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Comparing some Berkeley BBQ

jaiko | Jun 23, 2013 08:36 PM

Not comprehensive by any means, but it was a fun time for our party of four foodies:

BBQ Tour: Everett & Jones, Smoke, and KC BBQ
April, 2013
Early on a Saturday evening we met to do a comparison of three BBQ places which front San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, an easy walk less than a mile long. We wanted to keep our orders at each place as identical as possible so we'd be comparing 'apples to apples.' Here's our summary:

KC Barb-Q
2613 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA

None of the three places was bad, but KC was exactly what we envision a BBQ place should be. This is a funky, old-style, charming (once you actually walk inside) BBQ joynt. There's no pretense at locavore, vegetarian, heart-healthy, humanely-raised, organic-schmanic anything. This is meat, meat, and more meat, with a few sides and pillow-soft white bread, covered in classic tomato-based BBQ sauces, from sweet to spicy (actually a medium, by today's chilehead standards).

It is also a third-generation, family-run restaurant, and for that alone scores a lot of points. As it turns out, it was the unanimous winner as well. Remember – funky and old-style. This is one step away from Greasy Spoon Territory.

Because we were 'touring' three different places in the next couple of hours, we ordered a single combo platter to share. This holds a nice-sized portion of lean brisket, four St. Louis-style pork ribs, and a sliced sausage.

We got the "medium" BBQ sauce, but forgot to order it on the side. A very generous amount was poured over the meat, but all of us liked it regardless. The medium is still quite sweet. The sauce has a brightness to it from vinegar, because it doesn't have the heavy molasses undertone that so many BBQ sauces have, these days.

The brisket was dry. It was tender but too lean, being the flat cut instead of the point. The ribs were very good: tender with good BBQ flavor and a little chew, nice crisped edges, just enough meat on the bone but not too much. The rub used wasn't too salty but was still very tasty.

All of us loved the sausage: wonderful flavor and even better, not super-lean. This meant it wasn't dried out after being on the BBQ, a fault of many places. A touch of smoke flavor was there, but not overwhelming.

The baked beans are a saucy version of Campbell's. Potato salad is good, no surprises in style or ingredients. Overall, every one of us would return here for those ribs and sausages.

Smoke BBQ
2434 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA

Berkeley does BBQ! Of course it's politically correct; why are you even asking?

Look for the car wash, and there's Smoke in a small building on the north end. Most people get take-out, and we wish we had too. Actually, we wish we'd skipped this place entirely, which surprised the heck out of us. We are very aware that Smoke gets an enormous amount of love from Yelp, Chowhound, and various media reviews.

Maybe we stepped into a black hole and emerged into an Alternate Universe Of Smoke. Because this BBQ place (definitely no joynt) won second place only because Everett & Jones was so bad.

We couldn't get any brisket. They had it. No, they didn't. Yes, they did. Wait a minute, maybe they had enough. No, they didn't. Yes….er, no. Definitely not. This was 6p on a Saturday before the crowds hit. Maybe a lot of people had brisket for lunch.

Smoke is well-named. There's little salt, just smoke. Lots of smoke. You gotta love smokiness. Without smoke there's nothing much going on, as we found to our dismay.

We got pork ribs and pulled pork, and were seduced by a couple of unusual items: lamb, and the tea-smoked salmon for which Smoke's owner is famed. Every order comes with Mexican cornbread, plus your choice of an additional side. We got two orders of baked beans, one each of collard greens and zucchini pancakes.

Best was the salmon. It came with a cilantro dip that gave it a nice zinginess. By itself it was…smoked. Not salted, not sugared, not anything…just tea-smoked. This is, btw, a classic Chinese technique most often used for duck, but sometimes for fish.

The ribs were country-style ribs, very meaty and juicy, but it was just plain meat. They were like well-executed roasted pork shoulder, with a sweet smokiness but nothing else. The pulled pork, despite being tender, had a bark that seemed a little too burnt. Again, if any rub was used, we couldn't taste it, nor could we taste any smoke on this pork. The lamb slices were the worst. Tough and fatty, it was like indifferent roast lamb, overcooked and dry with little flavor and no smokiness.

