Sweet Smell

West Coast Smoke & Tap House

6126 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa

Barbecue. It’s the only cooking smell that actually wafts through the air like a well-flung fishing line, grabs you, and hauls you in by the nostrils. I mean, there I was at sunset, hoofing it down Lake Murray Boulevard, hoping for an 854 bus to speed me to the Amaya trolley station, when…aaagh! BBQ aromas. I’m like Superman felled by kryptonite. I walk clear across the Boulevard at El Paso Street, into a strip mall, and come upon a huddle of chairs, tables, and umbrellas outside a spot called “West Coast BBQ.”

“Texas Style,” it adds. It’s a brown, woody storefront with lots of glass and what at first looks like a big room inside — at least until you realize that the far end is all mirrors. They have maybe a dozen tables. Decor’s cream-and-brown, kinda Western. Makes you think of the Lone Star State. Place is full. Maybe because they’re only open 4:00–8:00 each evening. Waitresses in maroon tunics hip-twitch past me, balancing way-big plates of brown ribs, baked potatoes, coleslaw, corn on the cob, pulled-pork sandwiches…

Most of the staff look like they eat right here — a little on the plump side. But the welcoming lady in the smart gray suit is ultra-slim. Olga. She leads me to a table by the wall. A moment later, a gal named Jennifer comes up, hands me a menu.

I see lists of barbecued beef, pork, and chicken. “Our ribs are rubbed with a secret blend of sweet and tangy spices,” it says, “then slowly smoked in our custom-made BBQ pit.” And, man, each dish — from ribs, to pulled pork, beef, and pork cuts, to chicken (“marinated in fruit juices and spices”) — comes with two sides and bread rolls. They’re mostly $10–$15, with sandwiches in the $8 range. Jennifer says baby-back ribs are the most popular dish. But the starting point, the highlight, you might say, is the standard-bearer: pork spareribs, “traditional meaty ribs we have served in San Diego for over 50 years.”

“Three generations,” Olga says. “The Worm family. My husband Oscar’s dad Dale and his wife Betty started this. Dale was a Navy cook on submarines during WWII. After the war, he worked at a Texas- barbecue place in North Park. Then, in 1958, he opened his own place, Roadside Bar B.Q., on Mission Gorge Road.”

Twenty years later came the next generation, Oscar and Olga, and recently, their son Scott, who’s 22, and Jennifer, his high school sweetheart, have taken over.

Here’s Jennifer now. “Decided?” she asks. I should go for the baby-back ribs, but at $13.99 for a small plate and $18.99 for the large, that’s pushing it. So, pork spareribs? Olga says they’re the “best meat for the money.” But I was impressed by the size of those beef ribs. So I order a “small” plate ($11.99; large is $15.99), along with sides of baked beans, a cob of corn, and an extra of french fries ($1.99). And when they come — man alive — the ribs are huge. Four of them fight for plate-space under a big blob of Texas barbecue sauce.

“All our sauces are based on Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse in Dallas,” says Olga. “That family’s been in the barbecue business since 1910.”

She picks up a plastic bottle from the rack on the table. It has brown sauce inside. “This is the Texas. It’s got apple-cider vinegar, ketchup, paprika, onion powder, black pepper, ginger, garlic and cloves, molasses, brown sugar, and Tang for citric acid. That gives it the taste at the back of your throat afterward. It’s the secret ingredient.”

She holds up a second plastic bottle, a lighter color. “This is North Carolina, basically mustard and vinegar. Yellow. Southern.” She points to another. “This red one’s California-style sauce. Chipotle, raspberry. Sweeter, and spicier. But the Texas is the most popular.”

Yeah. I see why. It’s sweet but has that tasty molasses-clovey thing going on. Have to say, though, the beef ribs ain’t that tender. ’Course, my teeth have been getting jerked around recently at the dentist, so I’m not in great shape to do the Serengeti-lion imitation. I kick myself for avoiding the basic pork spareribs. That’s what Jim at the table next door is having. It’s what he always has. There are three other people with him. Regulars. We get to talking. Jim’s wife Betty swears by the barbecue chicken. “So-o tender,” she says. His buddy Chuck’s having his usual carnitas (huh, don’t see that on the menu), and his wife Jeanne’s into pork spareribs, too. “We’ve been eating at this outfit since the 1960s,” says Chuck. “Why change a good thing?”

I have to ask Olga about how they smoke their meat. People always make such a big deal about smoking with hickory wood. Is it really the best? “Well, we burn oak wood,” she says. “People talk up hickory. We’ve tried it. There’s no difference to the flavor. The main thing is the state of the wood. You’ve got to make sure it’s dry enough to burn, green enough to smoke.”

I try to resist the peach cobbler, but who can? With ice cream it costs $3.88.

Back out on the street, it’s dark, cool. I don’t wait for the 854. Got a lot to walk off.

The Place: West Coast Barbecue & Catering, 6126 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa, 619-462-3663
Type of Food: American BBQ
Prices: Barbecue-beef sandwich and one side dish (e.g. baked beans), $7.99; pulled-pork sandwich, $7.99; french dip au jus, $7.99; pork spareribs (with two sides), $11.99 (small), $15.99 (large); beef ribs (two sides), $11.99/$15.99; baby-back ribs (two sides) $13.99/$18.99; barbecued-beef slices (two sides), $10.99; pulled-pork plate (two sides), $10.99; barbecued chicken (two sides), $9.99; combos (e.g. rib and pork — choice of rib type and pulled pork), including two sides, $12.99; peach cobbler, $2.29 ($3.88 with ice cream)
Hours: 4:00–8:00 p.m., Tuesday–Sunday; closed Monday. Closed between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
Buses: 854, 115
Nearest Bus Stops: Lake Murray Boulevard at El Paso Street (854, closest); Lake Murray Boulevard at Jackson Drive (115)

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