At BarBersQ in Napa, all is sleek and soothing: a Zen koan in concrete, wood, and polished steel. None of the earthy ambience usual in a BBQ joint. No lurid lighting. No sauce-splattered plastic menus.
Could this be the real thing? I cut into chef Stephen Barber’s dry-rub baby back ribs. The meat pulls away easily from the bone, having been cooked “low and slow” for three hours over cherrywood. I chew, wipe my chin with a white linen napkin, kick back a Frog’s Leap Zinfandel, then try the tangy collard greens grown in the Napa garden of Barber’s business partner, Gene Tartaglia.
The West has imported a nation’s worth of BBQ traditions ― pork and beef, spicy Texas sauce and Carolina vinegar and Memphis dry rubs ― and added its own flair. Some influences are regional: barbecued oysters in the Northwest, Mexican carne asada in Arizona, the tri-tip grilled over oak that is Santa Maria–style. Some innovations are philosophical: grass-fed lamb, artisanal bread, and local ingredients.
While I think about this thin line between soul and chic, the West’s barbecue interpretation and ’cue tradition, I take another sip of my Zin, my saucy thumbprints smearing the glass, wishing I weren’t too full to bite into the smoked-chicken sandwich with Point Reyes blue-cheese mayo.
I’m all over this. Barbecue, 2009-style.
STARS OF THE NEW 'CUE
1. Napa ― BarBersQ
Stephen Barber’s restaurant has garnered raves in the two years it’s been open. The ’cue ― brisket, ribs, pulled-pork sandwiches ― is exemplary, as are the sides of mac ’n’ cheese, cornbread and collard greens. Less traditional are some of the condiments (like serrano chile-spiced vinegar) and the wide-ranging wine list.
You gotta try: The Memphis-style pulled-pork sandwich, accompanied by, oh, a Frog’s Leap Zin. And even though it’s not strictly BBQ, the fried chicken is terrific, particularly splashed with the aforementioned serrano vinegar.
INFO $$; 3900 Bel Aire Plaza; 707/224-6600. –P.F.
2. Seattle ― Roy’s BBQ
This is BBQ-sandwich heaven. Owner Shane O’Neil, who bought the tiny shop four years ago, makes the most of hickory-smoked meat with finely chosen details: an Asian lilt to Roy’s signature sauces and fab buns crafted by the neighborhood bakery. The joint itself is a narrow stand-up affair, its hot turquoise walls joyfully cluttered with pop-art collectibles.
You gotta try The Georgia Gold sandwich, succulent pulled pork tossed with vibrant golden mustard sauce plus coleslaw on a golden bun, as well as the oyster po’ boy stuffed with smoke-kissed local oysters and roasted peppers.
INFO $; closed Tue; 4903½ Rainier Ave. S.; 206/723-7697. –Sara Dickerman
3. Portland ― Podnah’s Pit Barbecue
Grass-fed lamb ribs? Just one sign that Podnah’s is not your ordinary BBQ joint. Owner (and Texas native) Rodney Muirhead got into the biz a few years ago when he lost his job and started L.O.W. (Laid Off Workers) Barbecue at the Portland Farmers’ Market. Now he’s opened a permanent venue, and Portland diners couldn’t be happier. Every day that Podnah’s is open, Muirhead lights the oak and mesquite fire at 5 a.m. Texas transplants swear it’s all the real deal, right down to the white bread and sliced onions.
You gotta try The brisket plate with a couple of ribs, pinto beans, potato salad, Mexican Coke, and pecan pie “with cold whoop.”
INFO $; open daily through Aug (then closed Mon); 1469 N.E. Prescott St.; 503/281-3700. –Susan Hauser
4. Phoenix ― America’s Taco Shop
Okay, carne asada joints are not news in Mexico. But their sudden blossoming in Phoenix is a big deal. Of all the places offering carne asada ― the marinated and grilled "ranchera" cut of beef (think skirt steak) ― our favorite is this newcomer near downtown. Here, Mexican-born America Corrales Bortin (an elementary-school teacher by day) has perfected the carne asada art, serving up garlicky, orange juice–marinated grilled steak chopped into tender bits and wrapped up in several delectable forms: tacos, burritos, tortas, and quesadillas.
You gotta try The flour tortilla burrito with guacamole and pico de gallo. And sweet corn on the cob, rolled in tangy Mexican cheese and dusted with chile powder.
INFO $; closed Sun; 2041 N. Seventh St.; 602/682-5627. –Gwen Walters
Next: Great stops for classic ’cue