Up in smoke
Sacramento, CA 95825
Texans like to argue over how much time it takes (four or 24 hours), how much heat (250 or 600 degrees) it takes and whether it should be served with sauce or naked as the day it was born, with just a dusting of salt and pepper to make things interesting.
Whether Texans have better barbecue than Kansans or Tennesseans, I dare not suggest. And frankly, I don’t care. No one ever had to coax me to eat meat from a fire, no matter how long it had been on or what kind of sauce was on it. In fact, my fantasy wedding didn’t revolve around a dress. It centered on a good old-fashioned, pile-on-the-sides, wipe-your-hands-on-your-dress, put-you-in-a-food-coma type of barbecue.
For reasons out of my control, it didn’t happen that way. But this is all just to say that barbecue is for me what pizza and turkey dinners are to many folks: a sure thing, an unfailing pleaser, a permanent member in the hallowed pantheon of last-supper meals. And the sides? The sides are the meat’s homies. They all hang together in righteous goodness.
So, it was with giddy anticipation that I went on my very first trip to Texas West Bar-B-Que, a favorite in the Sacramento area. Texas West looks every bit the homey barbecue joint: gingham half-curtains; red-checker vinyl table tops; corrugated metal; Texas license plates; sports banners; and dozens of pictures of famous appreciative customers, such as the lead singer of Tesla and several former Kings. It’s more dressed up than a lot of barbecue joints, which tend not to be big on the surroundings.
The meal started on a high note with the most awesome beans ever. Not a lot of people get excited about beans, but you’d be surprised how many times a barbecue joint falls down on the beans, as though they don’t really matter. Oh, they matter. These beans were spicy, sweet and crunchy, with firm onions. They had real tomato chunks and bits of either bell pepper or chilis or both—a real Southwestern treat.
Following the beans was a nice-looking potato salad, made with red potatoes that were mashed up good so there weren’t any big chunks. Not too mayonnaisey, the consistency ran toward fluffy rather than creamy—a definite plus. Too much sweet relish kept the potato salad from being as excellent a side as its bean brethren or its french-fry cousin, a dark, hand-cut, crisp, thin fry caught underfoot of a good salting.
Just when I thought Texas West would be the smoking-good barbecue joint worthy of its reputation, the smoke cleared. Sort of. Turns out Texas West is too smokin’ for its own good, if you get my drift. It commits the cardinal sin of oversmoking. Oversmoking tends to occur when the wood is too green. But it also can happen when you simply expose the meat to too much smoke over too long a period. A pork po’ boy, a leg of chicken and three baby back ribs all gave the same testimony. They had been oversmoked!
The chicken leg was the worst offender by far. With its skin charred to a tar, a bite yielded no wonderful flavors of smoked chicken. It was more like chicken done in by an arsonist—a reckless torching meant to destroy the savory goodness inside.
The baby back ribs were a good several degrees better. But still, smoke dominated the flavor more than it should have, and the meat itself was tough. Because the baby back ribs numbered only three and the chicken went unfinished, the $12.99 combo plate proved wholly unsatisfying.
The super po’ boy, at $7.49, seemed a better deal. A large, messy incarnation of a sandwich, the chopped pork was smothered by sauce, Jack cheese, red onions, jalapeños and pickles that went AWOL upon liftoff. Again, the pork tasted overly smoky, and the chewing was overly tough. Surely, this wasn’t the best that Texas had to offer, was it?
For the first time in my life, I was let down by a barbecue experience. Whether it was coincidence, fluke, the hand of the Almighty or some evil vegetarian manning the barbecue that day, I’ll never know. What I do know is that when the best thing going for a barbecue place is its beans, it’s time to mosey along to the next smoke signal that catches your nose. Just make sure, you don’t get burned.