Best Barbecue in Sonoma County (and Napa)

Best BBQ restaurants in Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Napa

Nineteen hundred miles is a helluva long way to go for takeout ribs, but it’s as close as the West Coast gets to real Southern barbecue in the vast, burnt-end-starved terrain between here and Kansas City. Granted, you can cut the trip by about a hundred miles if you turn south at Denver and follow the scent of mesquite-smoked brisket towards Austin. If anyone tells you different, be suspicious.
Which isn’t to say we don’t have some finger-lickin’, pit-licious barbecue in these parts. But like every other cuisine we’ve tampered with (and I might say improved upon), Californians have created a hybrid barbecue that’s all our own — California-que. Doubters might call it Faux-b-que, with the same sort of eye-roll we Bay Area folk reserve for, say, sourdough bread and Dungeness crab cakes on a menu in Branson, Missouri. I prefer to think of it as regional adaptation.
And the heart of all great barbecue are significant regional differences, along with healthy doses of ego and pride. Try asking for barbecue sauce in some Texas joints and you’ll likely be kicked out. North Carolina has been mapped out according to local preferences for the amounts of tomato or vinegar in their sauce. If you travel from Memphis to St. Louis to Kansas City, the sauce tends to get sweeter by the mile and in the Deep South heat rules — along with a side of anything they can catch and throw into the deep fat fryer.
Here in the North Bay, a new breed of pitmaster is emerging, (usually sans an actual pit) but with a personal fusion of influences and flavors that are making for some seriously good eats. Sauces range from Kansas City-style sweet to chipotle-infused hybrids. A number of restaurants also use tri-tip, an historically West Coast cut of meat that’s often more tender and flavorful than the bbq standby, brisket. Sandwiches are dressed up with artisan potato rolls or fried onions, meats are heritage or heirloom (or not) and the overall vibe ranges from haute folksy to secret-family recipe. It’s a hodgepodge or flavors and tastes that draw from the best of the country but are uniquely our own. So it ain’t Kansas City, but it’s close enough.
After eating through ten top picks in Sonoma and Napa, here are my recommendations…
BarbersQ: Haute-folksy barbecue with a definite Napa vibe. Though originally underwhelmed, I’ve warmed up to the tasty beef brisket sandiwch, an open-faced monster topped with fried onions. The minimalist interior, booming 80s soundtrack and squeezed-in-seating can be a turnoff, but you won’t want to miss the Rancho Gordo beans with ham hocks and chocolate bourbon pie. BarBersQ, 3900-D Bel Aire Plaza, Napa, 707.224.6600. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Buster’s Southern BBQ: You know the spot. It’s been at the crossroads of Hwy 29 and Lincoln Ave. in Calistoga like, I don’t know-forever. Most of us blast on by on our way to fancier Napa affairs, afraid of a little sauce on our shirts and tri-tip stuck in our teeth. It’s so un-Napa. So paper-plate and picnic table un-chic, where ordering’s done at a screen window and the eating’s done on the parking lot porch. Tri-tip can’t be beat and yes, Buster’s still around every day.Buster’s BBQ, 1207 Foothill Boulevard, Calistoga, 707.942.5605.
Bounty Hunter: Pull up a saddle at this downtown Napa winebar and bbq eatery. The scent of their back-door smoker and beer-can chicken sizzling on the grill perfume the block and pay off on the promise of some sweet fusion-que. One of my favorite picks for California-style barbecue, Bounty Hunter serves up great smoky ribs, pulled brisket and pork with their own chipotle, mustard & vinegar and sweet-hot red sauce. Kind of a surprise for a winebar, but in true California style, they’ll guide to to some barbecue-friendly wines like their Broken Spur Dry Creek Zinfandel or Campfire Red. 975 First St., Napa, 226.3976.
Red Rock Back Door Barbecue: A true “joynt”, Red Rock’s a local hangout in a crummy location, no parking, sticky checkered tablecloths and barely enough room to hold a fork (so skip it and use your fingers). Grab a pint of their delish pulled pork to go. 1010 Lincoln Ave, Napa, 252-9250.
Porter Street Barbecue: A local, family-run operation with great sandwiches, one of my very favorite sweet, smoky sauces and fresh-made peach and cherry cobblers that will make you forget your troubles.500 E Cotati Ave., Cotati, (707) 795-9652.
Lombardi’s Barbecue: Long lunch lines and a smoking barbecue out front tell you all you need to know about the homemade sauce, ribs, pulled pork and chicken at this Cotati favorite. 101 E Cotati Ave., Cotati, (707) 795-3354
Unusual suspects
Aoili Deli: This tiny Forestville deli run by husband and wife chefs Autumn and Nicholas Opitz does a great pulled pork sandwich with award-winning housemade sauce. Grab a crabcake or duck confit while you’re there. 6536 Front St, Forestville, CA 95436
BiteClub’s ‘Q Winners 2009

Best Overall California’Q: Bounty Hunter
Best Sauce: Porter Street BBQ
Best Pulled Pork: Red Rock Back Door BBQ, BarbersQ
Best Slaw: Bounty Hunter
Best Tri-Tip: Buster’s
Best Pulled Chicken: Lomabardi’s


25 thoughts on “Best Barbecue in Sonoma County (and Napa)

  1. My partner and i still can not quite assume that I could be one of those reading through the important recommendations found on this blog. My family and I are sincerely thankful for your generosity and for presenting me potential to pursue the chosen career path. Appreciate your sharing the important information I acquired from your web-site.

