Hang on to the glory days

Pit Stop Bar-B-Q

3515 McClellan Dr.
North Highlands, CA 95660

(916) 344-1771

There’s a rough stretch of Watt Avenue in North Highlands that is a Model United Nations of restaurants: This is where to find the area’s only Cuban, British and Ukrainian restaurants, as well as some decent Thai and perhaps the only Korean restaurant that is tucked away in the back of a market.

The Pit Stop Bar-B-Q is also on that stretch. The restaurant’s décor can be pretty much summed up, at least by those who’ve been inside the time capsule of an eatery off of Broadway, as “high Trails style.” If you haven’t been to Trails Restaurant, the barbecue joint in question, picture wood, wood and more wood.

Similarly, at Pit Stop, the walls have wood paneling, the chairs are wood and Naugahyde, and the menus are posted inside cute, mounted wooden half-barrels.

This look is finished with assemblages of random objects such as old-timey radios, clocks and even a sewing machine. The restaurant’s faded outdoor sign has a martini glass on it—although the time when this establishment offered alcohol is long past—and the words “steak house” are now covered up. Both details bespeak former glory days gone by.

There’s also a yellowed review from 1988 posted on the wall that declares the Pit Stop’s barbecue “heavenly.” The write-up also declares that the pork dinner’s “hefty” price of $7.95 is “worth it.”

Well, now that meal will set you back $12.95, but it still might be considered worth it.

The lunch specials are a much better deal, however, ranging in price from $6.95 to $8.50—a cost that includes big portions of meat and two side dishes.

After I order from the gray-haired proprietor at the counter who sports a touch of an Eastern European accent, I warily eye the grease-coated open kitchen. He’s alone in the restaurant, so after making change at the register, he goes to the back to assemble the meals. I hear the “ding!” of a microwave, which doesn’t inspire confidence, but is often par for the course at barbecue restaurants.

The owner portions out our meals onto Styrofoam plates, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see that the pork sandwich is served on a decent-looking bun (I was anticipating a slice of white bread). He’s also taken care to toast and butter the bun, and the crunch gives a textural counterpoint to the soft pile of lightly smoky pulled-pork shoulder. The orange grease and sauce soak the bun just enough, not too much. The ribs are tender, if not meltingly so, but the chicken leg is shriveled and disappointing. The sauce is sweet, not tangy or spicy. All the meat could use more time in a smoker.

The coleslaw side is candy sweet but crisp and fresh, and the beans have the bite of dried pintos, not the canned variety. The garlic mashed potatoes and macaroni salad are completely home style, in a good way: The mashed russets still have small lumps, and the macaroni salad is made with pasta shells, chopped celery, red onion and pickle relish. My grandparents used to live in this area, and this macaroni salad conjures my grandmother’s perfectly, sending me into a nostalgic North Highlands reverie along with memories of the long-defunct Velvet Hammer bar.

The only dessert on the menu is sweet-potato pie. Oddly, the nutmeg-laced, eggy filling seems to have picked up the smoke that the meat lacks, which is simultaneously disconcerting and pleasing.

As I eat, the proprietor sits at the counter, chin propped on elbow, doing a word-search puzzle in the paper. I ask how long he’s been operating this place, and he wearily answers, “Thirty-two years.” That’s a long enough stretch of time that he’d have observed the closing of McClellan Air Force Base, which was the economic lifeblood of the area; the closing of the Pussycat Theatre adult-movie house; and, yes, the closing of the Velvet Hammer.

It’s good to know the Pit Stop Bar-B-Q is still hanging on.