Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Sierra Smokehouse BBQ in Cameron Park

Smoked pork ribs share a table with pulled pork, chicken thighs, brisket and side dishes at Sierra Smokehouse BBQ in Cameron Park.
Smoked pork ribs share a table with pulled pork, chicken thighs, brisket and side dishes at Sierra Smokehouse BBQ in Cameron Park. apierleoni@sacbee.com

Sacramentans continue their love affair with barbecue, lining up at T&R Taste of Texas, Sticky Gator, Tank House, Cask & Barrel, Fahrenheit 250, Lucille’s Smokehouse, JR’s Texas Bar-B-Que, MacQue’s Bar-B-Que, House of Chicken and Ribs, Sandra Dee’s ... The list keeps growing.

Recently, we discovered the under-the-radar Sierra Smokehouse BBQ in Cameron Park, opened by pitmaster Ed Anhorn in 2008. It’s the restaurant incarnation of the catering biz he started in 2006. He’s a certified judge for the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the 19,000-member competitive barbecue organization that sanctions more than 450 ’cue throwdowns worldwide.

Anhorn’s “first step” into competitive barbecue was in 2006, when he and his team, Addicted to Rub, took fourth place in the “ribs” category in the West Coast BBQ Championships in Fairfield. They repeated that in 2007. Other competitions and bigger wins followed. These days, Anhorn is more into organizing barbecue events and overseeing their judgings than he is in competing himself.

At Sierra Smokehouse, Anhorn slow-smokes pork ribs, brisket, pulled (shredded) pork shoulder, chicken thighs and breasts, turkey, meatloaf and hot links on three smokers. “I find it more difficult to cook everything on one smoker because meats cook at different temperatures at different rates,” he explained. His cooking times range from two to 16 hours, depending on the meat.

Surprisingly, the smokers are fueled with wood pellets. Anhorn’s a ’cue purist, so why pellets instead of split logs?

“Pellets are wood and are eligible in competitions,” he pointed out, “but I’m looking for consistency. I have a small crew and sometimes I’m not there. I know the pellets are going to feed the exact amount (of wood to the heat source) every time. If my staff were required to put in split logs, would they put in enough or too many, and at the right time? The pellets take that variable out (of the process).

“Also, pellets allow me to change up smoke flavors (without having piles of split wood crowding his small space),” he said. “I represent three barbecue regions in my cooking. I cook pork with hickory (the Carolinas), brisket with mesquite (Texas) and tri-tip with oak (Santa Maria). I use smoke as a complement, not as a dominant factor.”

Though the meats we sampled had excellent consistency and were rubbed with proprietary spice-herb mixtures, we kept looking for more smoke flavor. For us, it’s an essential ingredient in barbecue.

Lunch pals Nate and Bianca Brown and I ordered the BBQ Lover’s Sampler Meal of pork ribs, chicken thighs, chopped brisket and pulled pork, with six sides and cornbread, and pitchers of that Southern nectar, sweet tea (which was well balanced). Nate’s an insurance-company executive, and his third-grader daughter, Bianca, is a veteran lunch pal with the palate of an adult. “This is a get-your-hands-messy place,” she said halfway through lunch. Our faces, too.

The ribs were remarkable, the meatiest and most perfectly cooked we’ve sampled in we-can’t-remember-when. To enhance their flavor and appearance, Anhorn caramelizes a light brush of teriyaki sauce on top, just enough to make you wonder, “Hmm, what’s that twinge of taste in the background?”

Some ’cue-lovers think “fall off the bone tender” is a good sign, but it really means the meat has spent too much time in the smoker and is overcooked and mushy, or was parboiled or oven-baked before reaching the smoker. The ideal template is known as “bite to bite,” defined at www.bbqbeat.com this way: “A properly cooked rib should be moist and tender, yet yield just enough so that when you bite into it you see a rounded bite mark (and the bone”). That’s what we found at Sierra Smokehouse.

In a separate phone call, another veteran KCBS judge-event coordinator confided, “We judges have a joke among us, only it’s not a joke, it’s reality: If you’re making barbecue for the public, you want to over-salt it, overcook it and over-sauce it, and they’ll love it.”

Back at the table: The thigh is the most succulent part of the chicken. While a chicken breast will overcook and dry out in a heartbeat, the thigh is more forgiving. These were tender, moist and, again, perfectly cooked. Ditto the flavor-filled chopped brisket and the moist pulled pork.

As for the sides, we rated them in descending order: house-made mashed potatoes with gravy based in brisket jus (with hidden treasures of brisket “string”), beans (canned, but expertly doctored), macaroni salad, coleslaw, mac ’n’ cheese, flavorless cornbread (which showed up in plastic wrap) and rather plain green beans that had the right consistency but were overwhelmed by vinegar.

Five BBQ sauces were at the table, one of them a Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce we thought would work better with olive oil on a salad. A Carolina-style mustard-based sauce joins three tomato-based Texas-style sauces in varying degrees of heat ’n’ sweet. All but the vinegar-based sauce use a commercial-brand sauce as their base, but are so tasty you’d never guess it.

As a KCBS judge, what criteria do Anhorn look for in the four standard “competition meats” coming off the smoker?

“Appearance, tenderness and taste in ribs, pork shoulder, brisket and chicken,” he said. “My customers are my judges, and they’re not coming back if I don’t hit the flavor notes.”

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Sierra Smokehouse BBQ

2533 Merrychase Drive, Cameron Park

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays

Food: 1/2

Ambiance:

How much: $-$$$

Information: (530) 672-7477, www.sierrasmokehousebbq.com

Elk Grove BBQ Championship

What: Sierra Smokehouse BBQ owner Ed Anhorn is a certified Kansas City Barbeque Society judge and the contest organizer-event director of the upcoming Elk Grove BBQ Championship, conjoined to the Elk Grove Western Festival. Vendors (not the competitors) will offer plates of barbecue for sale.

When: Competition is May 1-2; festival is May 2-3

Where: Elk Grove Regional Park, 9939 Elk Grove-Florin Road, Elk Grove

Information: To compete, www.elkgrovebbqchampionship.com; festival information, www.elkgrovewesternfestival.org

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