Vegetarians can stop reading right about … here. Was the introduction of the outdoor gas grill — in 1960, some say, by gas-lamp manufacturer Walter Koziol — a masterpiece of ingenuity or the beginning of the end of civilization? Should we trace the fall of barbecue back farther, to 1920, when no less an American icon than Henry Ford invented the charcoal briquette?
No longer tied to the need for burning logs down into coals while you slaughter the pig, or even waiting a half hour for the store-bought stuff to glow evenly, barbecue has devolved from community-wide feast to half-assed snack. Now any rube can putter outside during a Raiders-day downpour to light up his Weber Genesis Platinum and flip his burgers during the commercials.
Sure, your average gas and charcoal-briquette grills preserve the charred and caramelizing juices that make grilled meat so good. And cleanup, so the commercials say, is a breeze. But gone from backyard barbecue is the primeval scent of wood smoke. Now you’re lucky if the petroleum-refinery taste of lighter fluid fades after the first bite.
Then again, who has the time and the air-quality permit to be a barbecue purist? To celebrate the opening of 2005 Backyard Patio Grilling Season, I traveled around the East Bay buying twenty or so pounds of meat. Marinated meat and sausages, to be exact, the kind that go straight from fridge to grill, requiring no prep work other than snipping open the package. Then I returned to the official test kitchens at the Express to cook it all up on our state-of-the-art equipment, discovering that the whiff of roasting meat lures journos like flies to honey.
With hundreds of butchers and meat counters in the Bay Area, what I tasted isn’t a review of the best so much as suggestions for finding your own. Sausages are the obvious first choice. You can find several brands of Portuguese linguica at Luso Mercado in San Leandro, for example, and its sweeter Filipino/Hawaiian cousin, longanisa, at 99 Ranch in Richmond. Babushka Russian Deli in Walnut Creek carries upwards of twenty varieties of smoked Eastern European sausage — some for grilling, some for slicing — and most of the area’s halal butchers sell the fiery little Algerian lamb sausages known as merguez. Even nationally distributed Aidells Sausage Company is based in San Leandro, so you’re still buying local.
Bobby Lee’s Country Smokehouse in Hayward sells a selection of America’s favorite sausages out of the bare-walls retail end of his operation. Many of the 35 varieties on sale Bobby Lee makes himself. (Tip: he also does custom jobs for hunters.) His smoked Cajun-style chicken sausage ($5.39 a pound) gives chicken more flavor than it deserves and packs a wallop water alone can’t vanquish — only Bud will do. Another Bobby Lee variety, a ham-and-cheese sausage ($5.29), came off a little salty, but once you learn to dodge the pockets of melted Swiss that explode each time you bite down, it’s a fine one for white rolls and yellow mustard.
On a smaller scale, at Giovanni’s in Pinole, Giovanni and Kathy Bonnano sell one-pound coils of their homemade mild, medium, and hot Italian sausages. The pork sausages are big on flavor and quite lean. While the hot isn’t hot enough to eat away your lip gloss, the lower level of chiles in the medium allows the fennel seed and garlic to emerge.
Taylor’s Sausages in the Swan’s Market complex in downtown Oakland has garnered a reputation for its Louisiana-style products, including a rotating selection smoked and fresh sausages (all $3.25-3.75 a pound). An all-beef hot link, finely ground and potent, dried out quickly on the grill without the benefit of lots of pork fat to baste it from the inside out. Taylor’s Cajun-style boudin blanc, a delicately seasoned sausage stuffed with as much rice as pork, stayed moist and light. But my favorite was another chicken sausage — the hot version of the Cajun chicken. It seared the sin right out of me.
The biggest disappointment resulted from the highest expectations. Before the barbecue, I had been marveling over the teaspoon-sized doses of duck rillettes I’d been sneaking from the ramekin I bought from the Fatted Calf stand at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. But when I put the local charcuterie’s Toulouse sausages — a mild, coarsely ground red-wine pork sausage ($6.95 a pound) — on the grill, they dripped so much fat that huge flames enveloped them no matter where I moved them, exploding the skins and blackening the links. The gorgeous crepinettes ($7.50 for two), a sort of patty interwoven with chard and lemon zest, started falling apart in their paper wrapper, so I didn’t even try cooking them outdoors. Both make excellent roasting sausages; just don’t grill them in public until you’ve tested a few batches in private.
Many butchers sell premarinated chicken breasts or stuffed pork chops. I focused on tri-tip, picking up two: Bobby Lee’s Santa Maria-style tri-tip ($5.99 a pound) was coated in a thick, ruddy rub of garlic and spices. Searing the outside and then setting the hunk of meat on the grill’s upper rack to finish slowly, I ended up with a fine-grained beef. Like the sausages, it was seasoned with a heavier dose of salt than I prefer, but if you add a few oak chips to the fire you might come up with Santa Maria-style barbecue resembling the original.
When you say “tri-tip” in the East Bay, however, most people think Kinder’s Meats, the family-owned deli-butcher with locations in Concord, Danville, Pleasant Hill, and Hercules. Kinder’s sells plastic bags of tri tip ($6.98 a pound) in its original sauce, a lightly sweetened, soy-influenced marinade. Sliced as thin as I could cut it, Kinder’s tri tip — a juicier cut of beef to begin with — garnered the most sighs from a group of full-bellied testers.
The East Bay’s ethnic markets are another resource. My first attempt at hunting down good Mexican marinated meats for grilling didn’t bring much success, although the idea is worth pursuing. Belying its rough exterior, the clean, friendly Super Mercado Mi Pueblo in East Oakland maintains a well-stocked meat counter in back, with cuts of meat you won’t find in conventional markets. But both the adobada de puerco (a marinated pork resembling al pastor) and the arrachera (marinated flank steak) I purchased cost less than $4 a pound, which was clear from the quality of the meat — tough at medium rare.
Finally, there was my secret weapon, so reliable that I felt guilty for cheating: Pusan Plaza in Oakland. The deli at this Korean supermarket, whose takeaway snacks I’ve written about before, also sells tubs of marinated meat. Its paper-thin beef bulgogi ($4.59 a pound) shriveled and crackled on the grill as the edges charred, yet melted away on the tongue. And the pork bulgogi ($3.99 a pound), coated in a sweet, hot red-pepper paste so red it would have startled a stop sign, was so fatty that it caramelized and self-basted at once. Once all the excess had melted away, the tender, meaty, and breath-sappingly spiced pork won everyone over. The pork bulgogi was so flavorful it might taste good even if you cook it on the next level of barbecue’s evolutionary descent: The George Foreman Grill.