Anybody smell smoke? That’s the scent of a barbecue boom.
From a family-run operation out of a gas station in Vista to an upscale shopping center in La Jolla, a strip mall in Lemon Grove and a hipster hay bale hangout in North Park, San Diego is going whole hog for barbecue.
Longtime local favorites like Cali Comfort BBQ and Phil’s BBQ are celebrating milestone anniversaries this year — 10 years and 20 years, respectively — while popular smokehouse spots are expanding and new ’cue restaurants are queuing up to open around the county (see below).
Our pit plethora serves up Memphis, Texas, Kansas City, North Carolina, Lexington, St. Louis and Santa Maria style barbecue — if you’re a novice, this Eater story explains some of the rigid regional differences — which goes to show that San Diegans might be fanatical about their ribs, brisket and pulled pork, but not dogmatic.
Except when it comes to lists of the best barbecue joints in San Diego, which will inevitably anger devotees of a particular place. (That’s when the answer to “anybody smell smoke?” turns into “Oh, it’s coming out of slighted readers’ ears.”)
Yet, in the spirit of summer, that quintessential low and slow relaxation season, we’re fearlessly offering our recommendations on where ’cue fans need to make a pit stop. Many places sell meat by the pound and have catering menus, allowing you to have a smoke-free, no-muss backyard barbecue. Just keep in mind that no matter where you go, there will probably be a line. That’s the truest sign that San Diego is hog wild for barbecue.
Brazen BBQ Smokehouse & Bar
In a neighborhood known for carb consumption of the cocktail kind, Hillcrest’s Brazen BBQ stands out as much for its award-winning, hardwood-smoked meats as its sinful starters and sides. You could make a meal out of the moist cornbread, over-sized Texas toast, cheesy tater tots, loaded or crusty mac ’n’ cheese and BBQ pizza. Washed down, of course, with a specialty cocktail from the Saloon. 441 Washington St., Hillcrest. (619) 816-1990. brazenbbq.com (MICHELE PARENTE)
Bubba’s Smokehouse BBQ
With its extensive menu — pork and beef ribs, brisket, tri-tip, pulled pork, chicken and more — Bubba’s a bona fide crowd pleaser. You don’t even have to stick with one style of ’cue; choose from Bubba’s Secret Dry Rub (no sauce); zest North Carolina vinegar-based or traditional southern sweet BBQ sauce. A second location in Eastlake opened recently. 888 Prospect St., La Jolla. (858) 551-4227. 2110 Birch Road, Chula Vista. (619) 947-6202. bubbassmokehousebbq.com (PARENTE)
Bull’s Smokin’ BBQ
Bull’s Smokin’ BBQ — originally launched in 2009 as Frankie the Bull’s BBQ — smokes all its meat Texas-style on the premises, everything from pulled pork and beef brisket to ribs and chicken. Everything is served as a la carte items, which you can complement with sides like fries, beans, coleslaw or mac ’n’ cheese. The pulled pork fries are a house specialty and a customer favorite. During a recent visit, the smoked pork ribs were cooked and smoked just right, served clean with sauces available in squeeze bottles at each table. Outside, there’s ample seating to enjoy your protein al fresco. And even better, Fido’s welcome. 1127 Morena Blvd., San Diego. (619) 276-2855. bullssmokinbbq.com (MICHAEL JAMES ROCHA)
Cali Comfort BBQ
Cali Comfort serves up big-time barbecue with a small-town feel. Fans look forward to the annual Spring Valley Tailgate & BBQ charity festival, thrown by owners Shawn and Rositsa Walchef, which brings together amateur and pro pit masters. But locals know the other 364 days a year, it’s all about the melt-in-your-mouth, slow-smoked tri-tip. 8910 Troy St., Spring Valley. (619) 337-0670. calicomfortbbq.com (PARENTE)
You can probably smell chef Tim Eylens’ Texas-style, oak-smoked meats on the lower portions of the Belmont Park roller coaster. You can definitely hear the screams of sports fans catching games on the giant, outdoor projection screen and 15 flat screen TVs. This is barbecue Mission Beach-style, with ocean breezes and oceans of beer on tap, 40 in all. 744 Ventura Place, Mission Beach. (858) 488-4438. thecoastersaloon.com (PARENTE)
Coop’s West Texas BBQ
There’s a reason there’s almost always a line at Coop’s West BBQ: It’s that good. Choose from pork spareribs, beef brisket, jerk chicken or pulled pork, but you really can't go wrong with anything at Coop’s. The meat’s tasty and smoked perfectly. The food tastes so good, it’s sinful, but the only sin to be committed here is not ordering the collard greens as one of your sides. Make sure to peek in the kitchen — you might get a glimpse of the man himself, owner Bradrick “Coop” Cooper. 2625 Lemon Grove Ave., Lemon Grove. (619) 589-0478. coopsbbq.com (ROCHA)
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
