PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK C. ANDERSON
Put some sizzle in your summer
So this is how it all ends. Not jumping off the wrong cliff or eating suspect sauerkraut, but flipping the car while attempting a high-speed turn off Highway 101 to traverse a sudden offramp, all in an effort to find some of the best barbecue in the Monterey Bay area in time for summer.
I figured this meat-driven mission would endanger my wellbeing. Only I always assumed that would be more cholesterol and/ or calorie-induced. But so it goes with worthy missions: You have some idea where they’ll take you, then much of the adventure comes with the surprising turns it takes.
From the offramp, a serpentine route rambles through the grassy hills of Prunedale. On my phone the curves resemble a water slide a stoned sea otter might design.
A final left at the small hand-painted signs that says “BBQ” leads into a nondescript residential neighborhood that dead-ends against the northbound side of 101. Down the sloping driveway with another homemade sign sits Prunedale Market & Deli, a combo plate of smoked meats, homey charm and funky rural spirit.
Outside more scrappy signs and a huge smoker beckon people from the highway. Inside Martin Muñoz immediately offers us samples of the soup of the day. The cup he alternatively calls “Mexican stew” and “Spanish chili” works as a metaphor for the place: It’s generous, tasty, improvised (“The recipe’s never the same,” he says) and has a lot going on—pepperoni, pork shoulder, hamburger and a tomato base with pleasant zing.
I tell him I’m on a barbecue mission and he launches into his back story. Some highlights: He worked for 25 years as a chef at Original Joe’s in San Jose and “hated every year,” though it’s hard to imagine him hating any job, person or meat. By the way, he adds, he’s not barbecuing anything—he’s smoking everything. He’s become a Yelp darling despite the fact, or maybe because, he says, “I don’t do Internet. I’ve never taken a photo of food.”
The unrepentant hospitality is something I’ll find elsewhere on this mission, but not quite like this. That has to be reason No. 1 he tops Travel and Leisure’s barbecue rankings nationwide. A close No. 2 is a three-way tie: the ribs, chicken and tri-tip sandwich.
The ribs, which are smoked low and slow for four hours with a house garlic-salt-pepper rub, can be enjoyed without a drop of sauce, the real test of the genre (though he pours me a to-go coffee cup of sauce). The chicken proves deep in rich and smoky flavor that I can taste just by thinking about it. And his legendary tri-tip sandwich, as big as a football and piled with spicy Fritos and Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce, is worthy of a Prunedale monument.
My pops came along with me to scout the spot. He’s the type who finds friends-he-hasn’t-met in every stranger, and is from a Prunetuckystyle spot called Coalinga. He was blown away by the welcome we received and the personality of the place. The sources that turned me onto it said they received the same greeting, which gets to the main place quality barbecue takes eaters: a sense of comfort and connection.
UP IN SMOKE
My aforementioned father loves to grill, so I grew up around a barbecue. Come summer, barbecuing was almost a nightly affair. A Weber was my first purchase when I got an apartment. My brother raises cattle. But my most fundamental connection with barbecue is all about the…sauce.
I loved barbecue sauce so wholeheartedly that as a kid I wanted it with every meal, to the point that my mom restricted my intake to one ramekin. “Why not more?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “It just seems like a lot.”
So I was floating when I saw one of the area’s newest barbecue spots, The Smoke Point BBQ & Provisions in San Juan Bautista, welcomes guests with a sign announcing five different homemade sauces: Central Texas, Kansas City, North Carolina, South Carolina and a white sauce, typically an Alabama creation.
Sauces are a major point of contention among ’cue connoisseurs, like my companion on my first visit. “That’s too many choices,” he said. “They should do one or two really good sauces.”
The Smoke Point sauces provide a shorthand tour of the most prominent styles of barbecue in the United States, from the minimal saucemaximum smoking approach popular in Central Texas to the mustard sauce-and-whole-hog enthusiasm of South Carolina.
In California—outside of Santa Maria and its oak-fired tri-tip on handcrank adjustable grills—there’s no clear differentiation like those that distinguish other parts of the country. Barbecue aficionados like chef/veteran traveler Matt Glazer (see sidebar, p. 47) can testify.
“I’ve experienced all the identifiable American barbecue cultures and love them deeply,” he says. “This funky state, apart from Santa Maria, is a melting pot of barbecue culture.”
