Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Tank House raises the bar on barbecue

Smoked baby back ribs, brisket and split hot links at Tank House are the foundation for lunch.
Smoked baby back ribs, brisket and split hot links at Tank House are the foundation for lunch. apierleoni@sacbee.com

It doesn’t rival Memphis, Charleston or Austin, of course, but our town’s BBQ scene is cookin’ along. In that regard, I’ve added a new place to my list of favorite ’cue joints, which include T&R Taste of Texas, Fahrenheit 250, Sierra Smokehouse BBQ, JR’s Texas Bar-B-Que and House of Chicken and Ribs.

Three lunch pals and I met at Tank House BBQ & Bar the other day and ordered a heap o’ stuff from its short but intense menu ($4 to $42). As we wished to actually hear our conversation, we walked through the echo-y dining room, past the craft beer-centric full bar, and out a back door to a patio set up with umbrella-shaded picnic-style tables.

We sat near the massive smoker, burning oak and cherry wood. A whirring fan unsuccessfully tried to redirect the fragrant smoke away from the seating area, but we didn’t mind the occasional wafts. At one point, when a pitmaster opened the smoker to load 100 pounds of brisket, we came close to sticking our heads inside. Consequently, we wore wood-smoke aroma on our clothes for the rest of the day, like barbecue badges of courage. Or gluttony.

The lunch pals have bellied up to tables and bars in places near and far as world travelers and dining veterans: Davis-based legal-thriller novelist John Lescroart; David Berkley, former owner of David Berkley Fine Wines & Foods and wine consultant to the pre-Obama White House; and Stan Atkinson, retired TV anchorman for channels 3 and 13. The talk was about food, wine and beer, but also about their storied pasts and what the trio is up to.

Lescroart’s latest title – his 18th consecutive New York Times best-seller – is “The Fall.” “I’ve got a three-book deal and I’m working on next year’s book, so the career is going well,” he said.

Gastronome Berkley said, “My wife and I desperately miss (the store), especially the customers who became friends, and tasting and selecting the diverse products.” He continues to evaluate private wine cellars on a consulting basis and recently returned from a fly-fishing excursion to Montana.

“Life is 80 percent family (with 15 grandchildren) and 20 percent work and community involvement,” said Atkinson, who serves on the board of WEAVE and counsels his fellow hearing-impaired for McDonald Hearing Aid Center. He recalled “tasting my first croissant in 1961 in a hotel in Saigon.”

Soon, platters of food were delivered to our picnic table. The Beast Feast included a half-rack of baby back ribs (we added another half-rack), a half-pound of brisket, two hot links, cornbread and two sides (greens and coleslaw). Plus, we tried the “dirty tots” (Tater Tots splashed with cheese sauce and topped with pulled pork) and “dirty mac” (mac ’n’ cheese with smoked chicken).

Lescroart: “My favorite is the pulled pork, but I’m a pulled pork fanatic. I like the hot links next, the ribs and brisket are great, and the (spicy Dijon) mustard is awesome. I would gladly do this again tomorrow – or tonight.”

Berkley: “I’m pleasantly surprised. The brisket has the (right balance) of tenderness and texture, and isn’t overly smoked. The ribs have more of the classic smoky character, and the hot link is a nice combination of flavor and spice.”

Atkinson: “I’m a sucker for baby backs, and these are incredible. The cornbread is dense and coarse, just like the one my mother from Virginia used to make. It has (firmness) when you bite into it.”

As for me: The smoky, tender baby backs – so much more flavorful and texturally rich than standard spareribs – were nearly flawless, and the succulent pulled pork and tender brisket were complementary co-stars. Hot links can be really good or not so much; these scored high on the wurst-o-meter. The two house-made sauces on our table (tangy and sweet) were OK, but next time we’ll ask for the habanero purée and the habanero-spiked sweet sauce kept “behind the bar.”

We agreed the crisp, fresh-tasting coleslaw was too dry, and the big bowl of greens needed seasoning and more tang. In an interesting twist, the greens were not the standard collard or mustard, but a mix of Swiss chard and kale, sautéed in white wine vinegar and touched with onion and bacon bits. Great foundation for more experimentation.

Next time, we’ll go with plain Tater Tots, as the cheese sauce on the “dirty” version made the usually crispy critters soggy and gummy. As for the radiatori pasta-based mac ’n’ cheese, I agree with Berkley: “It’s a project.”

P.S. Tank House is named for the vintage-1881 water tank, adjacent to the patio.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

TANK HOUSE BBQ & BAR

Where: 1925 J St., Sacramento

Hours:.11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Wednesdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Bar is open till 2 a.m. daily. Weekend brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Food: for the meats, 1/2 for the sides

Ambiance: for the patio, for the dining room

How much: $$-$$$

Information: 916-431-7199, www.tankhousebbq.com

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