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SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA, CALIFORNIA

First, before you read any further, you have to understand that the best BBQ in California still isn't as good as the worst of Memphis, Kansas City, and Texas.  Probably because most places in California seem to use oak... although mesquite, hickory, and fruit woods give more flavor to the meat.  Oak also tends to burn hot... good for fast grilling, bad for slow smoking.  So, positive reviews are relative to other California 'Q.   
 

         
         
   

San Francisco

   
         
         
Cedar Hill . Kitchen + Smokehouse   Cedar Hill Kitchen + Smokehouse (www.cedarhillsf.com and Yelp) in San Francisco is probably the best in the city.  Excellent consistency on all meats.  Wifey from South Carolina loved it, but this Yankee Jew thought there wasn't enough smoky flavor; hickory or fruit woods would have been a better choice than oak.  One of the few places that knows that pickles go great with 'que.  Pricey, at $16 for one meet + two sides, but that's de rigueur for the Marina. 

Best in San Francisco.

 


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  Southpaw BBQ (www.southpawbbqsf.com and Yelp) in San Francisco is tied for #1 and deserves better than the 3 1/2 stars on Yelp.  Hickory and pecan wood give the meat a nice, smoky flavor.  Ribs were off-the-bone clean, chicken was super tender, pulled pork was great, and the brisket had good taste but just a bit dry.  Hoppin' John, cole slaw, mac & cheese, and hushpuppies were all very tasty.  Sweet-tea cocktail was delicious.  A bit on the pricey side, like everything in SF, but definitely worth a visit.

Best in San Francisco.

 


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  Baby Blues BBQ (www.BabyBluesSF.com and Yelp) in San Francisco... a new outpost of the original Venice restaurant.  Baby Blues is considerably more expensive than other restaurants ($37 for two for lunch, no dessert, no leftovers), but you get what you pay for.

On the first visit, I was blown away.  Fall-off-the-bone ribs, super-tender chicken, and the brisket and pulled pork were tender without being too fatty.The pork ribs were delicious and fall-off-the-bone tender, which is difficult to do. 

However, the second visit was disappointing across the board.  I'll probably give them one more chance...
 


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    Johnson's BBQ - Gone to the great big smoker in the sky.  

 

         
         
  Dibbs BBQ & Grill (no website, Yelp) in San Francisco.  Dibbs uses hickory and apple woods, and you can tell the minute you walk in that they're not using oak (which is a good thing).  Oak may be great for wine casks in Napa, but generally results in bland 'que.  Decor needs work, but who cares when the food is this good.  The baby back ribs were tender with not too much fat, although they didn't quite fall off the bone.  Brisket was also tender, but a tad chewier than I like.  Chicken was moist and not too dried out, which many places can't get right.  Links were good.  I didn't try the beef ribs or pork ribs.  Three homemade sauces mild (too mild), hot (definitely some kick), and sweet & spicy (just right).  Sides are homemade too and all above-average.  Generally big portions (except for the links on the combo dish) and excellent value... $19 for a 3-meat combo dish and just $6 for half a chicken... enough to feed two for two meals, and then some. 

No pulled pork on the menu, but Dibbs has a pork sub sandwich for which he cuts meat right off pork ribs.  Dibbs also has sandwiches, burgers, and breakfast.
 


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  Smokin' Warehouse Barbecue (www.smokinwarehouse.com, Yelp) in San Francisco.   Hickory and apple wood, instead of oak, is always a good thing.  Chicken and pulled pork are very good, tender but not mushy.  Pork ribs are incredibly tender, leaving an absolutely clean bone, but tasted a little bit of charcoal, as opposed to wood smoke.  Brisket was slightly too fatty, but still good.  Beef ribs were tough.  Sauce was good, and the hot wasn't too hot.  Side dish of beans (with pork!) were very good.  $30 fed two for one dinner.  


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  Lilly's BBQ (no website, Yelp) in San Francisco.  Lilly's in the former location of Da Pitt BBQ uses a combination of oak, cherry, and almond for nicely flavored meat.  The brisket is very good; links have a little kick and a slightly crunchy casing; and the chicken is nice and tender, not overdone.  The pork ribs, unfortunately, were pretty fatty.  The short ribs had less fat, but they were also tougher.  No pulled pork on the menu!  Get the hot sauce; it isn't really that hot.  All the sides were pretty good.  $35 fed two of us for two meals.  Extra points for a free parking lot!  


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  Roadside BBQ (www.Roadside-BBQ.com and Yelp) in San Francisco.  No, it's not Korean BBQ, despite the location in the Inner Richmond.  Overall, the meat and sauces are good, nothing special, except for the pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and a Carolina vinegar sauce, which is excellent.  Extra points for having pickles & onions on the side.

