The West's Best BBQ

Spicy ribs and tangy brisket: Here's Sunset's barbecue Hall of Flame

Matthew Jaffe

Alas, this particular homegrown technique proved to have more anthropological than practical value. But Kantor emerged from his explorations with a clearer understanding of barbecue and his own place in its cosmography.

"I felt like a wandering minstrel, passing the word," he says. "I'm an unabashed traditionalist, and my overriding concern, in 2004 as I sit here, is that we will lose barbecue in its entirety."

Then he returns to his roots to convey his sense of urgency, declaring, "Barbecue may go the way of the true New York bagel."

The word barbecue is generally believed to come from the Spanish word barbacoa, which describes a pit-cooking technique first observed in the West Indies. Traditionalists believe that the only true 'cue is slow-cooked and smoked over wood; anything else is just not the real deal.

Still, with that simple standard, there is ample room for divergence and invention.

Take the wood. In the Southern tradition of barbecue, hickory is the primary wood and is burned down to coals before the meat ― almost always pork ― is cooked directly over it. In Texas the preference is to cook indirectly, using whole oak or mesquite logs placed to the side of the barbecue to create a smokier flavor in the meat, which is typically beef. These are only the most broadly drawn variations. Some pit masters use pecan or almond wood. Some only want dry wood, while others mix in green wood to slow the cooking process.

And for us, the eating public? Righteous barbecue is whatever you grew up with, be it pulled pork or spareribs, brisket or beef ribs, served dry, in vinegary sauces the shade of a faux Tuscan finish, or in musky, tomato-based tarns as dark as a Oaxacan mole.

Kantor believes that many places use their sauces as a way to cover up their lack of smoking technique. He serves four different sauces but leaves it up to the customer to decide which to use and how much to put on the meat.

"Sauce could be the demise of true barbecue," he says. "Speaking as an old-time sexist, I believe that people who think it's the sauce that makes the barbecue also think that clothes and jewelry make a beautiful woman."

As with any art, barbecue combines accumulated traditions with individual creativity, resulting in something original that nevertheless reflects that which preceded it. Perhaps that's why a great barbecue joint is more akin to a community institution than most other restaurants, its owner no mere restaurateur but the bearer of generations' worth of collective culinary wisdom.

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