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Big Nate's Barbeque 

All American

Wednesday, Jul 4 2001
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No man is born with a qualifier in front of his name -- he must achieve it or have the qualifier thrust upon him. I like qualifiers, since they add a bit of color to our daily interactions (Hey look, it's Sticky Steve!), so I started calling a friend Freaky Frank, but he didn't appreciate the new moniker and began referring to me as Girly Greg; unfortunately, that wasn't too cool. I gave the matter some thought and remembered that when we were traveling through Greece last summer, Frank and I often split a fifth of Jack Daniel's before heading out to drink. The choice was obvious: As we took our seats in Big Nate's Barbeque, I suggested that from now on he'd be Whiskey Frank.

As for my qualifier, I took the liberty of choosing my own (see above).

While I'm at it, here's another one: Big Nate should call his restaurant Big Nate's Damn Good Barbeque, because Whiskey Frank and I sampled everything on the menu and found it all mighty tasty. For those not familiar with local basketball lore, the Nate in question is former Golden State Warrior/ NBA Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, a man of significant stature (an inch short of seven feet) who has perfected the American -- and specifically Southern -- art of slow-cooking meat and slathering it with a fiery-sweet glaze. The operation is centered around a pair of smokers large enough to barbecue an NFL running back, and the only warning I'd issue is that vegetarians won't find much (OK, anything) to their liking. As for you meat-eaters, just stand in front of the menu, close your eyes, and point, because Big Nate's is one of those places where it's nearly impossible to go wrong.

Big Nate's delivers and does takeout, but Whiskey Frank and I opted for the in-house experience. It's pretty straightforward: a counter, lots of linoleum, and a few tables set next to a wall plastered with Big Nate-inspired memorabilia (photos of Big Nate with various Warriors, 49ers, and restaurant crew members). The place smelled like smoke, and every few minutes we heard the whack of a meat cleaver. Looking back, I probably should have invited more people -- perhaps Sly Ezra, Lanky Dan, and Shot-of-Fernet Elsbeth -- but I was lucky to get Whiskey Frank, who informed me over the phone that he had a black eye and didn't want to be seen in public. I told him not to worry: By complete happenstance, I also had a black eye, thanks to my friend Elbows Taz, with whom I play basketball. None of the counter guys seemed to notice our shiners. Either Big Nate's is a come-as-you-are kind of establishment or the place draws a fisticuffs-prone clientele. My guess would be the former, because the only people getting an ass-kicking were me and Whiskey Frank -- and that was from sheer quantity.

The dent we put in $82 worth of barbecue (tip not included) was so meager nearly a week passed before I finished off the leftovers. You can choose from five kinds of meat (Memphis pork, beef links, beef brisket, chicken, and ribs) served in half orders, full orders, or team meal dinners such as the "Three Point" combo (three meats) or the "Hall of Fame" combo (four meats served in a rectangular aluminum bucket). We ordered the latter, an entire slab of ribs, a Memphis pork sandwich, all four sides, a pair of corn muffins, both desserts, and two beers. The cashier gave me one of those looks. Had we managed to finish everything, I'm pretty sure someone would have taken our picture and added it to the collection on the wall.

Everything at Big Nate's comes with either potato salad or coleslaw, and if you order a full dinner you get both. The coleslaw was crisp, fresh, and exactly as creamy as it should have been, with a few raisins adding a chewy, sweet quality. The potato salad was cool and hearty, with diced celery and red onion giving it a pleasant kick. Both were damn good, but two other sides were damn better. Big Nate's country beans were smoky and rich, while his mean greens were delectable enough to go back for: a mix of collard, mustard greens, and ham hock exploded with juice, a sharp, slightly bitter, vinegary smack playing off a dash of cayenne pepper.

The corn muffins were awfully nice, although I was a bit disgruntled when they stuck to the paper (we paid $1 for each of them, but got to eat only about 75 cents' worth). After that, we moved into carnivore territory. Ask for the Memphis pork sandwich and you'll get bits of tender, slow-cooked pork shoulder served sloppy Joe-style over a sesame seed-dusted hamburger bun, slathered with Big Nate's barbecue sauce -- in this case the sweet, mild version. Big Nate's hot barbecue sauce starred in our Hall of Fame combo. It wasn't habanero hot, but rather a blend of sweetness and fire just spicy enough to make us sit up straighter. Big Nate's chicken was good and juicy, the Memphis pork just as tender as it was in the sandwich. Slices of beef brisket were succulent and melting, while thin-sliced beef links paired a firmer grade of flesh with a second level of spiciness -- nothing fancy, just simple, homey food that, as they say, sticks to the ribs.

Speaking of ribs: Big Nate's does them, and they're fucking great. We chose the medium barbecue sauce (enough heat to raise an eyebrow), and a whole lot of the stuff came slathered over 11 gorgeous, glistening ribs. Some were smaller and a bit chewy, forcing us to gnaw out every molecule of flavor. Others were so well cooked that the meat slid off the bone as gracefully as a lady's gloves. I liked the latter -- layers of firm, savory flesh giving way to creamy fat, just greasy enough to let us know we weren't eating healthy, and tasty enough that we didn't care. Be sure to grab a stack of napkins with this one or you, too, will be covered in barbecue sauce.

Dessert at Big Nate's won't blow anyone away. If you met the carrot pie in a dark alley, you might mistake it for sweet potato -- a lightly sweet, cinnamon-rich filling paired with a dense, flaky crust. We had some trouble breaching the plastic wrapper of our sweet potato cookie (note to New Orleans Bill, who makes the cookies: Please work on it). But once we got inside, the treat had a soft, caky texture. Like everything else at Big Nate's, it was quite satisfying -- which is to say, damn good.

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Greg Hugunin

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