So our obsession with all things local has come to this: Northern California-style barbecue.
When I first heard the term applied to the Mission's new Hi-Lo BBQ, I rolled my eyes. My crew of dinner companions, barbecue fanatics the lot of them, did the same. Even though it seems like every other new restaurant is "Northern Californian" these days — and even though I (and every other critic in town) recently applauded Oakland's new Ramen Shop for inventing "California-style ramen" — barbecue itself seemed too codified, and too divisive, for the Bay Area to claim its own regional variety.
But by branding his food as such, chef Ryan Ostler has shrewdly sidestepped much of the criticism that could be aimed at his authenticity, or lack thereof. (Who cares if the sauce isn't vinegary enough? This is NorCal-style.) It's also a smart move because it allows him to get away with experiments that the regular constraints of barbecue wouldn't allow.
Like the sake-braised pork belly, a curl of protein cooked in the nearly 7,000-pound smoker for six hours to the point where the fat has melted into the meat and you can slice the whole thing with a fork. It was inspired by the pork belly served in ramen, and is braised in a traditional Japanese sauce with mirin, sake, soy sauce, sugar, and aromatics like lemongrass, ginger, green onion, and garlic. The mild pickles on the plate added a colorful element if little else, but I'm still dreaming about that pork.
Same with the duck wings, the restaurant's take on buffalo wings, coated in a whiskey-sriracha sauce. Duck wings are longer than chicken wings, all the more space for the zingy sauce to mingle with the musky meat, and they benefit from the added novelty of being something you can't get across the street or around the corner.
Some frown on chicken at barbecue joints, and the smoked chicken here on its own wouldn't convince them otherwise — it was fine, though the white meat was a tad too dry. But the Moroccan chermoula sauce blanketing the whole thing was sublime. It was deep and complex, heavy on the cumin and preserved lemon, and so addictive I kept eating it long after I was full.
Sides also showed creative twists on classics. Creamy grits with asiago and gouda were topped with mushrooms — grits on their own can be reminiscent of savory baby food, and Ostler wanted to have a textural contrast. The soft, buttery sweet potato rolls studded with jalapeños were one of the best parts of the meal. The menu will change with the seasons, and the roasted brussels sprouts on the menu when I went, coated in a pineapple-chile sauce and topped with fried shallots, made me excited to see what Ostler and his team will do with spring and summer produce.
Purists in my party protested the chi-chi surroundings, grousing that barbecue should be served in as no-frills an environment as possible, but I liked the room. The walls are lined with burnt and shellacked cedar for a visually striking smokehouse vibe, and the high-vaulted ceilings and windows give the room an airy, cathedral-like atmosphere. You order at the counter and find a seat: Communal tables downstairs were loud and convivial, while smaller tables in the upstairs loft left room for intimacy.
It's no surprise that the place was so polished from the beginning, considering that it's owned and managed by Scott Youkilis and David Esler, the duo behind sleek Mission establishments Hog & Rocks and Maverick. Hi-Lo follows the same playbook, down to the cocktail program designed by cocktail consultant Scott Beattie. The drinks complement the bold flavors of the barbecue — a gin collins was infused with tarragon, the Buck Panong blended bourbon with lemongrass and ginger — and for beerheads, there's an interesting local beer list available by the pint or pitcher.
Chef Ostler has a long résumé in fine-dining kitchens around town, which is seen in his elegant plating and clear mastery of his ingredients. He's also from Austin, so he knows his ribs and brisket, and most recently cooked at a restaurant at Google specializing in international barbecue.
Still, when you open a barbecue restaurant, you're ultimately judged on your adherence to tradition no matter how you position yourself. The standards didn't bring anyone at the table to their knees, but we all agreed they were solid. The St. Louis-cut spareribs had a good smoky flavor and tender meat that pulled off the bone. Brisket on one visit was disappointingly dry, but on the second visit it was moister, and the Texas red sauce served with it — hitting the vinegar and ketchup notes — was the tangy counterpoint that the meat needed.
Ultimately, Ostler knows that barbecue is a contentious issue and he won't please everyone — nor does he intend to run the kind of down-and-dirty stand that many of his more die-hard patrons might be expecting. "[Barbecue is] such a polarizing thing," he says. "I come from Texas and have very specific ideas about what barbecue should be. Chris the [general manager] is from Kansas City and also has very specific ideas that are very different from my own. To barbecue is to argue, basically." I'd say Hi-Lo has just elevated the discourse.