Best Pulled Pork Sandwich in San Francisco (when eaten with the cider vinegar sauce).
 


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  Town Hall (www.TownHallSF.com and Yelp) in San Francisco.  Town Hall is a "legit" fancy-shmancy restaurant, but hidden behind the restaurant in an alley off Mission Street, they serve some surprisingly good and not too overpriced 'Que at lunch time (although the menu is fairly limited).  The meat is prepared in a smoker inside (oak and apple wood) and then finished on a charcoal grill.  The ribs were tender if not quite fall-off-the-bone, and the pulled-chicken sandwich was excellent.  


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  Memphis Minnie's Bar-B-Que  (www.MemphisMinnies.com and Yelp) in San Francisco.  The meat and sauces are average.  Ribs are kind of tough.  Three kinds of sauce on the table, which is a nice variety.  Surprisingly, they serve wine and sake, not exactly your traditional BBQ beverages.  The fried peach pie is excellent.

Watch the "Check Please: Bay Area" episode featuring Memphis Minnie's in streaming video (real player) or download & watch in iTunes or Quicktime.
 


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Sneaky's BBQ (sneakysbbq.blogspot.com and Yelp) in San Francisco.  Yelp reviews are great but we say "Mehhh."  Ribs had a good smoky flavor (almond wood!) but weren't that tender.  Brisket was too fatty and wasn't really brisket; it was basically a smoked pot roast and the consistency was stringy and... wrong.  The pulled pork was too mushy and had so much vinegar sauce on it you can't taste anything else.  Corn bread was good, although served without butter.  At 7:30 pm on a Friday night they were out of chicken, service was slow, the restaurant (inside a bar) was too loud, and the food was overpriced... $36 for a three-meat combo plate fed two for one dinner with just a little left over.

 


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Catheads' BBQ (www.catheadsbbq.com and Yelp) in San Francisco.  Cathead recently took over Big Nate's space, but unfortunately, the food quality remains about the same.  They use hickory, apple, and cherry woods, but somehow the food wasn't very smoky.  Ribs were chewy, and brisket was fair consistency.  The chicken was tender and the pulled pork consistency was very good.  We won't be going back.

 


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The Dancing Pig (www.thedancingpigsf.com and Yelp) in San Francisco.  The food was baked, not barbequed, so this place barely even qualifies for this website.  The brisket was dry and flavorless.  Pulled pork was tender but no smoke.  The ribs were slightly smoky, but dry.  The chicken was tender but again, tasted oven-baked.  And it was overpriced.  And they were uncooperative about redeeming a coupon.  Industrial-metal decor demonstrates the concern with flash over substance.  The staff was friendly, but we won't be going back.

 


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  Pittman's BBQ #2 (no website, Yelp) in San Francisco.  Below average.  Brisket had no real flavor and the ribs were tough.  Beef links and chicken were okay, nothing great.  No pulled pork on the menu.  Sauce was okay.  $12 fed two for lunch.  


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  Ironwood BBQ (www.goldengateparkgolf.com/Ironwood.html and Yelp) in San Francisco.  We really wanted to like the food, because the restaurant is right on a golf course in Golden Gate Park and the view is great... so long as you don't get whacked in the face by a rogue golf ball, which almost happened to us, and which did happen to the folks two tables down.  Overall, below average.  The sauce was good, with a bit of a mustard tang, but the ribs were chewy, not fall-off-the-bone, and the other meats were kind of bland.  And, portions were small and it was very expensive, at $37 for two for lunch, not including dessert, and no leftovers.  For this kind of money in the City, go to Baby Blues.  I'm aware the reviews on Yelp are pretty good, so either San Franciscans just don't know for good 'Que, or it was a particularly off day.  


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    Pete's BBQ (no website, Yelp) in San Francisco.  Lies!  Deception!  Despite the name of the restaurant, it isn't barbeque.  Brushing barbeque sauce onto meat doesn't make it a barbeque restaurant.  The chicken is rotisserie, the ribs are broiled, and there's no brisket or chopped/pulled pork.  If you want rotisserie chicken this is pretty good, but if you're looking for barbeque, then run away.    
         
         
    Hyde Away Blues BBQ (no website, Yelp) in San Francisco.  First of all, this isn't really a BBQ joint... it's more Southern/soul food.  That said, very disappointing.  In their defense, the regular pit master was out, post-op.  Still, the ribs were a cross-cut, all bones and practically no meat, and the little meat that was there was tough.  And since there were bones, why would you ever serve it on a bun?  And ridiculously expensive, $10 for two pieces.  The link was large, and okay, but nothing special, and again overpriced at at $10.  Jambalaya was also okay, nothing special, and again overpriced at $15.  Avoid at all costs.    
         
