There are a lot of reasons a meal can become locked in our memories, surfacing from time to time as a pleasant, even compelling souvenir. As I've said before, I generally focus on what's on the plate rather than on decor or service. But as I recall meals from the past, the key to unforgettable repasts is a combination of excellent food with an interesting, unfamiliar, or unexpectedly delightful location. Grilled lamb chops atop a hotel with a view of the sea and a string quartet playing in a coastal town in Croatia; truffle risotto, bistecca Fiorentina, and crostata cioccolata in a open-air place overlooking a market square in Sienna; two orders of asparagus, because they were too good not to have a second portion; lamb chops again; and two wild strawberry tarts (see asparagus) in a sidewalk table at a bistro bordering Les Halles. They were gastronomic and sentimental landmarks.
But indelible meals don't require foreign travel or fancy food. I have an equal, if not greater, number of memories from my various hometowns. Among them are the best grilled cheese sandwich ever, eaten at a counter in L.A.'s Farmers' Market; a burger eaten overlooking Central Park in New York; a plate of chilaquiles, devoured while I perched on a bench near the Ferry Building in San Francisco. What unites all of the above is that they were consumed al fresco on temperate days and evenings. But what prompted their retrieval from the past was an unexpectedly delightful meal in an unexpected location: a hidden restaurant on a golf course in Golden Gate Park.
Golf interests me not at all, either as participant or spectator (see Mark Twain, who called it "a good walk, spoiled"). Nor have restaurants attached to golf courses traditionally been renowned for their cuisine: Lady golfers require salads and club sandwiches, and men seem to focus on relaxing beverages (see the Nineteenth Hole). But golf courses are often exquisitely manicured beauty spots, which we were reminded of as we turned off Fulton on 47th Avenue into Golden Gate Park and parked in the Golden Gate Park Golf Course's spacious (free!) lot surrounded by tall trees.
Up a gentle rise beyond an enclosed driving range sits an unassuming-looking building with a shaded patio on two sides that turned out to house both a modest pro shop and an equally modest-looking food counter. Glimpses of a glass-fronted refrigerator and a small prep room offer little hope for a menu beyond cold sandwiches. But your attention should be directed to the gleaming and impressive oven given pride of place, a custom-built Wham Turbo BBQ Pit from Memphis, Tennessee, because issuing forth from this deceptively simple setup is some of the best barbecue I've had in S.F.
Ironwood BBQ's menu stars four kinds of meats: pulled pork, chicken, brisket, and baby back ribs. You can also command an English muffin, a bagel, or a hot dog, but why would you bother when there's stellar 'cue to be had? The menu looks longer, because you can have these items a number of ways. There are sandwiches ($8.50) with pork, chicken, or brisket (or with all three, named, in one of the menu's blessedly few golf-related wordplays, the Par) — add 75 cents for coleslaw atop the meat for a Memphis-style sandwich. Add the meat to the Veggie-Q sandwich (baked cheese with marinated red and yellow bell peppers, greens, and BBQ sauce, $7), for a Not-So-Veggie-Q ($9). Bogie Bowls ($7) offer layers of scalloped potatoes, beans, and your choice of meat over greens, topped with coleslaw. A Salad Plate ($6) offers greens, scalloped potatoes, and marinated peppers: add meat for $3 more.
We chose the House Plate ($13) route: half a pound of pulled pork, chicken, or beef brisket with two sides, chosen from a list of scalloped potatoes, Ironwood baked beans, coleslaw, and green salad. We also tried the baby back ribs (half rack $14, full rack $26). Order at the counter, and you'll get your beverages just as they come — when one of us asked for a glass with ice, we were told there wasn't any ice. Nor were there glasses, apparently. Wander outside, choose one of the tables covered with perky black-and-white-checks on the flower-bordered patio, and your food will be brought to you on sectioned paper plates with disposable cutlery. That's uptown, as far as barbecue aficionado Calvin Trillin is concerned: He looks for barbecue places that slap your meat down on waxed paper.
The chicken and brisket were served in chunks, rather than on the bone or sliced, and the pulled pork in generous shreds. The meats were dabbed with a bit of the house BBQ sauce, more of which appears alongside in a little plastic cup. It's sweetish rather than hot, but with a good depth of flavor (made with Anchor Steam beer, the restaurant boasts). The meats, which rest overnight after being dry-rubbed with the house seasoning and are then slow-cooked in the Turbo over oakwood, were smoky and flavorful enough to be enjoyed on their own, especially the pulled pork, brisket, and the truly superb baby back ribs. The succulent pork ribs were meaty yet tender, still slightly resistant to the tooth but pulling away cleanly and easily from the bone. Really terrific!
The sides were worthy of sharing. The scalloped potatoes were rich and creamy, the very good baked beans were dense with chopped meats (which is why they don't appear on the vegetarian-friendly salad plate), the fresh shredded purple-and-green-cabbage slaw was tart with cider vinegar, and the salad of mixed greens appealingly topped with bright marinated slivered red and yellow peppers.
The gorgeous sunny yet breezy weather (with a cooling glimpse of the Pacific visible through the trees) didn't feel like an occasion for hot soup, but when we asked what the soup of the day was just for the hell of it, our server sweetly brought us tiny paper cups so we could taste the homey butternut squash and roasted vegetables puree she'd just prepared. The only sweet on offer, homemade oatmeal-and-raisin cookies, looked equally appealing, but unnecessary after our pig — and brisket, and chicken — out.
We lingered, picking at our food, as we idly watched the golfers slowly working their way around the idyllic course. Never before had we felt an urge to bash away at a golf ball, but with buckets going for $4 or $10 at the driving range, it seemed an attractive possibility. But we didn't need golf to bring us back to Ironwood BBQ. The combination of its hidden setting and its barbecue were completely unforgettable.