Counter Culture: The smoker is cookin’ at Fahrenheit 250

06/06/2014 12:00 AM

06/05/2014 11:51 PM

Two things are true in the land of barbecue: Sacramentans can’t get enough of it, and it’s one of the most subjective dishes on any casual menu anywhere. It’s as personal to individual diners as pizza and hamburgers, and fans are unyieldingly loyal to their favorites. Rave about a BBQ joint to most any group of people and someone invariably will say, “Yeah, but Such-and-Such has the best ribs in town.”

Three lunch pals and I were batting around that notion at a booth at Fahrenheit 250, the ’cue spot that opened in late March in a building formerly occupied by Bisla’s sports bar and, once upon a time, by the Cattle Club, a live-music hot spot.

The tired, dim place has been spectacularly refurbished into a stylishly casual cloth-napkin restaurant that twists the ’cue concept with professional table service and artisanal cocktails. It could have turned out to be pretentious, but didn’t. Inside the handsome, airy space is an inviting bar and adjoining lounge. The walls of the dining room are paneled in vintage wood salvaged from old barns in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Chairs are antique, and the blades of an old windmill function as sculptures on three walls.

But don’t be fooled: On the back patio is the heart of the operation, a massive steel smoker burning oak and fruit wood. It was hand-welded by the legendary Houston-based Klose Co., whose guiding principle is “maintaining the integrity of the Old Western trail drive-style of cooking.” Executive chef and pit boss Jacob Carriker fills it with locally and regionally sourced hand-rubbed brisket (smoked for 12-plus hours), St. Louis-style pork ribs, tri-tip, pork shoulder, chicken, turkey and hot links. Capacity: 1,000 pounds.

On this day, my ’cue-loving tablemates were Norm Marshall, who works in commercial construction; Rob Randall, who works in new-home construction (both of Sacramento); and banker Teresa Parenti, who drove in from the Bay Area.

We sipped that Southern nectar, sweet tea, from Ball canning jars, remarked on the menu ($6 to $28) and ordered a heap o’ food: three-meat platter (ribs, brisket, pulled pork), red beans and rice, collard greens, shrimp ’n’ grits, fried green tomatoes, smoked trout ’n’ artichoke dip, and corn ’n’ crawfish fritters. The prawns wrapped in house-cured bacon appetizer is regrettably gone.

We sampled spoonfuls of the four housemade regional sauces in plastic squeeze bottles on the table and chatted about – what else? – our barbecue habits. Norm fires up his gas grill for swordfish, salmon and tri-tip. “It gets a lot of use during the summer, like four nights out of seven,” he said.

Rob has cooked ’cue for 30 years, since he was a boy in small-town Houma, La., the seat of Terrebonne Parish. He regularly turns out down-home delicacies on his hardwood-fueled smokers, and is a master of technique and timing. He showed a smartphone picture of a recent crawfish feed in Lafayette, La., emailed from his dad.

“My go-tos are baby back (pork) ribs and beef ribs,” he said. “I use pecan wood for pork and chicken, and hickory or mesquite for beef.”

When another set of lunch pals and I ate at Fahrenheit 250 at its soft opening in March, we marveled at the care and imagination that went into the appetizers and sides. That’s because they’re usually treated as afterthoughts at most ’cue joints, but not here, we agreed.

So it was a surprise this time around to find the fried green tomatoes cut a bit thick and slightly undercooked, but topped with that same silken jalapeño cream sauce well-balanced with piccalilli (spicy relish). The well-cooked collard greens were way too bitter with vinegar, and the batter on the corn ’n’ crawfish fritters (with tamarind ketchup) was slightly rubbery. “I don’t taste any crawfish,” said Rob, who’s eaten his share. As for the red beans ’n’ rice, the serving was a mound of white rice with only a scattering of flavorful beans on top. Where was the usual rich bean broth trickling into the rice?

Faring better were the tangy Mount Lassen smoked red trout-artichoke dip, based in cream cheese and served with crunchy crostini; and pop-to-the-bite prawns paired with coarse, stone-ground grits, covered in tomato cream sauce with bits of house-cured bacon and Andouille sausage. “I could eat that whole bowl,” said Teresa, who ended up scraping the last serving onto her plate.

The smoked-meats platter arrived and looked great. In March, we thought the pork ribs were too soft, but this incarnation was as good as ribs get. They were sweet, meaty, appropriately smoky and had great “chew.” We teamed them with squirts of spicy red sauce and licked our fingers.

Our server had asked us if we wanted our brisket “lean or fatty.” In our book, brisket ain’t brisket without even marbling and a quarter-inch fat cap, which melts into the meat during slow cooking. The March brisket was lean and oversmoked; this brisket was fork-tender, moist and saturated with favor. It showed the highly prized “smoke ring,” the visible part of a chemical reaction between meat and heat that indicates proper low and slow smoking. Best dish on the table.

In mid-April, a buddy and I had stopped by for a plate of premium pulled pork that was tender, moist and so good we couldn’t stop eating it, and fried green tomatoes that defined the dish. The pulled pork on this day was dry and lacked flavor.

Granted, the place was slammed, but we were puzzled. The ribs and brisket are better than ever, but what was going on with some of the other dishes?

“It’s no excuse, but we had a large delivery for 55 people that day, so the kitchen probably was distracted,” said director of service Tyler Monk.

“We are aware of some issues that need to be fixed, and we can learn from (our slips) and try every day to improve them.”

Fair enough.

Bones knows burgers

Any best-of list is subjective by definition. For instance, take the cover story in the current Sacramento magazine, a round-up of “18 of the tastiest” hamburgers around. They’re all solid entries and many of them have appeared in this column. We’d like to suggest one more, in the spirit of guiding folks to good stuff: the hand-formed, half-pound “ranch burger” at Bones Roadhouse outside of Placerville.

The remarkable sandwich is the result of an arrangement that co-owners Sherry Pankersley and Bill Miller have with a Roseville-based meat wholesaler. It custom-grinds Bones’ burger meat from the trim that’s cut off of prime rib, rib-eye, tri-tip and chuck roasts. The burger is served on a toasted hoagie roll from the Truckee Sourdough Co., with grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and Bones Sauce, a mash-up of mustard, mayo and Thousand Island dressing (starting at $9).

“We cook the burger directly on a flat grill and don’t smash it down,” Pankersley explained. “We don’t add a bunch of seasonings, just salt and pepper. The people who don’t have a problem with calories love to add cheese, thick-cut bacon, pastrami and avocado. I don’t know where they get their appetites.”

Best advice: Load the burger with everything, add a side of onion rings, sit at the bar and use the paper towels. Now who’s the tastiest of them all?

Bones Roadhouse, 4430 Pleasant Valley Road, Placerville; (530) 644-4301, www.bonesroadhousehangtown.com.

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