San Francisco is crawling with pop-ups, and there are more than a few just on the short stretch of Divisadero between Haight and Golden Gate. Today we return to that fertile ground to bring you this, the second installment in our occasional series of pop-up reports:
Sneaky's BBQ at Vinyl Coffee & Wine Bar
The Pop-up: Sneaky's BBQ
The Host: Vinyl Coffee & Wine Bar every Wednesday 6-9:30 p.m.
The Cuisine: BBQ, with emphasis on Carolina-style sauces
The Experience: One of the great joys of a pop-up is the incongruity it produces -- the odd coupling of, say, must-try burger with bumpin' club, or Vietnamese street food with bicycle repair -- and Sneaky's at Vinyl pushes that button with style.
A coffee shop by day and wine bar at night, Vinyl feels like a very grown-up place, especially compared to the dozens of other cafes within the few blocks of the Divisadero corridor. Its dark walls are adorned with thoughtfully selected art, the clientele skews older (so, like, 35) and better dressed, and the playlist is more jazz than Jay Reatard.
You order your happy hour glass of Viognier or Pinot Noir and sit down in a dark wood chair, and though you are hungry as hell and the wait is not long, it is easy to get lost in the wine bar feel, imagining yourself about to dive into a dainty plate of crostini or a golden beet salad. The vibe is so absorbing that it comes as quite a shock when the bartender drops off the meal you actually ordered -- a big ass sandwich, piled high with smoked meats and paired with hefty bowls of baked beans and shells 'n cheese and a slice of cornbread.
Which is not to suggest that the surprise is unwelcome -- in fact, it is quite the opposite.
Sneaky's BBQ is damn fine food regardless of setting, and no matter how far afield you go with your wine pairing, it's just about impossible to screw up such outstanding meats.
Your standard BBQ favorites are here, and they are excellent. The brisket is exactly as it should be, so rich and smoky that it needs no sauce, and the pulled pork is masterful, tender and delicious, saucy enough to punch up the flavor but not so much as to obscure its porcine essence.
One of the menu's finest options, though, is a departure from tradition -- the BBQban. As you might have guessed, it's a BBQ version of the Cuban sandwich, with that excellent pulled pork in a sandwich with smoked ham, Swiss cheese, jalapeño relish, and Sneaky's South Carolina mustard sauce, and then pressed Panini-style. The combination works beautifully, the extra smoke from the ham layering with the jalapeño's subtle (but noticeable) kick to give the sandwich a uniquely enjoyable complexity of flavor.
It's true that BBQ is mostly about the meat, but count us among those who believe that no proper meal can reach the 'cuetopian ideal without the sturdy support granted by great sides. It's a shame, then, that Sneaky's side dishes don't always show up at Vinyl -- especially since they are just the right kind of outstanding accompaniments. The beans have a great subtle meatiness under the dominant tomato and spice sweetness, and the shells 'n cheese have all the rich cream flavor to counterbalance the vinegar and heat of the meal's other components.
Because Sneaky's is only at Vinyl on Wednesday evenings, meats are smoked and otherwise largely prepped elsewhere and then finished in the essentially full kitchen at Vinyl. Fortunately, we have never noticed any sort of ill effects from this transportation, probably due at least in part to BBQ's emphasis on long cooking times and big flavors. Occasionally, though, we have noticed some inconsistencies at Sneaky's -- one week the brisket was among the best we've had, another it was merely very good, and on one visit the pulled pork was transcendent, but the following week it was unable to escape its corporeal nature. Though it has been consistently crowded we have yet to witness an unpleasant crush of people or any sort of location-based stress on either the staff or the food, and we have yet to be inconvenienced by the somewhat limited seating.
Considering the amount of angst about the Bay Area BBQ scene, there are actually a surprising number of surprisingly solid places to go, and Sneaky's fits right in with the best of them -- the meats are some of the finest around, the sauces are outstanding, and the sides (when available) are perfect The fact that Sneaky's at Vinyl only features sandwiches and not whole platters of meat (platters of meat are for Sneaky's catering and delivery) doesn't detract from the experience at all. In fact, we suspect that one need only sample Sneaky's big, smoky, delicious sandwiches in Vinyl's cool, dark, grown-up wine bar to understand the joy and the surprise of a great pop-up.
The author rarely tweets, but you can follow him @SemNeb if you're into that sort of thing