BBQ Killers!

But Nate's has one great dish, and it's a form of 'Q that's traditionally served with just such a sweet, mildish sauce -- the luscious Memphis pork ($9.95 all-meat, $5.49 for the classic Memphis-style sandwich on a burger bun). This tasty, easygoing 'Q-form is so popular in its hometown, there are several big, clean sit-down restaurants totally filled at lunchtime with white- and blue-collar workers, black and white, all scarfing down these sandwiches. Given the apparent lack of Tennesseans among our local 'Q-pros, however, Tennessee-style pork is a rarity around here. (Bull's offers a similar dish, a sandwich of "pulled pork" native to North Carolina.) Nate's pork is smoky and moistly succulent after long, gentle cooking in the brick smoke-oven. The crisp, fresh coleslaw is another champion chow here, naturally sweetened with raisins and carrot shreds instead of sugar. The potato salad, though, is a bland mash. Other side dishes (greens and beans) are a la carte only ($3-5.50).

Service at the counter is friendly but most patrons order "to go," since the only seats are at three small tables in a bare-bones room under harsh fluorescent lights. You can get wine or beer (including Corona) but maybe you'd better take that home, too, to avoid requiring the restroom. At least when we were there, the latter looked like a job for Hercules -- but if Greek heroes don't do floors anymore, somebody oughta call Mr. Clean.

Tony Roma's
Up to now, we realized, we'd tried only African-American 'Q, totally ignoring Caucasian "rib joints." So we dialed up Waiters on Wheels and had them send over a feast from "Tony Roma's -- Famous for Ribs," as it calls itself. We had a rib-chicken combo ($12.59) and, in the absence of brisket, a "barbecue beef sandwich" ($6.59). The chicken was smoky and fairly moist, but the sauce was a naive sweet-sour (tomato puree, vinegar, two types of corn syrup, and wafts of spices and chemicals, per the labels on the little plastic extra packages). The ribs were very dry and yet sort of greasy. TJ, a Redondo Beach boy, was sure they'd been given the standard SoCal patio 'Q technique of parboiling before grilling. "There's nothing wrong with these ribs," he insisted. "These are good old Southern California white people ribs -- so just go with the flow. This is like Daddy going out on the patio and charring some meat. The only difference is, Tony Roma's doesn't burn them." "That's only because Daddy's dumb enough to slather barbecue sauce on the ribs while they're on the grill, so the sugar burns. These have a dry spice rub instead," I answered. "This is what a lot of people expect from a rib joint," said TJ. "Well, the tourists can go there for a taste of their minimall back home," I riposted. "It won't do for San Franciscans."

But the coleslaw turned TJ off: "Yeck, it died a horrible death," he said. "It's limp. It tastes like it's been sitting in the dairy case all week." And the beans tasted like canned "ranch" pintos, runny and cumin-heavy. All disagreements were fully resolved by the barbecued beef sandwich. It wasn't 'Q, it was bone-dry reheated roast beef on a burger bun, drenched in the icky sauce, accompanied by undercooked fries made from tasteless potatoes. "For two bucks I can get a better sandwich from Arby's," was TJ's verdict. "The beef tastes like boot leather," I said. "Did we order from Tony Roma or Tony Lama?" Punky the Feline Food Critic tasted a piece and spat it out.

Bull's Texas Cafe
We still weren't ready to cede to the cliche that "white boys can't 'Q." Surely, TJ mused, there has to be some local Caucasian barbecue that has some integrity. This immediately brought to mind Texas-style 'Q, which can be as good as any other 'Q (almost) -- and hence I thought of Bull's, the big Old-West-saloon-looking place on Van Ness. We got a delivery of the barbecue sampler plate ($7.50/$14.95), with brisket, chicken, links, and ribs and spicy sauce (with two sides included in the large version) and a pulled pork sandwich ($6.95), which came with coleslaw and potato salad.

Although Texas is a national headquarters for slow smoke-cooking, none of Bull's 'Q was very smoky. The brisket was reasonably tender, the chicken dry, and the rib large, juicy, crusty, and very fatty. The link had a franklike casing, but a coarse-ground interior, very spicy and perky with a vinegar tang. The giant heap of "pulled pork" shreds on a burger bun was tender, fatty, and needed more sauce. (This is the disadvantage of home delivery -- where's the waitress when you need more sauce?) The dark-colored sopping sauce was quite different from all the others, with a Tex-Mex cumin flavor hitting first, then molasses and liquid smoke. The "spicy" (there's no "medium") was pretty mild but overall the flavors were well-balanced.

Taking a bite of the coleslaw, TJ exulted, "This is the real backyard barbecue version." It had crisp, fresh red and white cabbage, sliced more coarsely than at the other 'Q's, in a clean-flavored sauce, neither too sweet nor sour. The potato salad consisted of what Southwesterners call "Mojo potatoes" -- unpeeled red potatoes boiled and then cut in eighths. Since the same potatoes can go either into salad or home fries, they were undercooked, and mixed with a simple mayo dressing of a faint pink hue, perhaps from a dash of ketchup. The beans ($2.50) were very thick, sweet from a molasses base like Boston baked beans. The biscuit ($1), with a dry-milk flavor, was a Bisquick-type drop biscuit -- don't drop it on your foot, you'll break your toe. We also got a side of mashed potatoes ($2.50), which were homey and comforting, with lots of black pepper and a very flavorful chicken gravy.

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