Barbecue, BBQ, barbeque. I love some good 'cue, however you spell it. And it doesn't matter whether it's Texas-, North Carolina–, or Memphis-style, sauced with vinegar or tomato.
Apparently I'm not alone in that, because the stutter-start of Baby Blues BBQ, a new joint in Bernal Heights, nearly caused a meltdown among its would-be fans who were posting online updates daily. The usual construction problems created delays, and then the place had a difficult opening with not enough of its ambitious menu available at all times. So the place shut down for a week or so, but it's now open and cooking with gas. Or smoking, actually, in a commercial double-stack smoker that uses hickory and apple wood chips to flavor the barbecue.
But over two meals, we had two entirely different experiences. At my first meal there, an early lunch on a Saturday, everything went smoothly once we'd found the place — the vintage signage outdoors is that of a long-ago Rexall drugstore. We especially liked the juxtaposition, over the door, of the old "DRUGS" sign and a new neon "BBQ" just below, because we're addicted to the latter.
The biggest problem was deciding what to have. The densely printed menu offers just one starter (the "Suicide King," with beef, pork, or shrimp on cornbread with cotija cheese and slaw, $7.95), but 19 different platters (many with fanciful names), seven sandwiches, a dozen a la carte offerings, half a dozen lunch specials served daily from noon to 4 p.m., 14 "fixins" (side dishes), five desserts, and, under "The Feed Bag," three banquets designed to feed 6 to 20 people, at prices running from $110.95 to $281.95. The two of us decided to split the "Blue Devil" platter: any four meats with any three fixins ($31.95). We chose baby back ribs, Memphis ribs, pulled pork, and beef brisket, with mac and cheese, blues on the cob (grilled corn sprinkled with mild cotija cheese), and mashed potatoes (because they were out of the mashed sweet potatoes we wanted).
Everything arrived promptly, and there was almost too much food for the tiny tables. We loved the shreds of tender beef and the pulled pork, which benefited from a few drops of the pepper vinegar in decorative glass bottles on each table. There were also two squirt bottles of hot and mild sauce. We especially enjoyed the two kinds of ribs: the longer, saucier Memphis ribs from the front of the pig, whose meat fell off the bone, and the meaty baby backs from the rear.
The mac and cheese was among the cheesiest we'd ever had, and the good mashed potatoes were worthy of Thanksgiving. The cornbread that came with the platters was sweet and crumbly. Our only quibble: We thought we'd like the corn ($3.50) better without its cheesy topping.
There were leftovers to take home, along with the Marion County (Florida) slow-smoked chicken ($14.95) we took to go, which was superb, moist under its tangy-sweet skin. We were so full that we forgot to try anything from the dessert menu: We'd been eyeing the key lime pie and the peach betty ($5 each).
But at an early dinner on a weeknight, the place felt like a totally different restaurant. We still admired the eclectic decor, including some blue-themed art, light fixtures assembled out of random hardware, and a fairly comfortable banquette opposite the open grill. This is one of the few barbecue places in the city with a setting that invites you to stick around, rather than offering only takeout. (Baby Blues BBQ also delivers in its immediate neighborhood.)
Tonight we were greeted by the information that the kitchen was out of mashed sweet potatoes again, creamed spinach (both of which we intended to try), and potato salad. And, as we found out when we tried to order it, the blackened culotte steak was no longer on the menu. So we substituted the Texas-style beef rib, described as "like a steak on the bone," ($21.95), and ordered the "Gator Bait" (half a catfish and five shrimp, $22.95), both of which came with two sides and cornbread.
And then we waited. And waited. And waited, patiently, until we noticed that several tables that had come in after us were getting their food. And that white delivery bags were going out the door steadily.
Our sweet server, who'd been updating us periodically, eventually told us that she'd be comping our meal because the beef rib was taking a long time and it had been put on the grill late. It was the right thing to do, especially after the food arrived and the small portion of catfish and shrimp was barely lukewarm. We also were told that the kitchen had run out of cornbread and it would be an hour before more emerged from the oven.
The Flintstonian Texas rib was indeed as meaty as a steak, juicy and rare under its charred exterior. The best sides tonight were the firm sautéed okra with stewed tomatoes, and the pork and beans, lots of pulled pork piled atop a blend of well-seasoned, whole pinto and kidney beans, which was almost a meal in itself. We also enjoyed the banana pudding (with a texture like thick whipped cream) and the pecan pie — the kitchen was also out of the key lime pie, peach betty, and chocolate Kahlúa cake on the list.
There's another Baby Blues BBQ in Venice, California, with a very similar menu, which has won all sorts of awards from Zagat and various Best-Ofs in the past four years. We were surprised that after several years of successful operation down south, Baby Blues BBQ didn't pull its act together more quickly. It turns out that S.F. owner and neighborhood-dweller Paul Fisher is the brother of the founder, with access to family recipes, but perhaps with not as much time as a restaurateur under his belt. We'd sing his restaurant's praises unstintingly if our second meal had been as trouble-free and delicious as the first. But for another crack at the luscious ribs, pulled pork, and brisket, we'll return — hoping to pay full freight for a timely meal, with no need to sing the blues.