Manhood Challenge

Croom's Catering & BBQ

573 H Street, Chula Vista

Seduced by the smoke. That's the long and short of it. I mean, a guy's innocently putting one foot in front of another, trying to do something right in his life, when he walks into a fog. A super-delicious fog, mind you, a tangy, grilled, meaty fog of smoke.

It billows down the sidewalk. Then the wind shifts and blows it sideways across Broadway toward the Chula Vista Center. Ah. Now I see where it's coming from. Two blackened, cut-in-half 44-gallon drums sitting on a trolley above the sidewalk. Here on H Street, a real live outdoor barbecue pit! A guy with tongs lifts flaps of meat, then slaps them down on the other side. Each time he does, he disappears in a cloud.

"So-o-o good," says one of two guys feeling their way out of the fog. "Those were ribs, man."

What the heck? I climb three steps under a black-and-maroon canopy and step into a little cream-colored-brick place.

'Course I'm supposed to be doing something else. I've come to scout an, uh, easy chair. For Carla. To snooze in, in front of the TV. But I worry. Get her a comfy chair and it's official: Youth Has Fled. Sayonara, Big Adventures, sailing to Santiago, ballooning to Belgrade, painting in Paris...Eating will give me time to think, anyway.

Inside, it's white walls, white ceilings, four tables, a cabinet filled with cakes and pies, and a big sign on the wall, "THANK YOU, JESUS!" There's lots of noise -- talk, laffs, kidding -- out back.

"Hey, good hat," says the guy who'd been turning the ribs at the griller outside. Zarak. He's behind the counter now. "Ready to order?"

I tip my straw hat back to check the wall menu, aware that I'm spending chair money here. The hot link, beef, and rib-tip sandwiches are cheapest: $5.75. The BBQ chicken sandwich is $6.00, the BBQ tri-tip $7.00. All come with chips or a small side, like potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw, baked beans, candied yams, collard greens, or kernel corn.

But then how can you bypass those ribs cooking outside? Here we're talking $7--$9. Quarter chicken and two (pork) ribs are $8.75 with cornbread and two small sides (everything's a dollar more for dinner but comes with medium sides). A hot link and two ribs goes for $7.75, ribs or rib-tips for $8.00, BBQ or teriyaki half-chicken $7.00, and the "triple play" (tri-tip, rib and chicken) is $10.25. They even have lasagna for $7.25.

Better hurry. "Uh, what's tri-tip?" I ask.

"Sliced steak with its own marinade, cooked on the grill."

"And how much for, like, a slab of ribs? The whole slab."

"It's $23.50."

"OK. Half a slab?"

"That's $14.50."

"One rib?"

Zarak doesn't blink. "Will set you back $2.50. Or, you've got the daily specials."

He points to a chart on the counter I hadn't noticed. Today, Thursday, is "rib-tip dinner." Aha. It includes two medium (not small) sides plus cornbread. Seven bucks, not eight.

"That's the one," I say. I order a side of candied yams and, oh yes, coleslaw to freshen up between rib-tips.

"Like the sauce normal or hot?"

It's a challenge to manhood more than anything else, so I say "hot" and get a can of soda ($1.25) and head for a table in the sunny corner.

Then, oh wow. The rib-tips and the cornbread come in a polystyrene box, with each side in its own separate pot. There must be a dozen chunky rib-tips. The barbecue sauce is sweet, tangy, but not too sharp. Friendly, but peppery hot. Thank goodness for the cornbread.

I chomp into my rib-tips and savor that sauce. One or two of the tips are a little chewy, but the whole meal is a deal. Deal-icious, you might say. And oh, that cornbread. So fresh and crumbly.

"We make it here from scratch every morning," says this guy Kashif. KC, everyone calls him. I ask him about the party out back.

"That's just my cousins. We're all family here. Always talking, arguing, having a good time."

Can't believe I haven't noticed this place before. KC says his parents, Lance and Robin, opened up in 2001. "Eleven years ago, my mom started making cakes at home," he says. "It became a catering business. Soon, she couldn't fit it all into our kitchen. They decided to find another location, and my dad said, 'Well, why don't we make it a barbecue takeout while we're about it?' So they went looking, and the Lord blessed us with this place."

A car parks right outside the window. "That's my mom," says KC. And soon Robin's in, joining us at the table. "It was difficult at first," she says, "but we got a lot of support from family, friends, and our church -- the New Creation Church at Alta Dena. And God. He gave Lance a vision for this business. As a foundation for creating a family legacy."

We chat on. Nephews, Zarak, Lamarr, and others join in every now and then. I end up buying one of Robin's sweet-potato-cream cheesecakes ($1.50). It makes a nice ending. Man, I'm stuffed. Bloated. Outside, the skies are clear. Zarak has closed down the pit for the afternoon. Across the road, somewhere, is a chair I can't afford. So maybe...Yeah. I'll just bring her a rack of ribs. And a bunch of La-Z-Boy brochures. That should cover the bases, right?

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