I took a plastic foam clamshell of Uncle Willie’s BBQ chicken home in my car, and the smell lingered for days. Long after it was a little heap of sauce-smudged backbones and slippery skin, the ghost of smoke clung to anything that had come near it. And not just car mats, sweater fibers, and fingers, but even the kitchen sink where I ditched my plate. It was like a kitchen towel that accidentally starts to burn and gets doused under the tap: It goes on exuding a pervasive smokiness you can’t seem to get out of your nose.
Deep smoky is what Uncle Willie’s does. The storefront barbecue place at the west end of downtown Oakland may be in the shadow of a soaring townhouse construction site, but there’s something about the family-run place with deeply pungent ‘cue that feels neighborhood-scrappy.
There really is an Uncle Willie. With his wife Beverly and nephews Nichalas Breland and Craig Jones, Willie Taylor runs the restaurant like he’s laying out lunch at a family reunion. Everybody has day jobs — Taylor is a shift supervisor at Caltrain.
The barbecue business grew out of the family’s summer catering jobs. In late 2005, they pooled their money and acquired a space that had been abandoned by Texas Original Barbecue and Seafood. It even came with a smoker. They sponge-rolled the walls and put up portraits of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
You can see the smoker from the counter where you order. Beef brisket spends 12 hours in the gentle heat and fierce smoke of its smoldering mesquite and hickory. Pork ribs and beef links smoke out back with the chickens, in huge barrel grills Taylor fabricated himself. They cook over a mix of hickory chips, chunks of mesquite charcoal, and Kingsford briquettes. “Gotta be Kingsford,” Breland says.
The style is pure Texas. Thomas grew up in Paris, relatively close to Alabama and Louisiana, a town where cowboy meets Cajun. Beneath the deep layer of smoke in that chicken, you can sense the Cajun spice rub. And all the meats pick up extra flavor from a marinade — a house-made, all-purpose mix Breland calls bugga juice (like “booger,” only with an East Texas drawl). Sprayed at regular intervals during the smoking process, bugga juice keeps the meats in the barrel smokers from drying out.
Meats come as dinners or as sandwiches, which really aren’t sandwiches but half-size dinners capped with soft bread slices in a baggie.
Like that smoky chicken, the meats come pre-plastered with sauce. Ask for it on the side if you’re a barbecue purist, but I have to say: The sauce doesn’t suck. Faint praise, maybe, but compared to the seriously cloying versions smudging forearms at other local barbecue joints, it’s saying something. The sauce here is sweet and tomatoey without making you think of ketchup or molasses. Go for “hot,” which is pretty much a slurry of sauce and chile seeds. It has a burn that builds, eventually making your lips feel as if they’d been strafed with sandpaper.
The pork ribs come from farther up on the ribcage than baby backs. They’re bigger, and with a higher bone-to-flesh ratio. They obviously get coddled on Uncle Willie’s barrel grills. Inside, the meat was a pale, poached-tuna pink, a color you get from slow, steady smoking. It wasn’t fall-off-the-bone tender, not like the meat on steamed pork ribs. But it was deliciously chewy, and a little gnawing left the bones clean. Plush, fleshy riblets — from the flaps of meat routinely trimmed away from rib racks — came on the side. They tasted good, but rubbery webs of fat between the muscle fibers remained stubborn. It hadn’t rendered out, a sign the riblets needed more time in the smoker.
Beef links had an airy, open texture. It made them seem delicate — not something you expect in barbecue joint links, which are usually as stiff and highly processed as ballpark Polish sausages. They had delicate, almost papery casings.
But texture took a nosedive with the gummy hamburger bun on a pulled-pork shoulder sandwich, a special listed on the dry-erase board out front. The moist, gray, finely shredded meat was as deep-down smoky as Uncle Willie’s chicken, with a double bite from salt and black pepper. But in a sandwich where you’d expect to find a big, shiny gob of barbecue sauce, it had only a thin smear. And the marshmallow-soft bun fused to the roof of our mouths. We wanted to pry it off with a finger.
Like the pork sandwich, an order of fried chicken wings came with a pile of crinkly, fluffy-textured freezer fries. The wings had a salty, cornmeal-textured breading that grew on us. And though at first nibble the webby, gelatinous skin gave us pause, the meat underneath was totally succulent. We got over it.
Brisket is Uncle Willie’s most ambiguously satisfying meat. Its campfire-sweet aromas felt like a romp through smoky, even as the texture made it seem clunky. The thick slices of brisket reminded me of well-done prime rib: They pulled apart easily with the fingers, but I wanted them to dissolve in my mouth. And there were thick strains of fat in some slices. If only the meat had spent more time in the smoker.
This is a fish place too. But only in the way that McDonald’s is a fish sandwich place. If you were picking up lunch for the office, and you had to get something for a pescatarian, then yeah, you’d order some fried catfish. But don’t think about going all counterintuitive at a barbecue joint and taking a chance on the seafood. Believe me.
But by all means go wild with the sides (dinner-size plates come with two). Nichalas Breland says they’re all made from scratch. Aunt Beverly’s potato salad is a Southern-style pomade of mustardy mashed potato, nicely bright tasting. Collards were nice too — Breland cooks them with smoked turkey necks, for customers who don’t eat pork. Necks also go into the beans in red beans and rice. They had a kind of cowboy-bean zestiness, a little like chili.
And even though the food here is filling enough that you may not feel like a dessert, anyone who works the counter seems so proud of Craig Jones’ peach cobbler that you might find yourself picking up an order anyway. Packed with jagged pieces of pie crust in a shockingly sweet, cinnamon-infused syrup, it’s like a little taste of neighborhood. Besides, sticking your tongue in the cobbler’s cold, viscous syrup feels like it just might leach some of the smoke out.