I feel lucky to be open to all of them. And I feel that much luckier that The Smoke Point has given the tiny town huge flavor, creativity and a newborn barbecue sense of self.
Chef Jarad Gallagher is similarly stoked. After earning Michelin stars while cheffing at places like Michael Mina and Plumed Horse he swore off the pressures of upper echelon restaurants to set up shop here on a tumbleweed street.
“When we think of great food and spending time with our families, we think of barbecue,” he says.
But he aspires to do more than classic barbecue.
“There’s enough ribs and brisket,” he says. “This is not me entering into the sector and cannibalizing other people’s businesses by doing the same thing. I have the experience and the training to do something different.”
It’s working, in a way you could call chef-driven. His Fourth Street spot enjoys a family vibe (I warned you, it’s a theme), with lots of regulars and his little daughter running around while his sister and brother-inlaw serve guests and smoke meats. A mural honors native tribes, which helped inspire The Smoke Point’s hummingbird symbol. The smart cocktail program stars whiskeys and scotch. The “provisions” from Mary Risavi of Wise Goat Organics—sauces, spices, soaps, lotions and more— are well-curated. The Dr. Pepperoncini sandwich (with white Cheddar and crispy onions) or the burger (with Angus brisket and chuck) almost outclasses the big meats.
On my tray a food festival unfolds: macaroni salad, pickled onions, thick ribs, lip-smacking brisket, jalapeño-cheddar sausage, zingy coleslaw, tender pulled pork and moist smoked turkey. I sit on the sunny back deck overlooking another reason to love The Smoke Point: its pavilion-to-be. The backyard is as big as the restaurant and tidy front patio combined, and Gallagher aims to seat up to 100 and build a stage for live music.
The popularity of The Smoke Point, which debuted in November, comes at a time when many would guess barbecue enthusiasm—at least in crunchy coastal California—would be fading in the face of rising meat costs and plant-based eating. But it’s one of several ’cue debuts that suggest otherwise.
Seaside’s By the Bay BBQ came into being as a ghost-kitchen concept last fall amid the pandemic. Chef-partner Danny Abbruzzese draws from two decades of personal Southern history and collaborates with pit master Paul Van Langen to smoke brisket and other goodies up to 19 hours. Meanwhile, he has created a powerhouse lineup of side dishes: robust ham-hock collard greens, pork belly baked beans, black-eyed peas, house bread and butter, pickles and more.
After directing pioneering properties like Asilomar Conference Grounds and Portola Hotel (where he still runs food and beverage), Abbruzzese knows his craft. And growing up in an Italian kitchen in Brooklyn primed him nicely to absorb the flavors of the South. “I had an affinity for the really homey powerful flavors, done fresh,” he says.
Like many chefs featured here, he focuses on natural flavors and textures, which is different than the saucy style favored by many on the West Coast. “That’s what smoking is all about,” he says.
Back in Prunedale, 101 Wine Press was born just ahead of COVID. The Olson family behind the eponymous vineyard wanted a place to showcase its pinots and chardonnays and crafted a clean and contemporary space on San Miguel Canyon Road pairing vino with Santa Maria-style barbecue and eight craft beers on draft.
The chicken, tri-tip and sausage meals are sturdy, as are the bigger combo meals and “fully loaded” baked potatoes. The menu also dips into jalapeño mac and cheese with pepper Jack, fontina, Cheddar and bacon, and the tasty El Jefe I tried with tri-tip and fontina on garlic bread. Another trendy twist: the adult Capri Suns like the “Unicorn” with white sangria, all-natural butterfly tea and edible purple glitter.
Kevin Olson started the winery and his son Nick manages the spot. “Vineyard barbecuing is what we as a family know best,” Nick says. “We’ve been barbecuing for each other since I was a kid.”
While Elroy’s Fine Foods isn’t a barbecue joint—it joined Monterey as a gourmet grocery store last August—given the staff enthusiasm for the massive new Grillworks grill and all the flavor they pump from it, it merits mention.
Over mostly almond wood, a team led by grill master and Carmel Belle alum Roberto Aquino smoke salmon and trout, and grill tritip, chicken, ribs and vegetables, with hoisin pork kebabs making for a popular recent addition.
“You get all the smoky flavors, you caramelize the sugars in vegetables, especially onions,” co-owner/operator Jay Dolata says. “It’s cooking the way nature intended.”
