San Pablo Harbor’s Black Star Pirate BBQ lives up to its hella-cool moniker
Scotch broom walks up the hillsides along the road to Point San Pablo Harbor. We pass by decaying former Naval officers’ homes, sitting like spectral versions of the ones in the Presidio, and the defunct, massive brick winery Winehaven. When we eventually reach the base of the harbor parking lot, yellow wildflowers dot the earth. As we drive around this obscure side of Richmond, my friend keeps asking, “Where are we?” Peter Hazel’s 40-foot-long Niloticus—Nile crocodile—sculpture is the first creature to greet us at the end of the long and winding road. Baring teeth like pointed daggers, its open mouth suggests a kind of hunger that’s rarely satisfied for long. The beast’s only companion is a hairy, elephant-sized bumblebee.
Jagged pebbles pave the dusty lot, which abuts a disused set of rusty train tracks. Facing the harbor, Black Star Pirate BBQ’s entryway is to the left. Tony Carracci’s days of rambling about in his Marin food truck seem to be behind him. Taking over the Nobilis Restaurant space, his barbecue pit is set up outside of the Black Star entrance—the name is a nod to David Bowie’s last album. In the current pandemic set-up, the 16 indoor seats are off-limits. But a lengthy, crooked outdoor patio looks as if it can accommodate at least twice that number. Practically every table has a view of the water. It’s the first restaurant this year I’ve felt comfortable enough to sit down in, relax and enjoy a meal without worrying about the proximity of strangers. The seaside setting and harbor breeze pair perfectly with the mild springtime sunshine.
Matt Horn, the chef and pitmaster at Oakland’s Horn Barbecue, has cornered the Bay Area’s market on authentic, Texas-style barbecue. The ever-expanding line and national press stories—as found in Forbes Magazine, for instance—attest to that fact. At Black Star, far off the beaten path, Carracci, too, makes his own rubs and sauces, but the way he serves his dishes is a departure from the Texan approach. In much of the Lone Star state, the sauce—vinegary with pan drippings—doesn’t touch the meat. Carrracci’s beef brisket and pork ribs are both slathered with a sweet, dark barbecue sauce. The consistency is ketchup-like, but tangier. Next time I’ll risk asking for it on the side. Between the two entrees, my companion and I could have easily polished off another plate of the excellent, tender ribs.
With his distinctive, chest-length, grayish-brown beard, the always-hatted Carracci resembles a de-facto member of ZZ Top. He zooms around the restaurant, dropping off plates and chatting with customers, before returning to the grill. While tending to one order under the barbecue’s hood, the chef tells a new diner that even vegetarians can find plenty to eat at Black Star. We sample, in order of preference, the following vegetarian side-dishes: cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, cowboy beans and braised red cabbage. Two sides come with every order. All of them are worth trying, to mix and match with the various meats. The chef brings the cowboy beans to life by sweetly pickling them, a combination I haven’t tasted before.
I pass on the potato salad and collard greens, but can’t resist placing a late order of steak-cut french fries. A basket of them arrives mid-meal. The fries are delicious, but Black Star struggles with its baked goods and desserts. Every plate comes with a biscuit. The ones we receive are heavy and dense, even after being dragged through sauce. Either the batter is overmixed, or they are day-olds. Our dessert, a banana cake, also suffers from a profound dryness. The restaurant either needs to hire a part-time baker, buy from a vendor or make desserts that are easier to achieve given this particular kitchen’s current set of constraints. A single scoop of ice cream would save an otherwise completely satisfying meal.
Black Star Pirate BBQ, 1900 Stenmark Dr., Richmond. 510.680.1221. Open Fri-Sun, 11am to 7pm. www.blackstarpig.com.