Dickey’s was founded in Dallas in 1941 by World War II veteran Travis Dickey. Today, it’s the country’s largest barbecue chain with more than 500 restaurants in 43 states. Our visit to the Rancho San Diego location was almost at closing time, but the food still tasted fresh and delicious. The meats — everything from beef brisket and pulled pork to pork ribs and chicken — are all slow-smoked at each location. The long list of sides includes coleslaw, jalapeño beans, fried okra and green beans. It’s a no-frills experience, with the food served on metal trays, but don’t let the ease of the fast-casual experience fool you: They know BBQ. Numerous locations in San Diego. dickeys.com (ROCHA)
Enzo’s BBQ & Alehouse
Just because “alehouse” is a part of the restaurant’s name doesn’t mean this is just a beer-centric joint masquerading as a BBQ restaurant. Italian owner Enzo Mistretta — he was born in Bagheria, a small town in Sicily — has more than 25 years of experience in restaurants. In 2005, he decided to take on a decidedly American food — BBQ — and opened Enzo’s BBQ & Alehouse in Oceanside. The BBQ platters are popular, especially the Southern Combo: pulled pork, Texas-smoked brisket and baby back ribs, served with Southern beans, coleslaw and a very moist corn bread. 4121 Oceanside Blvd., No. 201, Oceanside. (760) 643-9602. enzosbbq.com (ROCHA)
Felix’s BBQ with Soul
When you sit down at a BBQ restaurant, and they immediately bring out a basket of warm and moist cornbread, you know it’s bound to be a good meal. And Felix’s BBQ with Soul didn’t disappoint. The jam-packed menu has everything a good Southern BBQ place ought to have — from baby back ribs and brisket to tri-tip and pulled pork. And sides? Boy, do they have ’em. The long list includes red beans with rice, black-eyed peas, mac ’n’ cheese, braised cabbage and collard greens. The meat’s not quite the fall-off-the-bone kind, but it’s tender, and smoked just right (it’s slow-cooked in a hickory-wood-burning pit), completed by a sweet-and-smoky sauce. A dinner companion summed up the experience: “This is some good stuff.” Good stuff, indeed, but the service is even better — always with a smile. 3613 Ocean Ranch Blvd., Oceanside. (760) 439-7072. felixsbbq.com (ROCHA)
Grand Ole BBQ y Asado
There’s nothing fancy at this outdoor Texas-style barbecue and Argentinean grilled meats restaurant. Wood logs destined for the smoker are strewn about, the picnic tables are a little rickety, the sausages cooked over the coals in an old, seasoned cast-iron skillet. But just try keeping the crowds away. It’s so popular, this nearly 3-year-old spot is getting a spinoff in El Cajon in June. 3302 32nd St. North Park. (619) 213-3765. grandolebbq.com (PARENTE)
Lil Alex BBQ
Nestled between a Mexican restaurant and a Caribbean restaurant on Bonita Road is Lil Alex BBQ, a small, partial service establishment that does barbecue proud. Its abundant menu — all dishes are prepared on site — ranges from tri-tip sandwiches, burgers and chicken to beef ribs, pork ribs and pulled pork. Offering family meal options and daily lunch specials, Lil Alex specializes in mesquite-grilled, remarkable ribs. Newbies should order meal No. 2, which features four pork ribs and a beef bone with two side dishes. The beef bone is one of the most tender and juicy beef ribs you will find. The meaty, not fatty pork ribs are dusted in a mild, flavorful rub. Both are served with a traditional, smoky-sweet sauce with a tinge of spice, but ask for it on the side; you will want to savor both meats with and without it. With a slew of side dish choices, the red potato salad is worth a try — mild, creamy, with a hint of rosemary seasoning — and the coleslaw, too, is a non-sweet complement to the barbecue sauce so its sweetness can shine. The restaurant also includes a modestly stocked bar. 4020 Bonita Road, Bonita. (619) 240-7785. lilalexbbq.com (MICHAEL PRICE)
Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q
Boasting Memphis-style sweet “sauce so good makes you want to slap somebody,” Lil’ Piggy’s nonetheless lets you choose your hickory-smoked meats wet or dry. Take in the bay view and the signature fall-off-the-bone, 12-hour smoked pulled pork for the ultimate San Diego barbecue experience. 1201 First St., Coronado (at the Coronado Ferry Landing). (619) 522–0217. lilpiggysbarbq.com (PARENTE)
Since 1998, Phil’s has been San Diego County’s first name in barbecue — and barbecue lines. (My strategy? Downing the ’cue at Petco Park, where the wait is shorter.) Mesquite-grilled baby back and beef ribs are juicy even dry. But who’d pass on the million-gallon-selling barbecue sauce, which has depth of flavor and just enough kick. Pass the Wet-Naps, please. Locations in Petco Park (three sections), Point Loma, Rancho Bernardo, San Marcos, Santee and San Diego International Airport (Terminal 2). philsbbq.net (PARENTE)
Smokeyard BBQ and Chop House