The tomato-based BBQ sauce was ordered hot. It was indeed hotter and much less sweet than KC's, but also harsh with too much white vinegar. It needed a better balance – a coconut vinegar might have worked better.

None of us liked any of the sides. The beans were thick, gluey, and although mercifully not oversweetened, they tasted oddly more like chili than baked beans. The zucchini pancakes were so oversalted they were barely edible. The collard greens were okay, but we've had better – almost any Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant can manage that.

Even sadder, the Mexican cornbread was cold, dry and stale. The classic 'dirty rice' with the salmon was a failure: the rice was mushy and without salt, had absolutely no flavor even from the crumbles. We couldn't tell if they were liver or not; it could have been soy imitation for all we know.

Worse, the service was depressing. There were four people working that night. One was friendly but his only duties were to hand out orders or refill the water container. The other three people acted as if they'd all had a nasty argument before opening. They were sullen and unsmiling, not only with one another but also the customers. The general impression our group received was that the evening might have just begun, but these people could hardly wait to end their shift and get away from this place.

The salmon was good, but not enough on its own to draw us back. Between the poisonous atmosphere and the disappointing food, Smoke left us wanting to return to KC.

Everett & Jones Barbeque
1955 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA

E&J is one of the oldest remaining BBQ places. Started back in 1973, it survived even as Flint's and Doug's faded away. The business has continued to grow to include six locations in Hayward, Oakland and Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their ribs are also offered at Whole Foods' deli section. However, their reputation for quality BBQ has declined with every new opening. With BBQ places opening left and right in the East Bay, this was a good time to compare E&J against its nearest competitors.

This location is a former burger hut. Inside is only the kitchen and order counter; outside are steel picnic tables. Otherwise, it's take-out only. This is not a full restaurant like the E&J in Jack London Square. This particular corner of University and San Pablo remains a well-lit but sketchy neighborhood at night.

E&J had the same type of combo platter that KC did, so we were able to do a more direct comparison. However, it cost more and we got a bit less – not that we needed more, racking up three shared meals! Still, it's something to note. It was firmly in the middle for pricing. The medium-hot BBQ sauce isn't very hot at all at E&J. It's a nice fruity sauce, deservedly popular. You can now buy it at most supermarkets in the Bay Area.

The ribs are definitely not traditional BBQ. They're strangely pink inside, and the juiciness seems to come from brining. With the salt, sugar and smoke, each one tasted, as my spouse exclaimed, "just like ham on a stick!"

The sausage was terrible. Too lean, it had a crumbly texture inside the casing and lacked good flavor or interesting spicing. The brisket was even worse: someone had sliced it with the grain instead of against the grain, ensuring it had rubbery-chewiness even though it was reasonably juicy with a nice little fat cap (this was the desirable point cut).

The sides were awful, the worst of the evening. The potato salad and the baked beans were seasoned with....pickle relish! Sweet pickle relish, no less. I haven't encountered this version of potato salad in a very long time, and hopefully it will be an equally long time before I meet up with it again.

But in baked beans?? That was entirely new, and wholly unwelcome to all of us.

Summary: The staff was very friendly, and the interior is kitschy fun with smart-aleck bumper stickers pasted all over the inside. But eating outside with roaring traffic and the loud salespitch of someone selling pirate DVDs right outside E&J's front door on the first picnic table, was a lot less than charming.

It would take really good food of any kind to overcome those surroundings, and E&J isn't up to the task. Their sauce is so tasty it hides a lot of sins, and they certainly have fans who believe their BBQ is great stuff. I honestly think if they had sliced that brisket properly, it would have been a winner for the evening...but they didn't. C'est la vie!

Of what we tried at E&J, two people liked the "ham on a stick"…er, pork ribs. One liked the fattiness of the brisket even though it was chewy. The sauce had the most promise, but nothing else rated a return visit. That sausage link is a no-go, sauce or no sauce.

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