Barbecue was never meant to be convenient. Special-event pits, out-of-the-way shacks, waxed-paper plates and stained shirts — all signs of the glory of Southern barbecue, the experts like to tell us. Eighty percent of all barbecue chronicles open with something like "Twenty miles outside of Aberdeen, at the intersection of State Road 49 and Johnson Lane, you'll find two busted-out pickups, a slump-roofed outhouse, and Jimmy Rae Whiffle, the best brisket smoker in the state." So there's something fitting about the fact that Facebook-enabled San Franciscans like me have spent the past few months hunting down mobile smokers with high aspirations and no fixed location. A half-dozen new barbecue trucks and carts now appear irregularly on street corners, while several established smoker-caterers have moved indoors, inside other businesses, in fact. I located eight new 'cuers over the past two weeks.
Here are five I'd recommend following on Twitter.
Barbecue style: Carolina-style pulled pork. Other meats marinated with Maker's Mark–based rub and smoked over a mix of apple and hickory woods.
Highlights: Six weeks ago, Tennessee-born Richard Park and two compatriots turned their catering outfit into a weekly popup. The smoke lingers light on Cathead's pulled pork and ribs ($16 for a plate), and that delicate touch proves the making of a tender chicken sandwich ($12) topped with a mustard-yellow, heat-seeking slaw. Few BBQ places can match the quality of Cathead's sides, particularly the mac and cheese and the cream-soaked scalloped potatoes flecked with spring garlic and country ham, which almost merit their own food truck.
Southern Sandwich Co.
Barbecue style: Pulled pork smoked over hickory charcoal and brisket smoked over mesquite charcoal; occasional chicken and pork rib specials.
Highlights: After months of test runs on the Peninsula, Brett and Nathan Niebergall, who used to own Frisée in the Castro, began bringing their truck to various Off the Grid events in January. While their chopped brisket can come off as mushy and indistinct, the pale, tender pulled pork has obviously taken in many hours' worth of smoke, tasting as if it were infused with bacon fat and black pepper ($7 for a sandwich, $12 for a two-meat plate). All the pork wants is a drizzle of the brothers' Eastern Carolina chile-vinegar sauce. Bonus: proper sweet tea.
Barbecue style: Kansas City ribs ($14), brisket ($14), pulled pork ($12), and chicken ($10) smoked over hickory. (Sandwiches cost $6-$8.)
Highlights: In January, Mark Furr, Angela Chavez, and Randy Gardner went public with their bright-red trailer. Pitmaster Furr, who grew up in Kansas City and has been barbecuing all his life, rimes the meats in a dense coat of spices that transform, after an all-night smoke, into a thick, black bark. The brisket he's using doesn't have enough intermuscular fat to stay moist. But the fattier ends of his ribs come out pink, succulent, and torrentially flavorful, especially when dipped in Smoke's sweet, allspice-heavy KC-style sauce. Two essential sides: the greens and the cheesy grits.
Barbecue style: Pulled pork, ribs, chicken, and pork belly thickly coated in dry rub and smoked over almond wood. (Single-meat plate $16, double $24, triple $36, quadruple $47.)
Highlights: A month ago, Pat Wachter and Benjamin Thorne's 3-year-old barbecue delivery service moved into the kitchen at Rebel, a new, motorcycle-themed gay bar in Hayes Valley. (Between 5 and 6:30 p.m., beers are two for one.) Wachter and Thorne source their meat for its ethics as much as it quality, which makes their barbecue some of the most expensive in town; make of that what you will. Sneaky's ribs are fine, with the right bit of tug left to the meat, and so is the pulled pork tossed with a flashy tomato-vinegar sauce. Where their barbecue style shines is the strips of kurobuta pork belly, coal-black and smoke-dense; the fat has slow-cooked into custard, and with each bite, it melts into the layers of lean meat, basting them one last time. Sides: wedges of soft, sweet corn bread and glossy collards, quickly sautéed instead of braised
Where to find it: Smoker stand regularly appearing outside Homestead (2301 Folsom at 19th St.) or Dirty Thieves (3050 24th St. at Treat), as well as at several Contra Costa County farmers' markets; www.facebook.com/SlowHandBBQ, Twitter: @slowhandbbq
Barbecue style: Texas-style brisket sandwiches, pork ribs, and pulled pork (all $8) smoked over white oak.
Highlights: Before he went pro last summer, Dan Frengs spent 15 years making pilgrimages to barbecue country, returning to California to replicate the results in his backyard. He began hauling his smoker from Concord to San Francisco in August; now he comes here about six times a month. His Texas-style barbecue is some of the best I've tasted on the West Coast. There's little rub on his meat, so the thin black crust on his brisket is formed by the long, slow concentration of smoke and beef juices — nevertheless, the smoke doesn't overpower the meat, but instead alloys with it. And while most of the other local barbecuers cook their ribs for 12 to 14 hours, Frengs stops around four or five, so the color of the pork is still the pink of blood-tinged juices, and its texture similar to a brined, larded pork chop, perfectly cooked. He offers a tomato-based sauce alongside. After the first bite of the meat, the sauce will languish in its plastic cup, completely forgotten.