Barbecue for the Lululemon set, Smokeyard opened in November as part of the UTC mall’s upscale dining expansion. Don’t let the quinoa-stuffed portobello fool you — there’s some serious barbecuing going on here. You can taste it in the luscious and tender beef ribs, tri-tip and pulled pork. 4313 La Jolla Village Drive (Westfield UTC, near Macy’s). La Jolla. (858) 630-7427. smokeyard.com/utc-san-diego (PARENTE)
Valley Farm BBQ
It’s served from a shack, designed for carry-out, and you will be so happy to order at the window and take it home. Perched at the literal corner of Campo Road and Bancroft Road, a modest, gardener’s shack-looking establishment serves up perhaps the best barbecue you will find out East, living up to its motto, “Small place, big taste.” The standard fare of tri-tip, ribs, rib racks, pulled pork and chicken are all offered, even a Black Angus hot dog is included. The Sampler Platter offers three pork ribs, a half pound of sliced tri-tip, a pulled-pork slider, a choice of one side dish and a small bag of chips. The pork ribs are crusted in a sinfully sweet rub that you will relish and probably dream about. The tri-tip, while a bit chewy, is juicy and laced with fragrant smokiness. The slider sandwich partners perfectly with the barbecue sauce, a smoky-sweet blend with a kick and yet you can still taste the tomato. The shack also offers five Boar’s Head deli-meat sandwich choices for picnic variety or the sadly unconvinced. But the shack graciously offers three picnic tables outside its ordering window for those proudly convinced BBQ enthusiasts who can’t wait the drive home to dine. 9050 Campo Road, Spring Valley. (619) 303-8342. valleyfarmmarkets.com (PRICE)
When Pigs Fly BBQ & Catering
I first tasted Dale and Tammy Ginos heavenly brisket in 2013 at the Stagecoach Music Festival, where their quality ’cue soars past the competition of some of the best pit masters in the country. San Diegans must agree. The original When Pigs Fly, which straddles the family’s Chevron gas station, is so busy, a second location had to be opened in January. 230 Main St. Vista. (760) 295-7993. 1211 E. Vista Way, Vista. (760) 945-7828. whenpigsflybbq.com (PARENTE)
Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill
This is a barbecue restaurant for people who don’t mind wearing a bib at a business lunch. The national chain may feel a bit corporate, but Wood Ranch serves up authentic, down-home barbecue. Don’t miss the baby back ribs, flavorful tri-tip, the BBQ Sliders combo (barbecue tri-tip, Western tri-tip, Carolina pulled pork, or Double R Ranch brisket), the peanut slaw and dreamy mac ’n’ cheese. 7510 Hazard Center Drive, Mission Valley. (619) 764-4411. woodranch.com (PARENTE)
The Wrangler Family BBQ
If you like your BBQ smoky and your plate overflowing, this East County restaurant is the place to be. The decor is kitschy — dark wood with animal trophy heads. Think mountain lodge, circa 1960s. That’s pretty much how long this institution has been serving up Texas-style BBQ — it was established in 1965. They have an a la carte menu, but to make it simple, order the plates. You’ll get your protein and sides in one easy order. There’s beef, ham and rib, and because I like all three, I always order the beef, ham and rib combo — No. 7 for $15.59. All plates come with roll, butter, barbecue sauce and two sides. Choose from coleslaw, macaroni salad, baked beans or french fries. Ordering is easy, and quick. They slice the meat right in front of you, and heap on the sides until your plate can’t take it anymore. The barbecue sauce, which is tangier than sweet, comes on the side. 901 El Cajon Blvd., El Cajon. (619) 442-1170. thewranglerfamilybarbecue.com (ROCHA)
More ’cue coming soon
Hanis Cavin, San Diego’s “Prince of Pork and the founder of Carnitas’ Snack Shack, has two barbecue projects cooking.
And a summer opening is expected for a yet-to-be-named smokehouse at Liberty Public Market (2820 Historic Decatur Road, Point Loma). Cavin will be collaborating with the meat meisters behind the market’s successful Mastiff Sausage Company.
Cavin recently provided these details:
- Just like at Pioneer, the market shop will use a Southern Pride Tennessee hard wood smoker, fed with oak and cherry wood to smoke the meats and vegetables.
- They’ll serve smoked prime beef sandwiches, smoked pork dry-rubbed ribs and house-brined and smoked half chickens.
- The style will be Texas-inspired and California-flavored barbecue.
And in early 2019, superstar chef Michael Mina will partner with celebrity lifestyle guru — and wife of NBA shooter Steph Curry — Ayesha Curry to open International Smoke at the One Paseo project (3275 Del Mar Heights Road, Carmel Valley). Mina, the San Francisco-based founder of the Mina Group restaurant empire, is known for his bold, global flavors. Look for such dishes as “Three Little Pigs,” with St. Louis spareribs, slow-cooked, marinated Southwestern adovada ribs and red-chili slathered Korean gochujang ribs.
— MICHELE PARENTE
Union-Tribune editor Michael Price contributed to this report.