As I toured the tri-county area, the theme of family remained the most persistent. The biggest family of barbecue places is owned by the Gilroy-based Ingram family—Lawrence Jr. and his sons Eric, Franz and Larry. Salinas City BBQ, where I had a dynamite gaucho sandwich with grilled onion, provolone and house chimichurri, wins votes as the best in Monterey County, but so does its sister spot, relatively new Crossroads BBQ. You could make a compelling case that Aptos St. BBQ and Mission St. BBQ—where I loved the textbook ribs, beans, brisket and beer—are the best representatives in their respective cities.
It’s hard to argue with their formula for success across each property: No shortcuts. Slow smoking done daily. Expansive craft draft beer options with standout local brands like Sante Adairius and Alvarado Street Brewing. Live blues-leaning music whenever possible.
Out in Hollister, Mike Mansmith starts smoking his brisket for the Wednesday farmers’ market 15 hours ahead of time. (He also does St. Louis-style ribs, chicken and pork shoulder.) But you can make the case his barbecue started far earlier, before he graduated high school and launched what’s become a 30-year career. Barbecue sauce is in his blood, you might say.
Decades back, Mansmith’s parents created the celebrated grilling spices of the same name, so he started cooking to showcase them and hasn’t looked back. At the farmers’ market and his popular Friday and Saturday oak-fired cookouts noon–7pm at 2410 Airline Highway, they figure into every preparation.
The family brand barbecue paste, meanwhile, unleashes all sorts of possibilities: Mansmith dilutes with everything from apricot syrup and orange juice to smoked molasses and Karo syrup.
His weekly appearances and catering gigs—and a tri-tip sandwich that calls for a half-pound—take him through 70,000 pounds a year. “Honestly it just boils down to quality,” he says. “If you can give someone a quality item at a reasonable rate, you’ve got something really good.”
In Carmel, a family operation has spawned its own family of barbecue options. The recipe at Bruno’s Market functions so smoothly, third generation businessman Ryan Sanchez exported it to his Valley Hills Deli & BBQ and Corral Market & Deli, featuring all the same breads, meats and techniques.
“If it’s working, why mess with the formula?” Sanchez says. The key to the flagship tritip sandwich, rather than a rub, is an atypical teriyaki marinade that lasts three days. While his grilling game has evolved from propane to oak-fired, the marinade has been the same since the 1990s when Sanchez was manning the grill as a kid. Another crucial consideration: cutting against the grain to enhance tenderness.
“It’s fun being a part of a legacy that started with my grandpa,” Sanchez says. “We’ve evolved with the world but the vibe my grandpa created hasn’t left. The energy still lives there.”
People have different reactions when I explain that I aim to eat all the Monterey Bay barbecue. Some chuckle. Some show pity. Some are thrilled, and launch into soliloquies on the importance of burnt ends. And many ask, so what’s the best spot?
Prunedale, with its unreal juxtaposition of Prunedale Market & Deli and 101 Wine Press—one no-frills and bizarrely famous, the other sparkling and locally adored—is right near the top. New Monterey’s Coast Guard Pier, having hatched Bon Ton L’Roy’s Lighthouse Smokehouse (which moved up the street) and now home to PigWizard’s wholehog roasts, deserves a footnote.
But in the end the best destination is somehow mid-Santa Cruz County thanks to three major barbecue destinations. Cole’s is the most time-honored spot in this stretch of California, and does fittingly old-fashioned saucy ribs and some of the best chicken I’ve tried during this odyssey. The service is welcoming, and the burger is locally famous. Aptos St. Barbeque ranks as a favorite destination among foodies; there are also rumors it’s bringing back the best live music schedule of any barbecue place around. And Holy Smokes Country BBQ & Catering is one of my favorite spots on many fronts: It enjoys great classics and creative specials alike (note the “BBQ Sundae”), killer ambiance, outstanding local craft beer, superior sauces and an awesome beer/barbecue garden, and it is owned and operated by a family that clearly loves what they do.
Still, if this mission revealed anything about barbecue, it comes back to that: family. So while I’ll drive to Santa Cruz for Holy Smokes’ barbecued pork belly sandwich with tomato aioli and spicy vinegar slaw, my most preferred spot to enjoy barbecue will forever be in the backyard with family, unlimited sauce included.