Lucky for us, there's no shortage of area restaurants with the kinds of farm-to-fork menus that reflect the foodie mantra: seasonal, fresh, sustainable, artisanal and local. Maybe we've come to take them for granted, but we did get a timely reminder last October when Mayor Kevin Johnson proclaimed Sacramento as "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital."
Things aren't so hot for lovers of barbecue, though, as there just aren't enough joints to go around. On the other hand, this is not North Carolina. Still, lots of folks hanker after smoked ribs, brisket, pulled pork, hot links, cornbread, greens and the like, and are frustrated in their search for that style of down-home cookin'.
That's why the lines have been out the door at Dickey's Barbecue Pit since it opened April 18 in the Natomas area, wedged between the estimable Thai restaurant Tuk Tuk and the noisy Five Guys Burgers & Fries.
One recent afternoon we stood in line at Dickey's with 18 other hungry people, as more walked through the door. We chatted with a woman standing next to us, who works for a lobbyist at the Capitol.
"I live near here," she said. "I decided the next time I drove by and the line wasn't on the sidewalk, I would come in and get takeout."
Dickey's "Skip the Line, Order Online" program helps a bit with crowd control.
The Dickey's formula is smart and well-conceived. A counterman slices and chops meat in front of you, while a second counter person handles the side dishes, spooning potatoes and beans into cardboard cups. The open kitchen behind them provides some entertainment.
Three tasty 'cue sauces (mild, sweet and hot) are at the condiments table, to be pumped out of dispensers – help yourself. The grub is served on wax paper-lined metal trays, not plates. Tables are quickly bused, common areas kept clean.
Wood paneling, faux brick and blow-ups of 'cue-oriented photos line the walls, one showing Ronald Reagan at what looks like a country cookout. Honky-tonk music plays in the background.
The illusion is that of a small joint in Texas or somewhere in the South, where neighbors might gather to bond over smoked meats, homemade side dishes scooped from chipped casserole dishes, and tall glasses of cold sweet tea (there's a dispenser for that, too, and the recipe is proprietary). Nice touches, but the reality is something else.
The first Dickey's opened in Dallas in 1941 (it's still serving) and grew into a regional mini-chain. Things went boom in 1994, when the family-owned company began selling franchises. Today there are about 300 stores in 43 states; 30 are in California, with three more to open this year.
Aggressive marketing seems to be a key element of Dickey's dynamic. For instance, irritating promotional messages were broadcast between song sets while we ate. The yellow plastic cups at the drinks dispenser are emblazoned with the company logo, a QR code linked to the corporate website, and this message: "I'm a souvenir. Don't leave me. Take me home." You can even join the Big Yellow Cup Club and "be the first to know upcoming promotions or specials."
The menu board shows meats and sausages by the pound ($13) and by the whole cut ($12 a pound), along with family packs and picnic packs ($25.95 to $49.95), meat plates, sandwiches, baked potatoes, salads and sides.
Texas means brisket, so we ordered it chopped and sliced. We added a half-rack of ribs ($12), turkey breast, spicy cheddar sausage, baked potato casserole, mac 'n' cheese and fried okra. Also on the menu: chicken, Polish sausage, ham and pulled pork, and nine more sides including jalapeño beans, green beans with bacon, and fried onion "tanglers" ($2.25 to $9.25).
We dug in. The good-looking sliced brisket alternated between dry and fatty. But when the meat and the fat were chopped together, the result was a pile of well-seasoned crisp-soft brisket that improved with splashes of sauce. But where was the smoke?
"These ribs are just the way I like them – slathered in sauce and falling off the bone," said a lunch pal. The St. Louis-style pork ribs – not babybacks – were rich and moist, but lacked any "chew" texture. Again, the smoke was distant.
We found the sausage too greasy (the clots of cheese contributed) and the slices of rubbery turkey breast not worth cutting into after the first bites. The mac 'n' cheese was OK, the potatoes double-OK.
If you've never had real fried okra, you still haven't. The pre-battered and frozen nuggets didn't resemble the fresh, crisp coins fried with cornmeal that are a staple in the South.
We asked franchisee Jared Katzenbarger how things work at his two stores (one in Elk Grove). Because of the sheer volume of food served at the store, and time constraints, some of the side dishes are premade and delivered by a local supplier, such as the okra nuggets and mac 'n' cheese. Others are prepared on site daily, including the beans. The recipes for all the sides are original and proprietary, Katzenbarger said.
The meats are fresh and cooked on site in an industrial-size gas-fueled smoker supplemented with smoldering hickory logs. The dry-rubbed pork shoulders and briskets cook at 225 degrees from 6 p.m. till 8 the next morning; then the temperature is raised to 275 degrees and the rubbed ribs go in for four hours.
Katzenbarger wants it made clear that the art of 'cue is involved, and that this is not an assembly-line operation.
"We don't get frozen pieces of meat that all come out the same," he said. "The briskets range from 10 to 25 pounds and we have to cook them accordingly. The hickory logs vary in size, so we have to adjust for that."
And the smoke issue? "We do a light smoke on everything because it's more palatable to more people than heavy smoke," he said.
DICKEY'S BARBECUE PIT
Where: 4630 Natomas Blvd., Sacramento. Sister store is at 5110 Laguna Blvd., Elk Grove.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. at both locations
Food: Two 1/2 stars
Ambiance: Two 1/2 stars
How much: $-$$$
Information: Natomas: (916) 378-4122; Elk Grove: (916) 546-4400; www.dickeys.com
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.