Diablo hunts down five perfect plates of East Bay BBQ—and unveils the masters’ smoky secrets.
A soulful backbone supports a cosmopolitan culinary education.
Don’t think chicken when you’re contemplating barbecue? Think again. B-Side’s version satisfies deeply. Moist Mary’s organic chicken shows off deep smoky notes and a flavorful dry-rubbed skin brushed (not slathered) with a sweet ’n’ tangy tomato sauce spiked with just a bit of heat.
Sample owner Tanya Holland’s souped-up yet down-home sides of collard greens and corn bread. The collards maintain a farm-fresh crispness while offering a juicy, vinegary, spicy bite. The skillet-cooked corn bread, meanwhile, packs kernels of fresh corn (that you can really taste) with a decadent and robust dollop of brown sugar butter.
Kitchen Secret: BBQ Sauce for Smoked Chicken
Makes about 2 cups.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons chipotle chilies in adobo
14 ounces (1 can) crushed plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon salt
Heat all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for 10 minutes, and set aside to cool.
For the full recipe for Tanya Holland’s BBQ smoked chicken, and to learn how to cook it on your home grill, go to diablomag.com/bbqchicken.
The Celebrity: Tanya Holland
Tanya Holland honed her culinary skills at restaurants and cooking schools from Boston to New York to France.
But her rise to foodie fame was fueled by television, where she found a niche as an expert on modern soul food, appearing on the Food Network as well as on national morning shows such as The Today Show and The Talk. Her role as an expert on Southern comfort food was sealed when she opened her überpopular Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, which fuses down-home recipes with classic preparation and quality, fresh ingredients.
It’s the same approach she took to B-Side BBQ. Holland says she and her husband are always on the lookout for good barbecue, and when she noticed several BBQ joints had closed along San Pablo Avenue last year, she decided to open her own.
“I liked the idea of reviving that tradition while offering something that was good quality—where you can taste the meat, and it’s not overcooked or oversauced.”
The List: Our Picks
Plate: Barbecue chicken with collard greens and corn bread.
Wash it down: Keep it local with a shot of Alameda-based St. George Spirits’ B&E bourbon, one of the dozen or so quality bourbons and ryes carried by B-Side.
Vibe: Between the old-school black-and-white photos, retro soul soundtrack, filament lights, and reclaimed wood, B-Side blends Southern soul with Oakland hipster.
3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, (510) 595-0227, bsidebbq.com.
Mississippi roots and a generous spirit.
Bo’s brisket is classic. Moist cuts served ultratender, with a clean beef flavor and deeply infused subtle smoky perfume that comes from slow cooking in a professional smoker. And we do mean slow.
Owner Bo McSwine (yes, that’s his real name) cooks his brisket for nearly 24 hours, and the meat that comes out is so flavorful that the sauce seems like an afterthought. In fact, you may find yourself polishing off the last juicy bite of meat before you remember that little cup of sauce.
Bo’s simple and satisfying sides can change with the season, but the standard package includes potato salad, half a baked yam, and simply dressed organic mixed greens sourced, McSwine says, “from some hippies I know up in Petaluma.”
Kitchen Secret: Brisket Cap-Side Down
If you Google brisket cap, you’ll uncover a raging barbecue debate about whether to cook this piece of meat fat side up—away from the source of heat—or fat side down. McSwine insists on grilling it fat side down.
“The reason you leave it at the bottom,” McSwine says, “is to catch and hold all of those juices that keep the meat flavorful.” That’s especially true if you’re using direct heat, like a grill, versus the indirect heat of a restaurant-quality smoker—like at Bo’s.
One more tip: Use a simple rub. McSwine recommends a little salt, pepper, and paprika.
The Natural: Bo McSwine
McSwine learned to cook on his family’s farm in Mississippi by “following my mama around the kitchen.” He and his siblings would help cook for church barbecues, and deliver plates to those stuck at home—teaching him the power of giving.
The free-spirited McSwine hitchhiked with his dog across the country in the ’70s. He later attended UC Berkeley as a graduate student in psychology. He worked with autistic children (he still volunteers) and experimented with a vegan diet, before returning to his childhood love of barbecue. McSwine opened his Lafayette restaurant 15 years ago.
That mix of Southern roots with a sprinkle of Berkeley-bred peace and love is evident in the food. “At Bo’s, the food might take a little more time to come out, but that’s because every plate is individually prepared with care. That’s just how we roll.”
