License To Grill


By David Nelson
Photos by Brevin Blach

May is National Barbecue Month, a time when backyard grillers everywhere dust-off their aprons, load-up on propane and get ready to light their fires.

For those armed with the gift of Hocus Smokus, working BBQ magic is second nature. But for those who’d prefer simply to order seconds - of barbecued beef brisket, pulled pork, tender ribs, boldly spiced sausages and chicken that tastes like it ran from the hen house to the smoker - a visit to one of San Diego’s smokin’ hot spots will do the trick.

In this case, a little something on the side isn’t cheating, it’s par for the course. So save space for sweetsmoky beans, fat and crunchy onion rings, creamy coleslaw, French and sweet potato fries, potato salad, biscuits, cornbread and fried pickles (maybe). And sweet potato pie!

The all-American meal, barbecue gives gringos an excuse to say “What the fork” to flatware and eat with their hands instead. But don’t worry about getting messy - a lot of the restaurants spotlighted here offer communal sinks, and their owners will always be pleased to meat you.

* = author’s favorite

Coop’s West Texas Barbecue
Red beans and rice, collard greens and buttermilk pie place Coop’s smack in the heart of Texas barbecue country, where “long and slow” results in incredibly succulent hot links, pork spareribs, brisket and (weekends only) house-made sausage. Can’t get enough? The $30.99 “Knock Out” rocks three pounds of meats.

Coop’s West Texas Barbecue
2625 Lemon Grove Ave., Lemon Grove

Cali-Comfort BBQ
In Spring Valley, Cali-Comfort puts the “bar” in barbecue by offering full beverage service, which is relatively uncommon at this type of eatery. The “low-n-slow” menu features meats barbecued in the hickory smoker after being seasoned with Cali’s specialty rubs. Specialties include the BBQ fajitas and peach cobbler.

Cali-Comfort BBQ
8910 Troy St., Spring Valley

Brett’s BBQ *
For some, “barbecue” means Brett’s, the fragrant North County BBQ dens whose pit master knows by sight when meats like beef brisket, pork shoulder, Texas rope sausage, ribs and turkey breasts have slept in the smoker long enough to be sublimely tender and robustly flavorful. Don’t light a match near the bread pudding with whiskey sauce.

Brett’s BBQ
1505 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas
10550 Craftsman Way, 4S Ranch, 858.487.7427

Brazen BBQ *
Hillcrest’s smokiest hangout was born of multiple blue ribbons won by the owners, whose boldly “Brazen” mission supplies guests big flavors and a galaxy of options. Unique bites include crawfish corn fritters, smokehouse nachos and the So-Cal Chillin’ Chili Burger. Expertly smoked meats amble straight to grandmotherly peach cobbler.

Brazen BBQ
441 Washington St., Hillcrest

Bubba’s Smoke House BBQ *
Unless Bill Clinton’s in La Jolla, the only Bubba you’re likely to meet is this friendly eatery on Prospect Street, where fans dive into platters of memorable ribs, juicy chicken, tender brisket and tonguestinging hot links. Go easy on cinnamon-buttered yams and corn bread muffins - there’s a slab of Bourbon pecan pie with your name on it.

Bubba’s Smoke House BBQ
888 Prospect St., La Jolla

Famous Dave’s
Yes, it’s a nationwide chain, but Dave’s big, bad barbecue restaurant in Vista shoots a mellow vibe as local as “Surf’s up, Dude!” Woodsy, friendly and hyper-attractive to eaters eager for huge meals, Dave’s specializes in brisket burgers, “burnt ends” (fans crave these crispy bits of slow-smoked beef), ribs, groaning combo plates and “down home” banana pudding.

Famous Dave’s
303 Vista Village Dr., Vista

BBQ House
Not far from Hodad’s, BBQ House is another Ocean Beach institution that keeps locals well fed between catching waves and inspecting tattoos. It’s modest, but the food makes regulars out of first-timers, especially the fall-off-the-bonetender pork ribs served “just soaking in BBQ sauce” with tangy beans and righteously rich macaroni and cheese.

BBQ House
5025 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach

Bull’s Smokin’ BBQ
Not much is shy about Bull’s, a Morena District destination that features “indoor and outdoor feeding,” a $69.95 trough of barbecued meats - including peppery Andouille sausage and giant, unusually succulent smoked Angus beef ribs - with sides and corn bread that feeds four or five. Innovative offerings include coleslaw with almonds and pulled pork fries.

Bull’s Smokin’ BBQ
1127 W. Morena Blvd., Morena

Felix’s BBQ With Soul
Is it Louisiana-style fried green tomatoes, murky-like-a-bayou gumbo or lively New Orleans music that make Felix’s restaurants in Oceanside and San Diego’s Market Creek Plaza irresistible? Barbecued baby backs, smoked tri-tip, rib tips and pulled pork compete with Southern specialties (fried chicken, Alabama grilled pork shank) and soul food sides like hoppin’ John and candied yams. One-of-a-kinders include sweet potato cheesecake.

Felix’s BBQ With Soul
3613 Ocean Ranch Blvd., Oceanside
342 Euclid St., San Diego 619.546.9120

Yes, there is an actual Blondie, and she’s generally at the counter to welcome guests to this newcomer on bustling Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach. Reading the signs that cover the woodsy walls helps pass the time while waiting for specialties like pulled pork sandwiches, juicy ribs, slowcooked tri-tip and, notably, green beans simmered with bacon.

2015 Garnet Ave., #102, Pacific Beach

The Barbecue Pit
If the mention of Texas-style pit barbecue gets your mouth watering, you may already be familiar with The Barbecue Pit restaurants in National City and Fletcher Hills, which, since 1947, have been slinging serious chow like immense ham, beef, hot link and chicken dinners, along with split pea soup and pies so tasty you’ll want to take a wedge home.

The Barbecue Pit
920 E. Plaza Blvd., National City
2388 Fletcher Pkwy., El Cajon

Like many traditional barbecue joints, LW’s is family-owned and operated, and the care shows in the deep, rich flavors and succulence of meats that smoke over hickory hardwood for up to 14 hours. This favorite in the heart of Clairemont lets you get messy with a pile of chili-cheese fries before moving on to expertly smoked ribs, brisket, pork and chicken. Banana cake? Oh, yes!

3057 Clairemont Dr., Clairemont

Phil’s BBQ
Phil Pace’s three mammoth restaurants in Sports Arena, San Marcos and Santee (plus a smaller pub at Lindbergh Field) make him the 800-pound gorilla of the S.D. barbecue biz. Lines form before noon for Phil’s famous BBQ Broham pulled pork sandwiches, colossal onion rings, super-succulent baby back and beef ribs and mesquite-grilled chicken.

Phil’s BBQ
3750 Sports Arena Blvd., Point Loma
579 Grand Ave., San Marcos
9816 Mission Gorge Rd., Santee