-rubbed and/or marinated and then basted during cooking with (as Texans call it) a "mopping sauce." Once the cooked protein emerges and is chopped to order -- and not a second earlier -- it's dressed with barbecue sauce (or, in Texan lingo, "sopping sauce"). The most awesome local practitioners of the arcane art of 'Q are Flint's BBQ and Everett & Jones, undisputed rib champions but both strictly East Bay operations. Still, barbecue is like chili: They have giant chili cook-offs in the Southwest because everybody has a different idea of what chili's supposed to taste like. On our side of the bay, we tasted a half-dozen ideas about 'Q, and five winners -- just pick your flavor and go to the place that serves it.

James & James
TJ and I made our first stop in the Saturday night drizzle at James & James, on an OK block of Third Street with a straight-on view of the 'Stick down the end of the street. (A quick way to drive there from the west is Chavez to Evans to Third.) On the way to a game, you can pick up some fine 'Q for your tailgate party; on the way back, you can get dinner. It's a nice-looking, clean, warm place with plenty of comfortable wooden tables. The service we encountered (by phone, and then in person) was not just friendly, but smart.

The aromas of frying catfish and chicken were tempting, but we stuck to our 'Q agenda, getting a giant three-way combo ($17.40) of ribs, chicken, and brisket, and three small side dishes. The ribs ($6.25 half order/$11.45 whole) were crusty outside, smoky, and tender -- in fact, the tenderest of all the ribs we tried on our travels. The chicken ($5/$8.50) was dry, but the brisket ($6.50/$11.95) was nice. The sauce (our favorite of the half-dozen eateries') was vibrant, fairly complex, and lighter than the others, finely balanced between sweet and tart. The "medium" has a nice sneak-up heat, and once it's snuck, you notice it's nearly as piquant as most other S.F. 'Q's "spicy" sauce. The yummy potato salad was mashed-up and creamy, with a Louisiana-style mustard tang, and the coleslaw was crisp, fresh, and decidedly sweet. The kitchen was all out of beans when we were there, so we had some candied yams (tasting about like you'd expect) for our third side. At the last minute, we decided to pick up a slice of sweet potato pie ($1.75). The young woman at the counter declined to charge us for it -- "You just pay me for it when you come back," she said. The pie turned out to be the very model of the genre -- moist, just-right sweet, and ethereally light, with a crust so thin and tender it would do Alice Waters proud. Guess we'll just have to trek back to Bayview to pay for it, and maybe for another seven slices.

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