The List: Our Picks
Plate: Brisket with yam, potato salad, and greens.
Wash it down: Bo’s has a great selection of Belgian beers and microbrews. Or try a Southern favorite, such as Mississippi Mud or Blackened Voodoo.
Vibe: Taking its cues from the owner, Bo’s is a casual, mellow spot with a pleasant front patio to enjoy the warm Lafayette weather.
3422 Mt Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-7133, bosbarbecue-catering.com.
Sauced BBQ and Spirits
An obsession with pork moves from the South to the suburbs.
Sauced sports a pulled pork sandwich with the most unsophisticated of white buns. BBQ master and co-owner Brenden Scanlan, a native Georgian, wouldn’t have it any other way. “People ask me, ‘Can’t you get a better bun for this?’ And I just say, ‘No, we can’t.’ ” Instead, it’s all about what’s in between: a sweet-crunchy slaw atop long-smoked tender pieces of pulled pork, with a mouth-puckering tang that tastes straight out of the Carolinas.
This popular year-old Livermore joint also serves two spot-on sides to complement that pulled pork. The mac and cheese is made with three cheeses and a béchamel sauce: the Asiago lending a savory note and the béchamel creaminess, and the pepper Jack and extra sharp cheddar adding a seriously flavorful bite.
And if you close your eyes after one bite of the darkly rich, flavorful baked beans, you can just about imagine yourself sitting by the campfire of an Old West cattle call.
Kitchen Secret: Pork Butt in the Baked Beans
A whole lot goes into the baked beans: house-made barbecue sauce, whole grain mustard, molasses, fresh onions, chopped peppers. But Scanlan says the clincher is cooking the beans for four hours in the smoker underneath a dripping pork butt.
“If we were to take that same recipe and just put it in the oven, it wouldn’t be the same.”
The Southerner: Brenden Scanlan
Growing up in barbecue-mad Atlanta, Sauced co-owner Brenden Scanlan traces the origins of his fascination with the smoky science back to his mother-in-law. His wife’s mom was a dealer for the popular grill-smoker the Big Green Egg and cut him a good deal: After that, he was off and running.
“I was smoking ribs, brisket, pretty much anything that could be smoked,” he says. “I was basically obsessed. I’d just keep trying and practicing. If you messed up, it took 14 hours to find out and try again.”
Scanlan spent more than two years honing his skills on the competitive barbecue circuit before teaming up with his cousin, Pleasanton native Barrett Gomes, to open Sauced. “Livermore’s a cool town: It’s got both the wineries and the rodeo, but it also made sense to open here because there’s just less competition than in the South,” he says. “In the South, the sauce comes second to the meat, and that’s what we try to do.”
The List: Our Picks
Plate: Pulled pork sandwich, mac and cheese, baked beans.
Wash it down: It’s not called Sauced BBQ and Spirits for nothing. Go with the sweet and refreshing watermelon moonshine: whiskey, watermelon liqueur, simple syrup, and fresh lemon juice.
Vibe: Neon BBQ sign; reclaimed elements from old Georgia and North Carolina barns; a colorful pig diagram broken into butcher parts; cafeteria-style paper towel napkins, about a million TVs: Sauced is loud, unpretentious, and fun.
2300 First St., Ste. 120, Livermore, (925) 961-1300, saucedbbqandspirits.com.
Slow Hand BBQ
Patience, focus, experimentation—and a cult following.
Bite into the ribs at Slow Hand BBQ, and it’s clear that these are the real deal: tender but not too tender, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, yet bursting with smoky, meaty flavor. It’s the kind of restraint that owner Dan Frengs learned from more than a decade of trial and error.
“I discovered early on to be patient. If you keep lifting the lid to check on the meat, you’ll have to learn to love chewy ribs.”
We couldn’t decide which version we liked best, so we recommend just getting both: The St. Louis ribs are a little fattier while the baby backs are leaner.
An absolute must at Slow Hand is the German potato salad. This unique mayo-less version offers a couple of nice spins: a sweet and tangy edge, courtesy of plenty of brown sugar and cider vinegar, and the always welcome addition of bacon. Yum.
