Although still confined largely to a region of the Upper South stretching from Texas to Kansas City to the Carolinas, barbecue is a quintessentially American cuisine. It's simple and complicated at the same time: The flavors are broad and bold and anything but subtle, but the gradations between regions can boil down to minutiae. Writing about North Carolina barbecue in The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin drew a line of demarcation at Raleigh between the eastern-North Carolina style (“whole hog, chopped, with a vinegar-based sauce that is flavored with pepper”) and the Piedmont style (pork shoulders only, chopped or sliced, with a vinegar-based sauce “turned pinkish by the addition of ketchup or tomato sauce”). It can serve as a political allegory, too: A multiseason plot arc in House of Cards rests on the rise and fall of a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint.
And, notwithstanding the plentiful Asian variations and all the accolades heaped on Ryan Farr's 4505 Meats, San Francisco doesn't really have enough of it. When Chef David Lawrence of 1300 on Fillmore opened up Black Bark BBQ directly across the street from his soul-food-meets-fine-dining effort earlier this year, it seemed like an ideal solution. If nothing else, 1300's Low Country cooking (read: coastal South Carolina and Georgia) would buttress the meat with sides like cornbread and collards.
For the most part, it does. Apart from the salads and a few desserts, I've eaten virtually everything on the menu, and the overall verdict, like barbecue itself, is simple enough: It's good.
Ordering is simple. You can get meat by the half pound ($7-$10) or make a plate with two sides (one meat for $12, two for $17, or three for $20). The best option, though, is to round up three to five friends and get a small platter ($69) with a full slab of ribs and half a pound each of brisket, sausage, chicken, and pulled pork (along with three quarts of substitute-able sides and six pieces of cornbread).
Across several visits, there was little to no variation in the meats — apart from the brisket, which was sometimes pleasantly fatty and other times incredibly fatty. Although the smoke ring was solid time and again, it never seemed to rise above a solid B+. Of all the offerings, the Fred Flintstone-sized ribs are clearly the best: They fall right off the bone — of course! — and the vinegar-based sauce makes them come alive. Years of curing hangovers with carnitas burritos has led me right back into the arms of pulled pork, and although I'm increasingly accustomed to putting hot sauce on everything — and Black Bark sadly puts out none at all — the tomato-based sauce worked wonders at cutting the pork's density. I liked the chicken fine (being chicken), but the sausage, which was chicken links in a pork casing, was spongy and mild.
There are also turkey legs on the menu, but they can't be combined into plates and platters. What isn't on the menu — unless they just happen to have some around — are burnt brisket ends, that most special treat. By all means, get those hyper-flavorful shavings if they're there.
The sides, too, were mixed. I loved the baked beans, but the mac 'n' cheese was thin and watery. I understand that Black Bark can't serve individually baked portions topped with breadcrumbs, but the world has really stepped up its mac 'n' cheese game in the last decade. The collard greens, whose bitter sharpness is instrumental to such a fat-heavy cooking style, were even more watery. Elsewhere, the sweet potato fries were delicious — to my surprise, they went really well with a bracingly sweet Devil's Canyon root beer — and the fact that the equally good sweet potato pecan casserole is listed as a side and not a dessert just makes me happy deep down. I'd love to see more okra on the menu, as even that massive small platter arrived garnished with but a single seed pod, but the pickles are otherwise terrific and the sweet, crumbly corn bread comes with honey butter and a pepper relish that I highly recommend combining. Aside from the requisite lemonade and sweet tea ($4 each) Black Bark has a respectable beer list, too, counting Firestone Walker Pale 31, Almanac Saison Dolores, and Golden Road's “Wolf Among Weeds” among its California-heavy selection. There are six wines, of which I only tried the Diseño Malbec ($9), which tasted like the very crystallization of Argentina. (Again, broad tastes are barbecue's friend.)
The décor is airport-boring, with faint hipster-twee traces, like a heart on the wall that says “Every butt loves a rub.” I'm not saying that you need to use Styrofoam plates and Dixie cups to retain legitimacy, but intentionally looking like every other type of restaurant everywhere else is disappointing. (Black Bark is not especially well configured, either. On top of the tyranny of multiple televisions and the horror of EDM, every single time I tried to compost something in the inexplicably low bins, I got crud all over myself.)
But the thing to remember about barbecue is that it's barbecue, that rare food group to which the overused descriptor “ethereal” will never be applied. When I was 22 and living unhappily in Austin, I used to roll my eyes at family-run Texas restaurants like Threadgill's that referred to mac 'n' cheese as a “vegetable.” These days, I know better. If the Black Barks of the world aim for a cut above that, all that matters is that these ribs are good.