Allen Pierleoni

Getting fired up over O’Connor’s tri-tip and chicken

The tender, wood-fired chicken was a recent winning choice at O’Connor’s Grill & Bar.
The tender, wood-fired chicken was a recent winning choice at O’Connor’s Grill & Bar. apierleoni@sacbee.com

Things have changed at O’Connor’s Wood Fire Grill & Bar since our last visit in a previous lifetime. For one thing, the name. For another, the interior. One thing that has remained constant is its burgeoning catering business. We’ve said it before: Sacramentans can’t get enough ’cue.

In a makeover last January, the former O’Connor’s Santa Maria Grill traded its wall-mounted menu for hand-held menus, so all that waiting in line in wasted space is no longer part of the experience. New to the menu are pizzas and pastas, and modernizing the overall vibe is a handsome full bar (with 10 taps). Helping, too, are room dividers and lots of wood. Still standing is the massive river-rock fireplace, which is only 15 years old but looks like 100, in a good way. An outdoor patio will be a good spot to hang out this fall.

The “open pit” has moved from out front by the parking lot to a well-ventilated system inside the kitchen. The adjustable metal grill (lower the meat, raise the meat) hangs over flames from almond wood with some white oak and cooks tri-tip, ribs, chicken and pork shoulder. The only items that go into the traditional smoker out back are brisket and turkey, owner Steve Dougherty said by phone.

My two lunch pals and I wanted a sampling, so we ordered big. While we waited, we tried to figure out the ingredients in the two sticky bottles of house-brand BBQ sauces on our table, one spicy and one not. Both were better than most.

Our half-chicken was the first dish to arrive, remarkably tender, juicy and flavorful, with well-seasoned skin in need of a good crisping. A story emerged: One of the lunch pals is a carnivore-turned-vegetarian, who this day chose a bowl of excellent al-dente penne pasta in creamy pesto sauce full of veggies. Years ago, he loved O’Connor’s grilled chicken so much that, on one visit, when the server asked us if we wanted anything else, he said, “I’d like 10 pounds of chicken skin to go, please.” She missed the humor.

Back to the present: The star at our table was the trio of tri-tip sliders, the tender slices of bottom sirloin nested in soft buns and served with jus and creamy horseradish. “This is the first time I’ve had tri-tip that wasn’t overcooked,” said the meat-eating lunch pal. That’s because so many pit masters treat tri-ip like brisket and smoke it for hours, ruining what the California Beef Council has officially dubbed “California’s Cut,” meaning, if you mention tri-tip outside of California, mostly you’ll get blank looks.

Moving on, a plate of semi-charred pre-sauced (why?) pork spareribs – rubbed with a proprietary spice blend – showed up. “They’re so big they look like they came off a pterodactyl,” someone said. The heavily seasoned ribs were in need of a good trim to get rid of gristle and fat, but the meat itself was tasty enough.

We couldn’t say the same about the “watery,” nearly flavorless pulled pork, or the surprisingly dry, tough brisket, which lacked any hint of a fat cap ever having been present.

We agreed the crisp garlic fries were winners because they weren’t overwhelmed by garlic bits, and the house-made coleslaw was crisp and just wet enough. Though tri-tip chili sounded great in concept, the soupy stuff didn’t work for us in practice. Like much of what we tasted, we wanted it to be better.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

O’Connor’s Wood Fire Grill & Bar

Where: 9267 Greenback Lane, Orangevale

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays

Food:  1/2

Ambiance:

How much: $$-$$$

Information: 916- 988-0112, www.woodpit.com

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