         
   

South to the Peninsula

   
         
         

  Gorilla Barbeque (www.GorillaBBQ.com and Yelp) in Pacifica unquestionably has the best brisket I've found in California so far.  No knife necessary; it almost dissolves in your mouth.  Pork ribs and pulled pork are both very tender.  Chicken is moist, which is nice, because lots of places overcook chicken.  Sausage links are spicy, but don't have quite as much depth of flavor as some of the other places we've been.  All of this is particularly impressive because Gorilla is using just oak wood.

The sauce is a tomato base with a cider vinegar tang; flavorful but not overwhelming.  Great mac & cheese.

Excellent value too... $34 fed two for two dinners.  Take-out only... Gorilla's is actually a trailer!  (But there are a couple picnic tables on the hill above the parking lot.)

Watch "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" video clip on YouTube.

Tied for Second-Best in the Bay Area for Overall Quality, and Tied for THE Best if you factor in price.  Best Brisket in California.
 


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  Armadillo Willy's (www.ArmadilloWillys.com and Yelp) has multiple locations all over the Peninsula, but I've mostly been to San Mateo location.  Pretty good food across the board, especially for a chain.  All-you-can-eat-ribs on Monday nights.  Spicy peanut 'slaw side dish is particularly good.  One of the few places in California that knows that you're supposed to serve BBQ with pickles & onions.  If you join the club they'll email you discount coupons every month.  


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  The Famous Rib Shack (www.FamousRibShack.com and Yelp) in San Bruno isn't bad, but could be better.  Ribs were very tender, almost clean off the bone.  Brisket was very tender too.  But, the chicken was just a touch overdone, the beef ribs were too chewy, and the pulled pork wasn't great.  But the biggest problem was that they only use oak, which will always result in fairly bland meat unless there's a strongly flavored rub, which there wasn't.  The sauces were pretty good though.  Staff was very friendly.  $72 fed five, including dessert, with some leftovers.  


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  Mack's Smoked Barbeque (www.MacksSmokedBBQ.com and Yelp) in San Carlos was disappointing.  Yelp reviews were really good, and the owner said they use hickory, mesquite, and cherry woods, which should have given the meat a great flavor.  However, the ribs, brisket, and pulled pork were all fairly bland... no smoky flavor at all.  The ribs were pretty tender, but the pulled pork and (chopped) brisket both had a mushy texture.  The link was also fairly bland and didn't have the crunchy casing.  The tomato-based sauce was okay, nothing special, but I prefer cider vinegar sauce on my pulled pork.  $30 fed two with a few leftovers.
 
 


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East to East Bay

   
         
         

  Smokey J BBQ (www.smokeyjbbq.com and Yelp).  Great BBQ... very smoky, from a hickory/mesquite mix of wood.  Chicken was exceptionally moist.  Brisket was so moist, you could cut it with a plastic fork.  Ribs had almost a citrusy glaze, and were bone-clean tender.  Pulled pork was great too.  Cornbread with honey butter and collard greens were also good.  Restaurant scores bonus points by giving the dogs some bones to chomp on.  


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  B-Side BBQ (www.BsideBBQ.com and Yelp)... short answer, yum!  Excellent smoky flavor from hickory and apple woods.  Ribs were very tender, leaving almost completely clean bones.  Chicken was exceptionally moist.  Brisket perhaps just a touch dry, but still very tender and would cut with a fork.  Great consistency on the pulled pork.  The rub was particularly good on the ribs.  Multiple sauces, all good.  Sides (corn bread, beans, slaw, mac & cheese) were all decent, but not exceptional.  Overall, real Southern flavor, but at real SF Bay prices.  The food on the picture, plus small beans, slaw, mac & cheese cost $50.  Still, if you don't mind the prices, this is a great option in Oakland.  


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  Looney's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que (www.LooneysBBQ.com and Yelp/Berkeley and Yelp/Oakland) has two locations: Berkeley is a sports-bar and Oakland is a sit-down restaurant).  This is one of the few places in California that doesn't use oak wood, and that's a good thing.  Ken Looney uses hickory and fruit woods, which add much more flavor to the meat and don't burn as hot as oak.  Enormous and tender brontosaurus, errr, beef ribs and fall-off-the-bone baby back pork ribs.  Flavorful sausage links with a bit of crunch to the skin.  Tender & juicy brisket and pulled pork.  This is more of a KC/Memphis style, which means lots of sauce.  Six sauces hot/mild Kansas City, hot/mild Texas, South Carolina mustard, and a particularly good North Carolina vinegar sauce for the pulled pork.  Lots of side dishes... a bit pricey at $3 each, but good.  Overall, we were very happy. 