Kitchen Secret: German Potato Salad
5 yellow onions, diced
2 pounds bacon, cooked and chopped (save the fat)
4 cups cider vinegar
2 cups brown sugar
5 pounds potatoes (russet, red, or new), boiled, peeled, and cut
1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped fine
Cook the onion in the bacon fat until translucent. Add the cider vinegar then brown sugar, and cook for 45 minutes at medium-low temperature. Add hot liquid to potato, bacon, and parsley, and mix well. Serve warm.
The Perfectionist: Dan Frengs
Frengs caught the BBQ bug after traveling through Texas and across the country for his previous job.
“The outside crust, the tenderness of the meat, and that deep smoky flavor just blew me away.” So the Pleasant Hill native spent nine years (“much to my wife’s chagrin”) perfecting his technique as a dedicated, some might call it obsessed, backyard BBQer.
In 2010, Frengs decided to give it a go full-time, working East Bay farmers markets and the late-night San Francisco bar scene—“The idea was to go to the city with my smoker and get ’em while they’re hungry”—before opening his own place last year.
Frengs labels himself a bit of a barbecue purist, preferring minimal seasoning while trusting the flavor that comes from long, slow smoking. It’s a single-minded focus that’s won Slow Hand a cultlike following among barbecue enthusiasts.
“I think everyone has some interest in barbecue at some level: Almost everyone I meet loves it,” Frengs says. “It’s one of those things—whether it’s the smell, the taste, whatever—that just seem to resonate with people.”
The List: Our Picks
Plate: St. Louis and baby back ribs, and German potato salad.
Wash it down: Slow Hand has one of the best craft beer lists in the area, so you can match your ’cue with a Belgian triple IPA or Blonde Hefe.
Vibe: Just like with the barbecue, Slow Hand’s small, basic interior keeps it simple. It’s all about the food here.
1941 Oak Park Blvd., Pleasant Hill, (925) 942-0149, slowhandbbq.com.
Back Forty Texas BBQ
Experience and grit inspire greatness.
One of Back Forty’s best deals is the Texas-size combo lunch special, which comes with two meats and sides for less than $16.
Take advantage by getting a double hit of this Pleasant Hill fixture’s two main draws, brisket and pork ribs. Both are examples of what Back Forty does best: flavorful slow-cooked meats accented with award-winning sauces.
Choosing among Back Forty’s dozen or so sides can seem daunting, but for us there is one clear standout: The scalloped potatoes’ savory, cheesy, gooey sauce layered among cooked-just-right potatoes offers the perfect complement to the meaty entrées.
Kitchen Secret: Pork Ribs
Back Forty’s process of cooking its award-winning pork ribs is a long and intricate dance. The ribs are first dry rubbed and allowed to rest for 24 hours. They’re then cooked for six to seven hours in rotisserie-style Southern Pride BBQ pits, using indirect heat and smoke from flavorful oak and sweet apple wood.
Before being placed in the cooker, the ribs are reseasoned and, about a half hour before they’re ready, basted with sauce to intensify the flavor. Each rack of ribs is then hand checked for doneness, before being removed from the pit.
The Competitor: Jeff Erb
The recipe for Back Forty’s popular pork ribs was forged through the fiery oven of competition: For the past 22 years, owner Jeff Erb and his staff have gone toe-to-toe with some of the biggest names in barbecue at Reno’s annual Best of the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off—which they won in 2011 and 2012.
“It makes it so we’re constantly trying to get better,” Erb says. “You want to hit that sweet spot between the temperature in the pit, the rub, the sauce, and the wood. And when you nail it, it’s then, ‘OK, let’s do our ribs this way at the restaurant!’ ”
Even after nearly 35 years in the business, Erb still attends cooking classes, “hoping to pick up something else, learn a little more.”
He’s seen the wave of new barbecue spots spring up around the East Bay but says he’s confident in how Back Forty stacks up. “We’ve been doing it longer than some of these others have been alive … The art of barbecue is a wealth of knowledge, and it requires education and knowledge that’s only gained over time.”
The List: Our Picks
Plate: Pork ribs and brisket with scalloped potatoes.
Wash it down: Southern-style sweet tea pairs well with Back Forty’s original barbecue sauce, which is also on the sweet side.
Vibe: With rocking chairs out front and portraits of Old West gunslingers inside Back Forty goes all in with its charming Texas roadhouse theme.
100 Coggins Dr., Pleasant Hill, (925) 935-1440, backforty.us.