BBQ Killers!

Brother-in-Laws Bar-B-Que
When we arrived at 6 p.m. on a rainy Sunday, in the parking lot three middle-aged black construction workers were having a tailgate 'Q party in the drizzle. When we went inside, the line in this small but much-applauded storefront was U-shaped, the lone server was harried, and the kitchen was already out of short-end ribs ($7.75/$13.50) and all desserts. Apparently, rain makes people hungry for In-Laws' 'Q. So does lack of rain -- there's always a line, and by the time you even begin to think about dinner, they're out of those tender short ends -- at least, every time I've been there. There are a couple of tables, covered with community newspapers to browse while you wait, but nobody sits down to eat and get stepped on.

The regular ribs ($5.50/$10.25) are OK, thickly crusted and tender but not all that smoky. This time, we skipped them in favor of a three-way combo of brisket, chicken, and links ($16, plus $2.50 extra for brisket or short ends), and we liked all three better than the ribs. The meat portions in the combo were huge, and the brisket ($7.95/$14.50) was the superstar -- fall-apart tender and smoky all through. It's probably run through one of those thin-spiked butcher's rollers before it's cooked, tenderizing it and making lots of holes for the smoke to penetrate. The chicken was also outstanding, plenty smoky but so moist it fell from the bones. The house-made all-beef sausage was in the Oakland 'Q mode -- coarse-ground, tender, and very savory rather than spicy. The sauce was heavy, tomatoey, and rather sweet, with distinct notes of vinegar and liquid smoke, and a host of spices (apparently including turmeric, which turned our hands yellow). The "medium" proved to be my idea of "mild" but that depends on individual palates. Small portions of side dishes are only 75 cents, so we tried them all. Most of our fellows in line seemed to be ordering the spaghetti, and they were onto something. It was slightly and rightly (in the context) overcooked, with a rich, garlicky, oregano-laden meat sauce. BBQ baked beans were thick, sweet, and distinctly smoky, while the coleslaw was crisp and sweet-tart. The coarsely mashed potato salad was heavily sweetened by a big dose of sweet pickle juice and a load of pickle chunks.

Leon's Bar-B-Q
Leon's has become San Francisco's forgotten 'Q -- just a diner to eat at if you're cold and hungry when you escape from the S.F. Zoo. I ate at the Sloat branch about a zillion years ago after spending an afternoon tossing peanuts and toddlers to the baby tyrannosaur, and I remember finding the sauce too sweet and the links too spicy. A revisit was called for, and proved a pleasant surprise. This time I chose the Fillmore Street branch in hopes it would be closer to a real community of 'Q-lovers. Well, it proved to be on Yuppie Row after all, but the food was better than I remembered.

It's a comfortable room with about a dozen little tables. We got takeout anyway, partly for consistency, partly because street-parking was an impossible dream. The real dream was the bargain-priced $4.95 "taster's special" of ribs, chicken, hot links, and sides of jambalaya and corn muffins. (We found it plenty for two to eat.) The sampler ribs were smoky and crusty but small and somewhat dry. Leon's links are a scorchingly spicy version of the "Louisiana hot links" (resembling dark red hot dogs, their fillings similarly emulsified) that you find at ballparks and many supermarkets. The chicken drummettes were just grand. They were very tender, and although they didn't taste like or feel like they'd been smoked, they'd been marinated in something indefinably delicious, and their complex flavor proved ideally suited to a splash of the barbecue sauce. The sauce comes only in "mild" and "spicy" (no "medium") and mingles the dark sweetness of molasses with a jolt of vinegar; tomatoes are a minimal presence. The "spicy" is no more than medium-spicy, but the extra pepper really perks up the flavor and counterbalances the sweetness. The accompanying side of jambalaya (more of a Creole rice, since there was nothing much in it except rice, seasonings, and a touch of tomato sauce) was more bland than grand, but not bad. The corn muffins, though, were exemplary -- moist, light, and very fresh. We also picked up an extra side of BBQ beans. These were soupy and soulful, slightly sweet, with plenty of rich flavor. The sweet potato pie was the standard heavy version with pumpkin-pie spicing.

Big Nate's Barbeque
We actually started this quest for great S.F. 'Q a few months ago, while researching "ribs" for the "Best Of" issue of the paper. One of our stops was Big Nate's. Although retired NBA Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond owns this aromatic storefront, most of the 'Q here falls a little short of being the nosh of champions. We found the ribs and brisket ($11.95 for a two-way combo, with potato salad and coleslaw) smoky enough but slightly tough, and though the chicken ($4.95/$8.95) was tender, its skin was rubbery. The sauces are sweet, ketchupy, and simple; there's no "medium," but the "spicy" is only medium-spicy.

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