4645 Carmel Mountain Road, Carmel Valley
6955 El Camino Real, Carlsbad
Will a North County Southern-style barbecue created by a Bronx-born Italian American become the next Jack in the Box? Maybe not -- but how about the next Rubio's or Sammy's Woodfired Pizza? That's the kind of growth that chef Joey Maggiore is hoping for with his new mini-chain, Joey's Smokin' B-B-Q, and he may just succeed. Let's face it -- south of Oakland, there's not a lot of long-smoked barbecue in California, and when the craving hits, nothing else will do. There are already three Joey's locations -- the original in Carlsbad, a newbie in Carmel Valley, and a booming franchise in Idaho, the land that "Q" forgot (until Joey's remembered it). Basketball players Luke and Chris Walton have bought into the concept, with plans to open an outpost in Manhattan Beach in two months; other branches are in the works for Orange County and Irvine.
What makes Southern-style barbecue different from backyard steaks grilled on the Weber? First, it's cooked "low and slow" over smoldering hardwood (or wood chips) in an enclosed smoker, rather than grilled over a hot fire fueled by briquettes, mesquite branches, or gas. Often, Southerners rub barbecue meats with an aromatic spice mixture before cooking; they may also baste during cooking with a strongly seasoned liquid (as in your typical Texas "mop and sop" -- the mop is the baste, the sop is the thicker sauce applied just at serving, so the sugars won't blacken in the heat of the pit). Meats emerge from a smoker imbued with the flavor of whatever wood has been used for fuel. Inexpensive cuts (like brisket and tri-tip) that can be tough and gristly when cooked on high heat turn tender when slow-cooked in smoke. After all the work and patience, you've got yourself a mouthful of flavor.
Some say smoked barbecue was developed mainly by African Americans in the South, as a way to make the most of tougher, bonier pork cuts that "the big house" passed along. Another story credits the invention to German immigrants who settled around San Antonio and expanded their old-country sausage-smoking traditions to include hunks of beef. But there were earlier traditions of Native Americans slow-smoking meat and fish all along the Pacific Coast and in the Caribbean Islands, so -- who knows who really started it? (Even in high-country Nepal, the best Sherpani cook I encountered hung the week's yak meat over her juniper-fueled fireplace, resulting in the tenderest, smokiest yak I ever tasted.)
A few years ago, Joey Maggiore, then owner of Joey's California Bistro in Coronado, realized that he, too, had a craving for genuine barbecue. Hoping to spend more time with his growing family, he sold his bistro to a corporation. A week's trip to Memphis, a few days in Texas, a consultation with a retired Memphis BBQ chef, and Joey's Smokin' B-B-Q was hatched.
The sauce is at least as important as the smoke in barbecues of any sort. Rather than trying to replicate "family secret" sauce recipes from the region and produce them in the quantities needed for future franchisees, he contracted instead with a large food-service company. Joey "auditioned" four sauces at his original location in Carlsbad. All too soon, he discovered that authentic Deep South flavors hold little appeal for So-Cal palates. Most locals rejected the vinegary Carolina-style potion and the smoldering Texas-style sauce. The two survivors -- called "suh-weet" and "mild-spicy" -- are offered in chafing dishes at a condiment table opposite the order counter, near the iced tea and soft-drink dispensers. The "suh-weet," resembling Memphis-style pulled-pork sauce, is thin, bright red, light, and tomatoey, with a brown-sugar flavor. The "mild-spicy" is heavier and sharper, with tomatoes, molasses, and a hint of vinegar, much like bottled sauces from the supermarket. If you like a spicier sauce, table condiments include Tabasco and good Louisiana-made Red Rooster hot sauce, which adds flavor as well as a kick.
Joey also experimented with the buns. First he tried brioche-dough buns from St. Tropez Bakery, the closest local equivalent to Memphis's fluffy pulled-pork sandwich buns. He loved them, but patrons asked for firmer, dryer, hamburger-type buns, so he switched to shiny-topped potato-flour buns. Some diners wanted packaged supermarket-style white bread (the staple of soul-food BBQs), but Joe nixed that idea -- he doesn't like the stuff.
Even the equipment had to be adapted to California customs, since many zoning ordinances either ban full-size pit barbecues (because the smoke is considered a pollutant) or charge extra to license them. Instead, Joey chose smaller, self-contained electric smokers that use hickory (or other hardwood) chips. (With their automatic settings, these machines also require less skill to control than old-fashioned pits, so they produce more uniform, idiot-proof results.) By the time he'd adapted to local laws and tastes, Joey was no longer producing Southern "Q," but So-Cal "Q" -- more an homage to Memphis than anything you'd find in Memphis itself.
I went to the chain's newer location in a chillingly soulless mall called Torrey Hills Center. Joey's tiny operation stood out from the surrounding sterility because its decor looks warm, and faintly Old West. There are a few booths and high, round, wooden tables inside (facing a mirrored wall to make the place look twice its size) and plenty of tables outside. The decor features about a zillion kitschy rural barnyard animals in numerous sculptural media, including wrought-iron paper-towel dispensers topped with rooster silhouettes. Those paper towels in place of napkins are a clear signal: "Go ahead and get messy." You order at the counter, and they bring the food to your table when it's ready (not instantly -- this isn't McD's).
So how did Joey's measure up? In general, I found the meats less intensely smoky than a true pit barbecue can make them and the sauces less powerful and complex than those I've tasted in the South -- but you'll still find some darned good eating here. My favorite of the meats was the pulled pork, which offers reasonably credible Memphis-style flavor and tender-chewy texture. It's hard to eat the pulled-pork sandwich because the meat's piled so high on a slightly tough bun that it calls for knife and fork. But order the entrée plate, get a little cup of the "suh-weet" sauce, mix it with some Red Rooster and pour it on, then top the heap with coleslaw -- and you might find yourself saying "y'all."