One can learn only so much by reading. Experience is truly the best teacher. As appreciative as I am of my public library, PBS, and Food Network, these wonderful resources only touched the proverbial tip of the iceberg. And Central California turned out to be one tasty iceberg!
Newbies or casual BarBeQuethMinistry! followers might want to read the previous two posts in order to fully understand my most recent culinary adventure. I made a commitment to eat some form of BBQ every day during my vacation and I made good on that promise. My research was extensive. And enlightening.
Monday: We drove about ten miles from our hotel in San Luis Obispo to the quaint beach town of Shell Beach. On our way to Dinosaur Caves Park, we passed Alex Barbeque. Upon seeing a new BBQ joint, our modus operandi is to open the windows to get a whiff of the air. If there’s no hint of smoke, we take that as a good sign of bad BBQ. We couldn’t smell anything, so we kept driving. About a quarter mile down the road was our destination, a bluff top park with a cool playground and beautiful views, but no caves (or dinosaurs, in case you were wondering). But as the kids played, I was overwhelmed by the delicious smell of hardwood smoke. We quickly realized that we were downwind of the BBQ place. The crisp ocean breeze probably pushed the smoke away from us as we drove by, but carried it right to the park. Did you catch that, folks? A wind brought the smoke to us. Wind … as in mighty rushing wind? Anyway, we loaded up the van and headed back.
Alex Barbeque is a sit-down restaurant with a real easy-going feel. The host and waitress were both cheery and helpful. On the central coast, tri tip is king, so Alex was going to get the opportunity to acclimate my taste buds. Upon ordering burgers for the BBQ Kids, we were asked how we wanted the burgers done. I went with well-done for my offspring. I wasn’t given a choice for the tri tip, and that was a bummer. Pictured up top as the kicker, is my tri tip sandwich platter. You can see that it, too, was well-done. It was mighty tasty, with nice smokiness and balanced seasonings, but just a tad dry. Loved the crusty french roll that was toasted and buttery. The steak fries and cole slaw were both very good, but the BBQ sauce was way too sweet. We also ordered a plate of Linguica, an awesome spanish sausage that is seasoned mostly with paprika and garlic and finished over the oak coals. It was served with jalapeno mustard, which was so good, I put it on my tri tip. Overall, Alex BBQ was a very good start to my Central California research.
Tuesday: Just a bit of internet recon made it clear that Firestone Grill in downtown San Luis Obispo was the choice of locals and college students. We stepped into a slightly raucus restaurant that was clearly the happenin’ place to be. They had two grills going out in the open for all to admire (which I did). We ordered a tri tip sandwhich, pork ribs, a couple burgers, beans and two baskets of fries (which were gargantuan, one would’ve been pretty much enough for the six of us). The tri tip sandwhich was just about the best roast beef sandwhich I’ve ever had (right up there with Philippe’s in downtown L.A.). Pretty tender and very moist but not a hint of smokiness. The BBQ sauce was, like Alex BBQ, way too sweet. The roll was buttered and toasted right on the grill (you can see the grill marks in the pic below). The ribs tasted like they were baked in an oven then quickly seared on the grill. They tasted fine (maybe a bit salty), but weren’t smokey and a bit tough. The beans were not good at all. The taste was just weird. The decor was the very worst part. They had four San Francisco Giants jerseys framed and signed (including one of Barry Bonds) hanging on their walls. Yuck! Overall, not a terrible food experience, but definitely not BBQ.
Wednesday: We rushed out of our suite just after 5:00 pm to head down to Santa Maria to attend First Baptist Church. I had read some rave reviews about an off the beaten path BBQ joint in Nipomo (Cool name, eh? Just need to add a “ceno” to the end!). In our haste, we forgot the camera, which is a shame because the Rancho Nipomo Deli & BBQ serves up some great grub! Staying true to the old west/Mexican fusion of authentic Santa Maria BBQ, this little joint’s signature dish may be their tri tip enchiladas. It’s not as good as it sounds. It’s better! The tri tip sandwhich was, of course, served up on a buttery toasted roll and was very smokey, tender and moist. Excellent! The BBQ sauce was–you guessed it–way too sweet. The refried beans that came with the enchilada platter were fine, but the baked beans weren’t very good at all. I stole a bite of BBQ Boy I’s potato salad and it was very good. We also had nachos with carnitas that were moist and flavorful. If you’re ever heading up or down the 101, Rancho Nipomo, just north of Santa Maria, is a must stop!
Thursday: San Luis Obispo is famous for it’s Thursday night Farmer’s Market, which runs 52 weeks of the year. Everything opens up at 6:00 pm, but we decided to get there a little early to scope things out. We parked a couple blocks away at about 5:45 pm and could smell the delicious smoke as we made the quick jaunt toward what turned out to be organized chaos. It was almost like being at the L.A. County Fair on Dollar Day! We pressed through the hoards and our noses led us to F. McLintock’s BBQ stall, which had already amassed a line probably 50 people long. It was still ten minutes ’till opening time, but it was obvious, this was the place to be. Just before opening, the workers sang a hearty rendition of “God Bless America” then got the line moving. It was probably another fifteen minute wait in line, but it was well worth it. The tri tip sandwhich was different, but incredible. The meat was cubed and skewered as a kabob, and grilled over the coals and red oak. It was about as tender as a rib eye and full of flavor. The pork ribs could’ve been more tender, but the flavor made up for it. This time, the BBQ sauce wasn’t too sweet. What a relief! But the beans still fell short. We also got a Linguica sausage, a grilled artichoke, grilled corn on the cob and garlic bread, all of which were so very good!
Friday and Saturday were less than memorable. I had a mediocre tri tip sandwhich at an interesting hot dog place in Tulare (Aero Dogs–see picture below for an explanation). It was mesquite smoked, which is not the California way, but that wasn’t the problem. It was a bit smokey, but kinda bland and the roll wasn’t toasted. I had given up on Central California beans by this point of the trip. Then I had some Linguica sausage at Perko’s, a family sit-down restaurant in Delano. It was part of a breakfast skillet with fried potatoes. Not bad.
Then Sunday afternoon, headed back to SoCal, we lunched at Famous Dave’s in Bakersfield. What more can I say about Famous Dave’s? The best sauce anywhere, great beans, melt in your mouth brisket, and super ribs…. Dave always delivers!
So, the BBQthDirector wouldn’t go so far as to call California’s Central Coast the BBQ Capital of the World, but it certainly has to be part of the conversation. The Mexican influence is strong and it compliments the grilled fare very well. They sure like their sauce sweet up there, and they’ve got to work on their beans, but they know how to use that red oak.
Makes me proud to be a Californian!