There is no food more fraught, more contentious, in this country than barbecue. Sure, people will debate the relative merits of deep dish or New York pizza, hot dogs with or without ketchup, chili with or without beans, but never with the same ferocity with which people will defend the barbecue style of the place where they grew up.
This regionalism can make it hard for a chef in the West, a region without a defined style, to open a barbecue restaurant without disappointing someone. Last year, chef Ryan Ostler at the now-shuttered Hi-Lo BBQ tried to sidestep the debate entirely by melding several international barbecue traditions on his menu and calling it "California-style." Now, two new, high-profile barbecue joints have followed along those same lines, 4505 Burgers & BBQ and Smokestack, which are expanding the definition of barbecue in the city by choosing not to adhere to one style.
4505 Burgers & BBQ (705 Divisadero, 231-6993, 4505meats.com) took over the space formerly occupied by Da Pitt on Divisadero, and with it inherited one of the city's few remaining hardwood barbecue pits. Though 4505 Meats chef/owner Ryan Farr says he's not using the pit to its full capacity yet — he's waiting on custom doors to allow him to smoke whole hogs and lambs in there — he's still been turning out hundreds of pounds of meat a day from it and his Tennessee-made Southern Pride smokers. Even with the assist, the restaurant runs out of meat on a near-daily basis. Farr's very conscientious about the products he uses, and because of that, supplies are limited. It pays off in flavor.
Though Farr grew up in Kansas City, his barbecue is all over the map. Meat is sold by the pound, or you can order one, two, and three-meat plates that come with two sides and delightfully buttery Parker House rolls ($12/$16/$20). Pork ribs had a pure, sweet flavor and a little bit of carmelized char on the sides, but required some toothwork (the very best pork ribs just fall off the bone). The brisket was tender and juicy, and made even juicier on a sandwich with coleslaw and bread-and-butter pickles ($9.75). The shop sells a near-ideal version of pulled pork, especially when enhanced with a squirt of the house sweet & dark sauce. The chicken, on the other hand, was a disappointment: just smoke-flavored protein.
It's worth going to 4505 just for the sides alone. Generally, coleslaw is a bland, watery disappoint, but this version was anything but, peppered with celery salt and a just-creamy-enough sauce. Beans had the right balance of sweet and smoky. And then there's the Frankenroni, a wonderfully indulgent slab of deep-fried mac-and-cheese studded with 4505 hot dog bits.
Right now, the operation is just a takeout counter with a few stools inside and picnic tables in the parking lot outside. Plenty of people are already enjoying the picnic tables, drinking their way through the selection of local beer on tap and in cans, but Farr has big plans for the space. Pending city approval, the patio will include a converted shipping crate and heat lamps. Farr also hopes to start selling 4505's properly named Best Damn Burger ($8.75) from the shop's takeout window until 1 a.m. on weekends by the end of the month.
A few miles away in the Dogpatch is Smokestack (2505 Third St., 864-7468, magnoliasmokestack.com), a new joint effort of Namu Gaji chef/owner Dennis Lee and Dave McLean from Magnolia Brewing. Lee is known for his "New Korean American" food at Namu Gaji, but here is doing traditional American barbecue styles along with some that could be considered fusion, including rotating specials like sisig and Thai sausage. He doesn't see the two styles as distinct entities as much as points along the national barbecue continuum. "It's not classical American barbecue, but it is American barbecue," he says.
But the problem with the Smokestack food is not really a semantic one; it's a practical one. Most of the meat was cold and dried-out on both visits, suggesting that the restaurant was serving it too long after it had been cooked and sliced. Brisket ($30/pound) came with a nice serving of burnt ends, but it was much too dry and needed a shot of pepper vinegar to liven it up. The sausage ($24/pound) had a satisfying snap but it was also cold and the fat had congealed. Thick-cut pastrami ($27/pound) suffered the same fate, and was left to harden, uneaten, on the plate.
When served warm, though, a few items perked up considerably. A pile of chopped pork ($19/pound), which had been dry and lifeless on a previous visit, was a whole different dish when bathed in its own fat. And though chicken ($8/pound) is usually ignored by barbecue enthusiasts, Smokestack's was glorious, tasting of just enough smoke without losing that essential chicken-y flavor.
Sides varied. Coleslaw ($3/$5) was basically quick-pickled cabbage, refreshing but boring after a few bites. Better was the spicy kale ($4.25/$8) cooked like collard greens, a true California dish, and the carrots with a kicky miso sauce ($5/$9). The baked goods, too, are worth seeking out. Marla Bakery's Parker House rolls are some of the best in the city, and one night brought a hand-held strawberry tart ($6), with a brown-sugar crust and a dollop of thick, sweet cream.
It's all housed in a handsome, room modeled after the building's factory past, with attractively mottled walls and vintage doors. The layout within is awkward though — the bar and kitchen are across the room from each other and require separate transactions — as are the cocktails, which are ponderous, spirit-heavy drinks that are the opposite of what you'd want to drink with salty meat. But beer always works with barbecue, and the new brewery is made in part to showcase Magnolia's always-great selection. Those beers seem to be the biggest draw of the Smokestack, which was full on both visits with what seemed to be neighbors enjoying a pint or two.
For 4505's Ryan Farr, that neighborhood vibe is the endgame of any barbecue spot, including his place on Divisadero. "To me that's what barbecue is. It's not just a restaurant, but it's a place where the community gets together," he says. In the end, the rabid regionalism of barbecue is nothing more than the narcissism of small differences. Fellow meat freaks, we agree on more than we think.