  2. Marsha, you asked if anyone has ever eaten right off the “q”… Smokehouse BBQ in Sebastopol smokes certain entrees for 8 or more house using only wood, no propane. It is making me hungry just thinking about it!

  3. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbour were preparing to do many research about that. We got a good book on that matter from our neighborhood library and also most books exactly where not as influensive as your information. I am really glad to see such information that I was searching for a long time.This created very glad Smile

  4. i haven’t had a decent bbq sammich since rasta dwight in cotati closed some years ago. the bess bbq evah!!!

  5. Both Blazing Saddles and Odyssey seem to be gone, we had to drive down to Porter’s and while not most awesome, I enjoyed my Wanda Burger. Huge patty, hand patted, cooked perfect at the medium rare I asked for, two slices cheddar and then tri-tip piled on top. The pound of pulled pork came out juicy and tender. Guess if I want a good grilled dinner, I’ll have to make it myself. Either my own grilled chicken, or the delicious tri-tip I smiled out of Greg when he was working in Raley’s deli 🙂

  6. Too late to go over the County Line for BBQ and Blues. . .
    Bones burned down last Friday. The whole community of Gualala is mourning.
    Interesting, I never saw a mention of it in the PD.

  7. We tried Colibri’s 4/24. My wife had the Turkey Sandwich, which she said was excellent. I was busy with a half order of St Louis ribs. Ribs were very good +. They were tasty. The sauce had a good flavor, but was a bit thick, and should have been served on the side. Slaw was great, decent selection of beer, and the staff was friendly, and prompt.
    In a rib mood this week, so I stopped by Blazing Saddles for takeout lunch 4/29. A little hard to find. I ordered a half of St Louis ribs. They were a bit chewy. Sauce comes on the side and is excellent. My wife had the Fish and Chips. She said it was very, very good. Prices were very reasonable, but the staff seemed a bit disoriented. Just my 2 cents.

  8. I used to love Porter Street. My friend and I would go and eat for a couple hours savoring the flavor of our meal. But there has been a change there. The meat and ribs are grilled and then put in a steamer for hours. If you don’t get there right after they get off the grill, it is very disappointing. I do love their BBQ sauce though.

  9. At one time I had heard that Pack Jack’s planned to reopen .. but that was so long ago I assume plans changed.

  10. too bad Lombardi’s always microwaves their precooked meat for you…anyone ever had anything straight off the q ?

  11. i’d love to see some location captions under those tantalizing photos of yours….help us out here…end the guessing game….

  12. T, yes Pack Jack was the bomb for BBQ!!!! I used to live right down the street from there and would eat there about 2 times a week. Does anyone know if they plan to re-open?

  13. I’m still very disappointed that PackJack’s never rebuilt after the fire – now THAT was some great BBQ.

  14. Yes, I too am surprised at the author’s choice to include Porter & Lombardi’s. These are the BBQ’s you go to, when and only when it’s been far too long between grilled satisfaction’s. Basically, if Chili’s is too far a drive or the Market is closed for a “Hungry Man” meal.
    I will however, try the other’s. Good Q, in N. Bay, worth the pursuit. Acknowledging we are never going to be Kansas City or Memphis.
    Far above Porter’s and Lombardi’s. Are the Short rib’s on menu year round at the Trancas Steakhouse, Napa. Rubbed w/ side of sauce, as it should be. Ask for x-tra, for bread dipping, or as beverage. Baby backs on the Special’s.
    Yes, more than drive worthy. portions are generous, prices better than should be, for this quality. Everything on menu is great. Don’t miss the soup. 999 Trancas St., 707.258.9990.

  15. You missed some great Bar-B-Q at Colibri Grill Cafe here in Santa Rosa! They do both St. Louis style & baby back ribs so tender the meat falls off the bone! Their sauce is killer & you can have it mild, medium, or lip burnin hot. There’s a variety of sides to choose from – coleslaw is a favorite with a dressing served on the side that has the bite of horseradish in it.
    They have a full menu of other great eats; serve breakfast & lunch & have daily specials…if you get a chance to try their seafood jambalaya it is pure bliss in the mouth!
    They are located at 4233 Montgomery Road in a little strip near the junction of Summerfield Rd & Montgomery Drive, just down the street from the Rialto Theater & Howarth Park. They are closed on Tuesday night, much to the dismay of my husband who was craving ribs that night – Darn!

  16. Roni – yes yes, I agree about Porter Street, ick. Please try Blazing Saddles, and Busters… I think you will be delighted! So hungry now!!!

  17. I’m going to happily try out some of the places you’ve listed and find my own faves because nothing’s better than a good BBQ. So far, since moving to the area last summer, I’ve only found Porter St & Lombardi’s. I suspect I’ll have to ignore your actual reviews though, and make my own decisions, because Porter’s sauce? Yech. There is nothing good about their sauce. And maybe we picked the wrong time to go to Lombardi’s, because they microwaved our bbq pork sandwiches. Doesn’t seem right.

  18. I’m surprised that there are so many barbecue places around.
    Thanks for providing the list and giving us the low down.

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