“There’s no good BBQ in San Francisco,” complained an acquaintance of mine as we sat around drinking beer on an unseasonably warm winter day. I was wildly outraged. (Well, I was at least irked.) I knew her statement was categorically false. In fact, there is some great BBQ here in San Francisco, and what’s more, the beloved American cuisine is undergoing a renaissance. I trekked all over the 7x7 – from the Bayview to the Marina – and I’m pleased to report I wasn’t wrong: BBQ is alive and kicking (literally, tears will stream down your face after trying some of the hot sauces at these joints) in our fair city. I invite you to go out there and take advantage of my newfound knowledge. I’ll just be here trying to get the last vestiges of the world’s messiest cuisine off my face.
A large, neon-lighted DRUGS sign shines over the front door – the last remnant of the building’s former inhabitant, Rexall Drugs. It adds to the edge of Baby Blues BBQ, a restaurant where your server is more likely
than not to have two full sleeves of tattoos, ear gauges the size of my fist, and could probably drink and/or eat you under the table. The vibe is comfortable, eclectic, and rowdy – a great spot for a group gathering.
Baby Blues boasts four sauce recipes – the Original, a North Carolina Memphis based vinegar; the Sassy Molassy, a sweet alternative; the Ginger Tabasco; and the mouth-scorching XXX, made with three different chiles, as well as raspberries, pineapple, and mango. Try the Memphis ribs with a generous helping of the Sassy Molassy, and a dash of the XXX — this is a particularly winning combination.
I especially liked their collard greens (tangy and tomato-y, with bits of pork) and their okra – it was delightfully crunchy and came with a balsamic-based sauce. However, I cannot stop thinking about their banana pudding. Seriously, this stuff haunts my dreams. Silky smooth, rich, with chunks of banana throughout, it’s pretty damn heavenly.
Best Tribute to Coca-Cola, Best Vegetarian Options
The newly engaged owners (it’s an adorable story, just ask ’em) of CatHead’s BBQ have a serious obsession with Coca-Cola. Here, you don’t just drink Coke, you eat it in the Coca-Cola-smoked brisket, and you admire related vintage paraphernalia hung lovingly on the bathroom walls. The decorations, plus the long bar and the big brick ovens with heavy steel doors, make the place feel hip, cozy, and nostalgic all at once.
Try their basic BBQ sauce (it gives the perfect amount of tanginess) with the incredible Maker’s Mark mushrooms or cornmeal-crusted tofu, and add generous servings of the mustard sauce to your pulled pork. Don’t forget to sample some of their creamy pimento mac and cheese, and their “big as a cat’s head” biscuit, served with pepper jelly. No wonder Richard and Pamela are getting hitched — their combined cooking efforts are so perfect, it makes sense that the rest of their lives fit together, too.
DON’T: come to Memphis Minnie's if you are a swinophobe. DO: come here if you want to see pigs fly (they’re suspended from the ceiling). The folks at this brightly colored spot in the Lower Haight are serious about old-school BBQ. All of their meat is cooked over white oak logs – no gas or electricity was used in the making of these eats, thank you very much.
The Texas beef brisket has a perfect melt-in-your-mouth consistency, with a peppery rind that gives it an incredible smoky flavor. There are four different sauces: the North Carolina vinegar, the South Carolina mustard, the Texas red, and the Beelzebub. I found the perfect combination by mixing the Texas Red, a mild molasses-based concoction, with Beelzebub, a tangy vinegar sauce with a whole lotta kick. Drizzle that on top of your brisket and pair it with the tart ’n’ tangy slaw, and you’ll be in hog heaven.
Best BBQ Chicken, Best Home Brew
The first thing I noticed when I walked into Southpaw BBQ was the beautiful bar that runs along one wall of the restaurant. Turns out, that bar also has a great backstory – the walnut slab is actually reclaimed wood from the hops-growing celebrity John I. Haas' hops warehouse, designed by Heritage Salvage. The bar, along with the exposed brick walls hung with old-timey photos lit from behind, made the space one of my favorites on my mission.
I was totally blown away by their whiskey-brined chicken. Top that with the mustard-herb vinaigrette, the amazingly cheesy cheese grits, and the tangy Creole mustard potato salad, all washed down with a glass of house-brewed porter, and I think you’ve got a near-perfect meal. Southpaw offers seven sauce options: Memphis, a nutty, sweeter sauce; Alabama white, which has a healthy dose of horseradish; sweet potato habanero, which kind of tasted like sweet potato soup; a mustard herb vinaigrette; sweet chili vinegar; and sangre de Memo hot sauce.
Best BBQ Date Spot, Best Cornbread
Cedar Hill Kitchen + Smokehouse is definitely one of the more upscale establishments I visited on my tour. It’s a Texas-style BBQ joint, built in a cozy little space in the Marina with dark tiled floor and Texas memorabilia on the wall. Out of all of the BBQ spots on my list, this would be the place where I’d most likely take a date.
I started with the cornbread, which was unbelievable – buttery, crumbly, and moist – especially paired with homemade blueberry jam. Try the rib tips with the Texas red, and definitely get some of the tangy and satisfying potato salad. The four sauces offered here are the North Carolina vinegar, the South Carolina mustard, the syrupy Kansas City sweet, and the peppery Texas red.
Best Place to Feel Like a Badass, Best Pulled Pork
Rebel, the bar in which Sneaky’s is stationed, uses much of its space as a tribute to vintage motorcycle décor. Peter Fonda looks out, iconic helmet in hand; James Dean poses, slouched next to his ride, and there’s even a real bike standing proudly in the corner on its own stand. In my mind, it’s a great location for the formerly strictly mobile BBQ catering service.
I couldn’t get enough of their pulled pork; it was lean and succulent and was particularly excellent with the spicy sauce. Try that with their sweet, smoky baked beans and one of Rebel’s excellent cocktails for the perfect meal. Sneaky’s boasts four sauces: their basic BBQ, a red sauce with vinegar and pepper; the spicy, which is the BBQ jacked up with smoked jalapeño and habanero; the South Carolina mustard; and Rooster, a creamy version of the spicy sauce.
Best Bang for Your Buck, Best Ribs
Another BBQ joint born from a catering business, Smokin’ Warehouse has a modest residence in a warehouse (note: there’s no sit-down eating except for two sidewalk benches out front), but this is takeout that you really, really don’t want to miss. Not only is the food amazing, but this little gem also boasts the best prices for your heaping scoops of barbecued delicacies.
They have one sharp and vinegary tomato-based house sauce that’s served with every one of their meats. The brisket was fatty and sumptuous, the pulled pork wonderfully smoked, but the pork ribs stole the show. The meat practically fell off the bone, and was incredible paired with baked beans – laced with pulled pork and bacon scraps. They also make a damn good steak chili.
Want to do your own BBQ tour? Mix and match from each place to get the perfect combo plate: ribs from Smokin’ Warehouse, pulled pork from Sneaky's, whiskey-brined chicken from Southpaw, brisket from Memphis Minnie’s, Maker’s Mark mushrooms from CatHead’s, cornbread from Cedar Hill, and finish up with some banana pudding from Baby Blues. Then you’re all ready for a three-week nap.