Snooks Old Fashion Barbecue sits on Juney Beauchamp Rd., a country road if there ever was one, in the town of Advance, North Carolina, population: 1138. Here last summer, I was lovingly spoon-fed a sample of intense, vinegary pulled pork by a Paula Dean doppelganger who, after watching my face turn to mush, drawled "Now you know what ya gonna get?" The menu, scribbled on butcher paper and thumbtacked to the wall, featured sides no more exotic than pinto beans and hushpuppies. And the "cocktail program?" A plastic pitcher of sweet tea next to a Coleman cooler full of ice. "Help yo-self to awwwll you'd like."
It was during lunch at Snooks in the sweltering heat that I started mentally indexing my many issues with the burgeoning barbecue scene in San Francisco. Why can't a new spot open with a small, regionally focused menu? Are vegetarian options mandatory? What's with the cocktail programs and sake lists? My frustrations boiled over during an initial visit to barbecue spot du jour Hi-Lo (reviewed this week by Anna Roth.) Three of the first four items on the menu were roasted beets, a warm kale salad and pho. Huh? Sure, the duck wings were delicious but I don't remember any siracha or "Thai-peanut fun dip" from my travels in North Carolina. Completely fed up, I hightailed it out of the city in search of other newish barbecue spots more dedicated to simplicity and authenticity and less concerned with style and health.Daniel Frengs is definitely not concerned with style or health. I first learned of him roughly two years ago when Jon Kauffman, then restaurant critic at SF Weekly, deemed his pop-up, Slow Hand, "some of the best barbecue I've tasted on the West Coast." When Frengs began his sadly short-lived stint serving meats out the back counter of the alcoholics' bar Doctor's Lounge, I was first in line and couldn't have agreed with Kauffman more. The ribs, though prepared earlier in the day and transported, were impossibly tender and his brisket tasted purely of beef and smoke. Upon recently learning that Frengs was finally brick and mortaring his operation, I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed that it's fifteen miles past the Caldecott tunnel.
Yet it's Slow Hand's out-of-the-way location, across a quiet street from a low-rent strip mall, that adds to its down-home bonafides. Freng's gargantuan smoker in the front window greets patrons along with his portable smoker, no slouch itself, parked in front. Inside, a long communal table is flanked by well-worn booths, clearly left over by the old tenant and never upgraded. It's a perfect setting for barbecue. Texture-wise, the meats were what I remembered. Laced with fat and properly barked, Freng's brisket ($16/lb.) practically dissolved at the touch of a fork and the St. Louis style ribs ($12.95), black crusted on the outside and pink on the inside, pulled apart with ease. Though the barbecue was smoky from its turn over white oak, it wasn't as intense of a smoke sensation as I remembered from Freng's time in the city. Perhaps my expectations were too high? Slight disappointment evaporated after a bite of saucy baked beans, rendered manly by a generous smattering of bacon and brisket shrapnel. This feast was definitely worth a trip to Pleasant Hill.
Equally worthy of an excursion is San Jose's Smoking Pig BBQ, opened by former semiconductor sales manager Paul Reddick in 2011. Reddick clearly chose to spend money on his smoker rather than the décor as the upholstery on Smoking Pig's pleather booths feature famous Mexican landmarks, a holdover from the building's days as a taqueria. I ordered a combination platter ($14.95) and was rewarded with moist, powerfully smoked brisket and honking big, meaty ribs, painted with a faintly sweet glaze reminiscent of Chinese barbecue in the Outer Sunset. Both meats were spectacular and my clothing reeked of oak and apple wood for a good few days after my visit. Though the accompanying soupy baked beans seemed an afterthought, a candy sweet, crumbly corn muffin more than adequately filled in as a dessert. Like any good BBQ joint should, Smoking Pig uses frozen corn for its muffins. Stop the eye-rolling fellow San Franciscans.
So there's optimism for us fanatics. While the San Francisco barbecue movement hasn't developed exactly as I had selfishly hoped, it's nice to know that there are now some pretty damned genuine options nearby. After all, Pleasant Hill and San Jose are a hell of a lot closer than Advance, North Carolina.
1941 Oak Park Blvd., Pleasant Hill, 925-942-0149
1144 N. 4th Street, San Jose, 408-380-4704