As a self-proclaimed barbecue enthusiast, competitor, and judge, I am always on the lookout for good bbq in the bay area. Last year I was able to get to Looney's Smokehouse on a few occasions with mixed results. On one visit I actually had the best spareribs I have had anywhere, only to find them mediocre on the next visit. The beer and sides were better than average for most bbq joints, while the brisket...well, lets just say I wasn't convinced it was actually brisket.
Anyway, I heard they employed a new chef from Louisiana, so I figured I had better give them another shot. Last night my wife and I shared the gumbo appetizer and a three-way combo of spareribs, brisket, and pulled pork. We chose greens and mac & cheese for sides.
The gumbo came in a bread bowl of all things, and we had to ask the waitress if we were served the chili by mistake. You might ask why not just taste it and see? Well we did, and the taste was about as far from gumbo as it was from chili. The waitress asked if it had beans in it, and since it didn't, we decided it must have been the gumbo. What it did contain was celery, which took up about half the volume inside the bread-bowl.
Next came a large platter containing the three-way and the two sides, plus a slightly stale roll. The portions were generous, and everything looked pretty tasty. As it turned out, the food was pretty tasty, albeit not what most folks would discern as traditional southern barbecue. The best was the pulled pork with spicy vinegar sauce mixed in. The flavor was actually very good, though the pork shreds were slightly tougher than ideal (compared to competition 'que).
The spareribs also had a nice flavor, and came dry with a slightly spicy rub. Unfortunately they were also on the tough side, and I am not a guy that favors my ribs falling off the bone. Still, when you bite into a rib, the meat within your bite marks should pull cleanly away from the bone. Any residue left on the bone is a sign they likely need more time in the smoker. I did like that they came dry though (ala Memphis style), with the opportunity to add different sauces as desired. The ribs also showed faint grill marks, which led me to believe they were pulled from the smoker early and probably reheated on the grill to order.
And then there was the brisket. On my last visit I swore never to order it again at Looney's, but the news of a new chef made me think I should give it another try -- oops. Although this time I was pretty sure it was actually brisket, it was again cut thinly (with and against the grain) like roast beef and tossed in bbq sauce. The taste was not particularly bad mind you, it just didn't taste like good brisket and lacked any sign of smoke. For those that want to try the real deal, I suggest getting out to Memphis Minnie's in SF. And ask for slices from the point end if you like it fatty.
As for the sides, the greens were tender and flavorful enough, but because it was served directly on the plate instead of in a small ramekin there was no pot-liquor (my favorite part). It also could have used some small chunks of leftover bbq mixed in. The mac & cheese was firm and cheesy (just the way I like it), but a bit bland for those that have had the gourmet stuff found at many bay area eateries.
So all in all I think Looney's is worthy of a visit. Just don't expect traditional southern 'que and make sure to stay away from the gumbo and the brisket. I'll be back, if not just for the good selection of beers on tap and its ideal location to Haas Pavilion.
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