One piece of advice for those of you who go to Cedar Hill: Dress down.
Smoke, tinged with spice and meat, bathes diners from the first step through the front door until the second post-meal shower. The aroma, freshened up with the occasional gust of pure wood smoke when pitmaster Jon Rietz freshens up the fire, tends to send barbecue huffers into quasi-ecstatic states and leave those of us who wore dry-clean-only jackets calculating how much extra this meal is going to cost.
In this respect — and a few others, as it turns out — Rietz and Emily Lai's Marina restaurant gets barbecue right, and believe me, I know what a contentious claim that is. Rietz, a Texas native, grew up barbecuing on his family's ranch, cooked around the country, and entered the professional barbecue world when he managed Memphis Minnie's for two and a half years. Six months ago, he opened Cedar Hill with Lai, a longtime friend and veteran of New York restaurants. The two are making a wide variety of barbecued meats, smoked over white oak on a smoker imported from Texas.
San Francisco's recent barbecue boom hasn't really lengthened the short list of Bay Area restaurants that I'd defend to purists from Lockhart, Kansas City, or Asheville. But Cedar Hill's meats come so close to transcending the mediocrity that smothers Bay Area barbecue. Although I couldn't replicate the experience with subsequent visits, on one night, I ate some of the best smoked pork and chicken I've found in California. The experience was like chasing the dragon: You may or may not catch the beast, but you always end up with a mouthful of smoke.
Elaborate smells aside, Cedar Hill, named after the Rietz family's ranch, is a simple place, with bare tables, slate tiles, and a little faux-finish wood grain to spruce up the rest. The walls are covered in Texas scenes and memorabilia, and it almost goes with out saying that one of the taps dispenses Shiner Bock. The napkins are actually paper-towel rolls; the meat-and-two ($16) plates all come with slices of freshly baked white bread. When a San Antonio-born friend tasted the potato salad ($4 ramekin/$6 pint), gilded with mustard and flecked with green onion and red bell pepper, it sent her into a Proustian fugue state that lasted for a couple of minutes. And the cornbread ($4) was no sugar cake: It was a lustrous gold, courtesy of stone-ground yellow corn, and its pleasantly rough crumb was kept moist by more butter than I care to guess at.
Rietz says that he's no purist, and he proves it by stocking each table with four sauces: a cumin-tinged Texas red, South Carolina mustard sauce the color of a schoolbus, molasses-sweetened Kansas City mop sauce, and the chile-infused vinegar preferred in eastern North Carolina. The waiters won't tell you which sauce should go with which meat, so you have to invent your own cross-regional tradition after tasting dots of the sauce on each. And you can find arugula on the menu, for god's sake — a roasted-beet salad ($7) tossed with spiky, biting leaves and pebbles of deep-fried cornbread, all sensibly dressed. There's also a romaine salad tossed with pinto beans, tortilla strips, and both ranch and Kansas City sauce ($8), which isn't particularly good, and roasted brussels sprouts ($4 ramekin / $6 pint), which are, especially when you dab a little mustard sauce onto them.
Considering Rietz is a Texas boy who worked at Memphis Minnie's, I had the highest expectation for the brisket. But it came out differently each of the three times I ate it: On one night, the meat was sliced paper thin, which was a good thing; the dry meat had a barely discernible smoke ring, and collagen still bound the muscle fibers together tautly. On another visit, I found the opposite extreme: The fat chunks of meat barely held together long enough to scoop them up with a fork, and the brisket was more smoke-crust and spice than beef. On a third visit, the strips of pink-ringed, chewy brisket filling the Lockhart sandwich (onions, pickles, nothing else, $9.50) almost hit the perfect meeting point between meat and smoke. Cedar Hill's Memphis-style baby back ribs ($14/half-pound, $25/pound) were also disappointing. Though the ribs were speckled with spice and glazed with one discreet sweep of a sauce-painted brush, I felt like a hyena trying to gnaw the meat off the bone. Two ribs, and I conceded defeat.
But the chicken — well, the chicken was spectacular. After marinating whole birds in sweet-tea brine overnight and coating them with a thick layer of spice rub, Rietz barbecued the chicken so long the skin shrank into a black, papery shell. Yet the meat, so pink from brine and smoke that I almost suspected a beet rub, glistened with juice. And on one night, the pulled pork redeemed every gloopy sandwich doused in ketchup and liquid smoke that San Francisco has ever inflicted on me. A thick crust distinguished some of the marble-sized chunks of pork, while others were so soft they seemed teased of spun sugar, and all tasted of slow-roasted meat and wood and time. I dribbled a little of the spicy vinegar sauce onto one piece, considered its bite, then put the bottle back in its place. If you're going to eat good barbecue, might as well give in to the smoke.