Pizza, burgers and barbecue are among the most subjective food items ever put on a menu. Fans of each have their favorites and there's little chance of swaying them away from their go-to's. Disagreement among enthusiasts is common.
Which leads to an old saying we've heard many times, and it's supposed to apply to wine, too: The best pizza-burger-barbecue is the one you like most, end of story.
Well, not quite. Frankly, not every pizza-burger- barbecue experience is created equal; experimentation is a good thing.
If this column were to suggest a favorite in each category, they would look like this:
Pizza: The house special of "cured" dough, Italian sausage, pepperoni, chorizo, bacon, four cheeses and spicy tomato sauce (add sautéed mushrooms) at Matteo's Pizza & Bistro, 5132 Arden Way, Carmichael; (916) 779-0727, www.pizzamatteo.com.
Burger: The half-pounder made from a custom grind of prime rib, ribeye, tri-tip and chuck, with Swiss cheese, thick-cut bacon and grilled onions on a toasted hoagie roll at Bones Roadhouse, 4430 Pleasant Valley Road, Placerville; (530) 644-4301, www.bonesroadhousebar andgrub.com.
Barbecue: Pork ribs and chicken with deeply flavored sauces at T&R Taste of Texas, 3621 Broadway, Sacramento; (916) 739-1669.
Of those three food groups, 'cue is the least represented in our area simply because there aren't a lot of joints around town. The demand is there, but not the supply.
Compounding the situation was the closure of two of 'cue king Floyd Rothenberger's three J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que restaurants in March.
If you want mesquite-smoked brisket and meaty beef ribs, we'll see you at the surviving (and original) store (180 Otto Circle, Sacramento; 916-424-3520, www.jrtexasbbq.com).
To get around all that, you could wait until Aug. 28 and stock up at the six-day Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off in Sparks, Nev. This year's event will be the 25th annual, at which professional rib cookers will smoke and sell a quarter- million pounds of bones to a Rib Nation a half- million strong.
Wishing to broaden our own 'cue horizon, a few lunch pals and I gathered inside Central Station Grill in Rancho Cordova and ordered a mess of 'cue pork ribs, brisket, tri-tip, chicken and hot links, along with housemade cornbread, beans and potato salad. We inadvertently overlooked the pulled pork.
We surveyed the expansive menu. Prices for 'cue are uncommonly reasonable ($2.50 to $17), as are the tolls for breakfast ($4 to $7) and sandwiches/burgers ($3 to $7). "The biggest and best wings in town" in three flavors go for $7 to $36 (the latter for 30 pieces).
In the parking lot, a black oak-fueled cooker gushed smoke around hefty hunks of meat and pork ribs. Inside, plates of 'cue arrived at our table, along with sides and housemade sauce in three degrees of heat (made so with dashes of hot sauce).
"Some of the best 'cue I've had has been in states where the word 'barbecue' is a noun and not a verb," one lunch pal said. "Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi "
By the end of lunch, we'd agreed we hadn't found a whole lot of flavor in the oddly textured ribs, brisket and dry tri-tip, though the sauces helped.
The tender chicken carried the most smoke, and the juicy hot link was outstanding. ("It's so hot it'll leave a mark on you," said a lunch pal.)
Stirring barbecue sauce into the firm beans aided their cause, and the cool crunch of potato salad countered the heat from the hot sauce. But it's time to rethink the sticky, cakelike jalapeño cornbread.
On the phone later, veteran cook, pitmaster and co-owner Gavin Wages explained his process.
"In California, people don't like (their barbecue) as smoky as they do in Texas, so everything I cook in the smoker gets a certain amount of time (over the wood)," he said. "Then I take (the meat out of the smoker) and wrap it in (plastic wrap) and aluminum foil (to prevent more smoke from reaching it), then put it back in the smoker or finish it in the oven (at the same temperature as the smoker)."
Seems to us this would almost steam and overcook the meats, which would explain their textures. Also, conventional wisdom says that barbecue is all about the smoke, not the lack of it.
One thing we missed on the ribs was any trace of spice or heat from a dry rub. Turns out Wages uses a sweetish wet rub instead, a mix of orange juice, brown sugar, mustard and seasoned salt.
BTW: There was no shortage of customers the day we visited.
Grilled cheese done right
Too often, the classic grilled-cheese sandwich is carelessly relegated to the children's menu at restaurants, next to the fish sticks and chicken tenders.
Not at Skip's Kitchen, where owner Skip Wahl doesn't believe in missed opportunities.
"People don't give the grilled cheese enough credit," he said. "Ours is simple, but has a little depth to it."
Skip's version is four cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, provolone and American), fresh basil and tomato on sourdough bread, grilled to a crunch in garlic butter, served with criss-cut or sweet potato fries ($5.49), though we favor the onion rings. Hey, go wild and add bacon and avocado.
Not in the mood? Skip's burgers are some of the best around.
Get it at 4717 El Camino Ave., Carmichael; (916) 514-0830, www.skipskitchen.com.
CENTRAL STATION GRILL
Where: 3084 Sunrise Blvd., Rancho Cordova
Hours: 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays; 7 a.m.- 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays
Food: Two stars
Ambience: Two stars
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 631-0005, www.csgrill.net
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.