The new Sonoma aroma might just be wood-smoke and brisket.
Throughout Sonoma County, barbecue restaurants are popping up like gophers on a golf course. Turn around and another chef is touting his burnt ends and secret sauce. It’s become something of an obsession in a county where grilling has traditionally meant ahi burgers and tri-tip.
Part of the reason: Live-fire cooking is a hot trend, along with American comfort food and, maybe most of all, it’s the opposite of tweezer-perfect haute cuisine that has ruled Wine Country for years.
“Barbecue comes from a humble place,” said Brad Barmore, co-owner of KINSmoke, which recently opened in Healdsburg. “You can live high on the hog at lots of places around here, but what about the humble cuts? That’s what barbecue is about.”
But are they getting it right?
That’s the question we asked when sampling a handful of newcomers, along with some of the tried-and-true standbys. The results were mixed, because true ’cue is both art and science, and notoriously difficult to do in a restaurant environment with fixed costs, the need for accurate timing and space constraints for large smokers (not to mention expensive equipment to deal with air pollutions from the smoke). Barbecue waits for no man on a warming table, and spending 16-plus hours on a single brisket isn’t the height of efficiency in a restaurant environment.
So, with sauce on our faces and ribs stuck in our teeth, we’ve picked the best of the bunch and one stand-out fave for Sonoma County BBQ.
With a “non-denominational” approach to regional barbecue, Barmore’s new restaurant features everything from St. Louis style pork ribs and Texas links to Alabama white sauce, Carolina mustard sauce and Texas brisket. But what makes his restaurant (co-owned with business partner JC Adams) unique? It’s all good, including the sides, probably the best in the county with lines out the door.
Barmore ate his way through Texas barbecue spots before opening KinSmoke, stopping at Franklin BBQ in Austin, the mecca of barbecue-dom. His wife’s family owned a barbecue restaurant for generations in Oklahoma, which is where he got the recipe for his secret sweet sauce. The potato salad is a Pennsylvania-Dutch recipe from a server at Barmore and Adams’ Windsor bistro, KIN.
“I’ve wanted to do this forever,” said Barmore, sitting at a thick wooden table topped with a roll of brown paper towels and a six-pack container of the restaurant’s five signature sauces. The sauces represent the United States of barbecue, from Alabama’s mayo-based white to South Carolina mustard, North Carolina vinegar, KC sweet and a California-inspired espresso barbecue sauce. Texans, of course, would rather eat their 10-gallon hats than slather sauce on a good piece of beef.
What sealed the deal: When ordering brisket at the walk-up counter, there’s a choice of lean or fatty. Too often local brisket is far too lean, missing the unctuous reason for eating it in the first place. That and the ribs are never boiled (a restaurant trick to cook the meat faster), but smoked for hours and hours and hours.
“Barbecue can’t be based solely on time,” said Barmore. It’s done when it’s done.
A few hints, if you go: One of the best things about KINSmoke is also the worst. Owners aren’t afraid to run out of the daily allotment of barbecue. Rather than over-preparing and leaving the meat to dry out all day, you’ll have to make another choice when brisket runs out . So go early, and be willing to make a compromise.
Grilled items include a coffee-rubbed porterhouse ($30) or coffee-rubbed KIN Burger ($11). Go light on the sides (most are $3-$9), and get a single serving to try as many as possible: mayo-y potato salad, Granny Smith apple horseradish slaw, macaroni salad, baked mac and pale ale hush puppies with cajun remoulade, sauteed sprouts, spiced sweet potato tater tots and stellar sweet cornbread ($1.25 each). They’re all excellent.
Tables are mostly community-style, but (here’s a worst kept secret), you can also eat at the bar. No desserts, but a stellar beer and wine list that runs a full page, from PBR to MacPhail pinot noir and Seghesio zinfandel. 304 Center St., Healdsburg, 473-8440, kinsmoke.com, open daily for lunch and dinner.
Burnt ends are the unicorns of West Coast barbecue. They’re nearly impossible to find, but if you ever do, hold on for dear life (and don’t tell anyone else). They’re a small cut from the point of a smoked brisket and are cooked within an inch of their life to render out the fat and collagen. Tender, crispy, wonderful. Most local spots don’t make enough brisket or use a slightly different cut (or tri-tip), making them so rare. Sauced has burnt ends so tender you don’t need teeth. Not to mention you can also get them in a sandwich (in limited quantities, $14.99) We’re also in love the loaded sweet potato with pulled pork, bacon, sour cream, chives and pretty much the kitchen sink of other goodies ($17.99-$19.99) and hush puppies with peach chutney, honey butter and bacon ($9.99). Plus beer, wine and plenty of whiskey for washing it all down. 151 Petaluma Blvd. South, Petaluma, 410-4400, saucedbbqandsprits.com.
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BBQ Smokehouse: Excellent southern barbecue from a well-studied master. Great roadhouse location, 6811 Laguna Park Way, Sebastopol, 829-3277.
Pack Jack: This old-school barbecue restaurant was resurrected from the ashes several years ago and remains a favorite. 3963 Gravenstein Highway South, Sebastopol, 827-3665.