We were torn between the braised Niman Ranch pork belly and the “crispy-skin Jidori half chicken” for our second entrée. The latter included shiitake dumplings and “Szechuan pepper dust.” That choice suited the heat and also seemed more of a challenge to the kitchen; most local chefs overcook the bird but can’t manage a crispy skin. Well, Alchemy got it right — really crisp and pleasingly salty, and tender inside! The doggie bag hinted at the secret: trying it again at home, it tasted brined within an inch of its life, exuding saline solution. The shiitake dumplings (more like half-wontons) were satisfying, simple, and earthy, the baby bok choy tender and appropriate — but I didn’t taste “Szechuan pepper dust” at all. (Just glad the peppers are legal for import again.)
Desserts are sparse. The sole house-made sweet is cranberry bread pudding (dry on the surface, moist and rich inside, heavy whatever way) topped with sexy buttermilk gelato from Gelato Vera. My espresso was well made, a tad bitter but with a thick head of crema. Coffees are from Café Moto in North Park. The brand-new weekend brunch menu sounds fabulous, including down-home treats like shrimp with cheddar grits. I wish they made brunch for dinner!
I’m cutting my own throat here because Alchemy is in the neighborhood next door to mine, and I don’t want to fight off huge crowds to eat there — but this budget-priced “neighborhood restaurant” is plenty good enough for people of any neighborhood to enjoy. The prices are right, and the food is the way we like to eat now.
Another Cruise to the Barbecue Islands
After the last BBQ roundup, an Encinitas reader enthusiastically suggested a newcomer, Brett’s BBQ, where the motto is “If it’s not smoked, it’s not barbeque.” Right on! A few weeks later, good pal Sam was doing business up in Rancho Bernardo. He ate at the original location and brought me back a big bunch of takeout. Since the larger restaurant is in Encinitas, this isn’t a definitive report; there may or may not be differences in the meat between the two. I have some problems with the tenderness but also found thrills.
It is definitely real, smoked Q, with pink smoke rings in the meat. The basic style seems Texan, although here they use only hickory, no mesquite. (Not all Q’s in Texas use mesquite either.) But of the food from the RB location, only the chicken was tender — I definitely needed teeth for the red meats, which indicates that either the smoker heat is too high (sposed to be “low and slow”) or the cooking times are too long, particularly if the meat is left unattended as it smokes. Both sets of pork ribs (baby back and spare) were a tad dry and tough, and the pulled pork was chewy. (Sam found it slightly greasy; I don’t mind that.) The brisket, alas, was cardboard. In European cuisines, this tough, potentially stringy cut of beef is usually moist-cooked by braising, slow-simmering, or stewing (e.g., pot roast, corned beef and cabbage). Texan BBQ champs solve the problem by marinating the brisket and then tending it all night, regularly brushing it with the drained-off marinade, which now becomes a “mopping sauce” to introduce liquid so that the beef sort of smokes and braises simultaneously. This brisket didn’t taste very mopped.
But they’re doing a lot of things right. We tend to think of “Texas BBQ” sauce as resembling the thick, tomatoey supermarket sauces darkened with Liquid Smoke. That is not authentic. Brett’s BBQ’s sauce really tastes Texan: it’s a thin, tangy, tomato-vinegar mixture, neither sweet nor hot. (Unlike Oakland, KC, and parts of Tennessee, Texas sauces can be spicier than this but are rarely incendiary.) It’s not slathered on, just properly glazed on, with extra sauce served on the side.
The sides I tried were pretty good. Corn pudding was luscious and creamy (and not oversalted!). Potato salad of skin-on red spuds had lots of egg yolk and scallions in the dressing, in the real Southern style of NOLA and the Cajun Triangle — a pleasant surprise. The BBQ baked beans were very sweet, flavorful but, oddly, not smoky enough, despite bits of bacon to add to the smoke-flavor. Hush puppies were dry and leaden; that can happen with takeout.
But best of all — the Texas rope sausage. I’ve been noticing how a lot of local Qs have one knockout dish that’s completely outside the regular BBQ array. At West Coast BBQ, near Grossmont, it’s a gorgeous, genuine Texas beanless chili. (It ought to be a main dish!) At Bull’s BBQ, it’s the great, dark gumbo and brilliant corn muffins. At Lightnin’ Jacks, I liked the light, simple fried catfish (but totally hated the “Cajun” cat).
Here, it’s the barbecued Texas rope sausage sandwich ($7.50) on a roll topped with sautéed onions, peppers, and jack cheese. I’d swear, they must be importing those sausages directly from one of the grand old German smokehouses in Lockhart. As Bob Wills sang, “Take me back to Texas…” They do. These aren’t any ordinary sausages; they taste like Texas sausages from the masters of the art, and in a sandwich with all those succulent veggies and melted cheese atop, well — they’ll take you to Hill Country heaven.
Brett’s BBQ, 1505 Encinitas Boulevard, Encinitas, 760-436-7427; 4S Ranch, 10550 Craftsman Way #185, Rancho Bernardo, 858-487-7427, brettsbbq.com. Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. daily, both locations. Starters, $5–$8; sandwiches and meat salads, $7.50–$10; smoked plates (with two sides), $7–$22; sides, $1–4 (more for bulk portions).
- 3.5 stars
- (Very Good to Excellent)
1503 30th Street at Beech Street, South Park, 619-255-0616, alchemysandiego.com.
HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 5:00–11:00 p.m., weekends until midnight; weekend brunch 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
PRICES: Snacks and tapas, $3–$10; entrées, $10–$20; desserts and cheese plate, $6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Free-ranging, healthy international grazing plates, seasonal eclectic entrées. Interesting wines, a bit steep (with reserve list of serious French bottlings), lots by the glass, corkage $15. Micro- and Euro-brews, full bar, absinthe service.
PICK HITS: Pork-stuffed piquillo peppers; Melitzana Salata (eggplant tapa); Calamari de Cadiz; oyster “gazpacho”; market-fresh vegetable lasagna; crispy Jidori chicken.
NEED TO KNOW: Noisy with hard-edged decor and loud ambient music; raucous on weekends. No reservations for fewer than six. For shortest waits and quietest times, eat early on weeknights. Street parking easy weeknights, competition on weekends from next-door bar patrons. About ten lacto-vegetarian choices (handful of vegan nibbles).