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.

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.

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.

Punky the Kosher Kat (who'd been helping us dispose of all the too-dry chicken we'd been sampling) usually shuns pork, but he loved Bull's pulled pork and, amazingly, went wild for the beans -- maybe it was his down-East Maine Coon ancestry reasserting itself. Paraphrasing Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he glanced up from his gluttony to mime, "Never heard of a cat so tired he couldn't eat some beans.

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