Sitting around waiting for the 48th Annual Wild Game Feed to roll around on the third Friday in September has started me thinking about barbeque. The AWGF serves some good stuff, and although it isn’t Texas barbeque, it’s good enough to make me want to be first in line to get served.
I’ve mentioned many times before that barbeque is where you find it. I’ve also mentioned regional preferences. I’ve been surprised many times by what people call barbeque, but I’ve enjoyed sampling my way through the many style and approaches to cooking meat and veggies. The one thing I just can’t wrap myself around is barbequed tofu, although it does seem to be popular in California. Maybe popular isn’t the right word. I probably should have said it is not considered unusual in California. Then again, it’s California.
The west coast includes three states, Washington, Oregon, and California, but what I’m looking at here is the lower half of the state of California from Paso Robles at the north end to San Diego in the south.
I live in Los Angeles and have spent more than thirty years in the Southern California area. Many things brought me here, and many things keep me here. Although it is not Texas, it is a great place to live, but the barbeque is just not my preference.
Santa Maria, near the central coast and a bit south of Paso Robles, is the place where everyone points when they speak of California barbeque. I find it to taste like juicy, smoky grit. But many people swear it’s the best barbeque in the nation. Okay. I’ll leave it to them. It’s not often I’ll walk away from barbeque, but this is one of those times. Even a tuna fish sandwich sounds better to me than that stuff.
Every town in California has its barbeque place, and many have several of them. I have tried out any number of these eateries, and I’m struck by the sameness of the flavors. Some are labeled as ‘real Southern barbeque,’ ‘real Texas barbeque,’ ‘real Memphis barbeque,’ etc., but they are all about the same. As long as they don’t call themselves ‘Santa Maria barbeque’ I find them enjoyable enough, but not exciting.
I’ve spoken with many of the restaurant owners and realized they are just making the best of the ingredients available. Most started out with good intentions and with experience in the style they desire to emulate, but the local ingredients in one part of the country are not the same as the local ingredients in another part of the country.
And then there are the local laws governing restaurants. Barbeque has to be handled differently in each city and town, and counties have their own set of laws, not to mention the state regulations. Smoke is not allowed to fill the air in some areas, and gas and electric sealed smokers are substituted with only moderate success. In some areas, smoke must be in liquid form, and barbeque must be oven cooked.
Well, I do understand why pollution control is necessary, but something’s lost when something’s gained, and in this case that which is lost is flavor. Some of the places really try hard to produce a good product, and I’m not faulting the effort, nor am I faulting the knowledge and abilities of the people. Given the right ingredients, many of these restaurants could be producing very good stuff.
This makes me think that California needs to rethink barbeque. First things first—Santa Maria barbeque. The only thing wrong here is the wood ash that gets all over everything. Most of it is grilled directly over a bed of coals with chunks of red oak burning on it. The wood pops and sputters spraying the meat with junk. Maybe it’s the characteristic of the red oak, but whatever flavor the smoke may add is negated by the ash and wood bits imbedded in the meat. Just simply smoking in an offset box would make a huge difference. If the meat is to be grilled directly over the fire, just increase the cooking grate by a few extra inches above the fire. It will take a little longer to cook, but it will taste less like eating hot wet sand. (I’m sure going to hear about this one.) Then again, it wouldn’t be Santa Maria barbeque.
There are a few barbeque societies represented out here. I have managed to go to a number of the contests they have put together, and I found some very good barbeque. Some of the top crews own or work at barbeque restaurants, so why isn’t the restaurant’s food as good as the food at the cook-off? Maybe if they put the same effort into the restaurant as they do the competition…, or am I just getting back to the laws governing the restaurants?
Well, I won’t be the one to fix the problem. The best I can do is to make my own, but I must admit, it’s not the same as when I made barbeque in Texas. Maybe it’s the weather. I don’t know. I just miss good barbeque.
With all of this negative, there is still some positive about the barbeque found in California. Seafood is often found on grills instead of beef, chicken, or pork. While it isn’t my approach to barbeque, it can be very good eating. A large fresh fish stuffed with some seasonings and placed on an indirect heat grill along side of some oysters on the half shell and some fresh veggies is both delicious and healthy.
I know this sounds like a broken record, but I really am open to different approaches to barbeque. It just needs to taste good.
Where is the Annual Wild Game Feed when you need it most?