The first two times I went to Berkeley were an excellent value $35 fed two for two dinners, and then some. 

But, we were disappointed with price/value on our first trip to Oakland a 3-meat combo/2 sides at $32 did not even fill up two of us.  And a dinner salad with no meat was 10 bucks!  Service was slow too.

Looney's was nominated for a 2009 "Best of the Bay" award.  Watch a video clip here.

Best Beef Ribs in California.
 


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  Bo's Barbeque Catering (no website, Yelp) in Lafayette.  Not cheap, but Bo's uses Niman Ranch beef & pork, and organic Sonoma chicken.  The ribs were particularly good, but the chicken was a bit dry.  Surprisingly, no pulled pork on the menu.  Bo's smokes over an oak/apple wood mix for excellent flavor, even without the sauce, which is served on the side.  $35 for a ribs/brisket combo and a separate chicken dish fed two for two meals. 

 

 


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  Great American Barbecue (www.GreatBBQ.com and Yelp) in Alameda.  Not bad, but not great.  Pork ribs, pulled pork, and brisket (chopped) were just slightly overcooked and dry, and the ribs were a bit chewier than ideal.  Perhaps because the restaurant only uses oak, which burns hot.  Using oak also means the meat didn't have all that much flavor, without the sauce.  The chicken was fairly tender though.  The sauce was good.  $38 fed two for lunch, with some leftovers.

 

 


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  Phat Matt's BBQ (www.phatmattsbbq.com and Yelp) in Oakland.  Ribs, chicken, and pulled pork were tender, and the brisket was a little dry and tough.  Bigger problem though was that despite the good smoky smell on the street as you approach the restaurant, somehow very little of that great smoky aroma actually made it into the food.  The sauce was good, which helped with the overall gestalt, but still, in truly good BBQ, the meat should be able to stand on its own.  Sides were good.  Owners were very friendly and helpful; service was good.  $30 feed two for lunch.  


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  Everett and Jones (www.EandJBBQ.com and Yelp/Jack London Square) in Oakland, Berkeley, and Sacramento has Alabama-style BBQ.  Sauce and brisket were pretty good.  The time we went the ribs were kind of tough, but I'm assured that they are normally better.  Rumor has it President Clinton ate here while in town, and there's a man who knows his ribs.

Watch "Food Heavens: Barbecue Bastions" video clip in Windows Media Player (14 MB) or Quicktime (22 MB).
 

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  Back Forty Texas BBQ (www.BackFortyTexasBBQ.com and Yelp) in Pleasant Hill and San Ramon advertises Texas-style BBQ.  Most of the Texas BBQ restaurants we've been to don't use sauce; it's all about the meat itself, which picks up the flavor of smoke from mesquite or fruit woods.  Back Forty uses oak, so the meat doesn't have as much flavor, and sauce is necessary.  The regular sauce was a little bland, but the Bold & Smoky and Chipotle sauces were pretty good.  Pork ribs and chicken were tender; pulled pork was very tender.   The beef ribs were disappointing; almost no meat on them.  Cole slaw was good; not too much mayo.  Beans were fairly bland.  One big plus for Back Forty; they know you're supposed to serve BBQ with pickles & onions, which almost no one else in California does except Armadillo Willy's.  $30 for two, not including dessert.  


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  Gracie's BBQ (www.GraciesQ.com and Yelp) in Vallejo isn't bad, if you happen to be all the way out there anyway.  The spare ribs had a lot of meat on them and were pretty good, but weren't the most tender I've ever had.  The brisket was a bit dry.  The sausage was flavorful and yummy... and pretty spicy.  The chicken was actually grilled, not smoked, because we ordered a breast and not legs, oh well.  Sides were pretty good, especially the cole slaw, which was sweet from apple bits in it.  Sauce was good too.  $30 for two, not including dessert.

Update: Ended up back at Gracie's a second time prior to court business in Vallejo... after discovering to my chagrin that Mike's Southern Delights Bar-B-Q and D's Bar-B-Que have both closed up.  Sigh.  The smoked chicken sandwich was pretty good.
 


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Video clips are for teaching and research purposes, 15 U.S.C. 107, and promotional use only.
These reviews are my own opinions.  I have received no consideration, monetary or otherwise, from the restaurants reviewed here.