Putting the B(ay) Back in BBQ

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I like Berkeley, but there isn't any good barbecue here." These are the words of a born-and-bred Southerner I met last month while picking up the free, expectedly skuzzy couch he advertised on Craigslist. I had two reactions: First, it seemed like a strange response to a question about what he thinks of Berkeley. Of all the amazing things to remember about this town, from the visionary hills to the grassy stretch along the Bay, and the many fantastical characters, dwellings and happenings in between - many of which I assume to be beyond the imagination of a native Georgian - the thing he felt most worth noting was its supposed lack of good barbecue.

Dubious as I was of his priorities, I wondered - is he right?

So began a Berkeley barbecue quest. Proving this grad student wrong was only a secondary motivation - primarily, I hoped to reward my taste buds (and possibly punish my stomach) with some Southern-style barbecue.

I knew where to start. Looney's Smokehouse at Bancroft and Oxford is only a block off campus, but I know it as my former de facto living room. Sophomore year I lived in a towering green Victorian at Durant and Fulton - you may know it - which, while home to a crew of obsessive basketball fans, had a TV but no cable connection. So when big games came around, we'd trek down the block to Looney's, which boasts a dozen sports-devoted TV's of various sizes, and kick up our feet, so to speak.

So OK, we didn't really go there for the barbecue. But once you're inside, it's hard to resist that alluring smell.

Looney's is the culmination of Ken Looney's backyard barbecue experimentation, which he began in earnest in 2004, making sauces with the help of an old cookbook. Before long he was smoking his own meat, and within two years, in September 2006, he opened his eponymous restaurant kitty-corner from Edwards Track Stadium.

Ken Looney's biography is not what I expected. He had never worked in a restaurant before opening his own, but had spent a significant portion of his young adulthood in a nuclear submarine as a member of the Navy. Before starting the restaurant he was running a small company whose chief product, he said, aimed to "do for restaurants what the ATM did for banks," allowing you to order food without experiencing the (generally enjoyable, but apparently to some people tedious) interaction with a waiter. Suffice it to say he's had a diverse career.

But if there's one thing that makes him perfect for his current job, it's that the dude really, really loves barbecue.

During our brief conversation, I learned more about meat than I'll probably ever need to know, and certainly a lot more than I can fit into this story.

According to Looney, the key to tender meat - the linchpin of any good plate of barbecue - is low temperature and lots of time. Looney's cooks its various cuts of beef, pork and chicken in a cavernous metal smoker that can hold up to 400 pounds. They light sawdust, preferable to logs because it smolders rather than burns, enveloping the meat in thick but lower-temperature smoke that's less likely to dry it out.

The process takes so much time that no matter how long it takes you to decide between the beef brisket and the ribs, the meat you'll be served has already been cooking for most of the day.

The same can be said of meals served at Everett & Jones, which sits right at San Pablo and University, a barbecue spot that makes use of a grandfather clause to keep it's now-illegal open flame brick pit up and smoking.

Looney's and E & J share the distinction of being meat havens in a city with a general aversion to charred farm animals. Perhaps resignation to this stereotype is the reason my Georgian sofa donor never looked hard enough to find these places, or maybe they really just don't measure up to genuine Southern barbecue. Besides the two restaurants' shared setting, their histories, philosophies, typical customers and atmospheres are quite disparate.

After all, E & J is not really the kind of place that gives off a living room feel. The amenities are, well, sparse. The food is served on paper plates, and to eat it (with plastic utensils) you can either sit on a stool at a window countertop or outside at a picnic bench. In short, it's a barbecue joint, and a damn good one.

It's unapologetic in a way that contrasts with the sleek marketing employed by so many restaurants, who seem to prioritize image over food.

At E & J, it's all about the barbecue, and has been for a long time. E & J is a throwback not just in presentation but in management. Dorothy Turner, a native Southerner, established the first restaurant in Oakland in 1973; there are now five in the Bay Area, each owned by a different family member.

Ken Looney said one of his biggest challenges is competing with a place that's been a part of Berkeley cuisine culture for so long; by contrast, Looney's is the new kid on the block.

This difference seems reflected in restaurants' approaches as well. "We've been using the same recipes since we opened," said Shamar Cotton, Dorothy Turner's grandson and manager of the Berkeley E & J. Like many of his siblings and cousins, Cotton grew up working at E & J, a business whose values - family and simple food - are downright anachronistic.

The extent of E & J's commitment to time-tested recipes is so admirable it's rivaled only by Ken Looney's near-obsession with establishing his place alongside it as a legend in Bay Area barbecue. Free of the concomitant advantages and burdens that come with having a history like E & J's, Looney has been able to steadily expand his menu as it gains notoriety. Beginning with one barbecue sauce, the spicy Texas, he now has ten, each named after the state where the basic recipe originated. The side dishes, which now include chili, delicious mac and cheese and collard greens, give Looney's diners a more diverse menu to choose from.

As far as the basics, E & J's and Looney's are very similar - beef brisket, spare ribs, chicken, hot links - and very good. Though my experience at E & J is more limited, their meat seems heavier and saucier than the dishes at Looney's, where the diner can exercise more discretion in the variety (sweet or spicy, with a lot in between) and amount (dipped, doused or drowning?) of barbecue sauce.

Either way you go, E & J and Looney's are restaurants Berkeley can truly be proud of - not only is the food great, but the people behind it have made delivering a quality meal their life's work. With a bittersweet note in his voice, Ken Looney described how he and many of his employees work 70 plus hours a week to keep the restaurant going; and yet his mind remains fixed on expansion. The same can be said for the ambitious generations of the E & J family who have grown up selling barbecue, and in whose footsteps their children will likely follow.

It's only barbecue, you might say, but such profound commitment to a single pursuit - like that exhibited by the athletes and artists we worship - is something to which I, for one, can only aspire.

Tags: BARBEQUE, LOONEY'S SMOKEHOUSE, EVERETT & JONES, T-REX


Worship your slow-cooked beef brisket with Nick at [email protected]



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