Restaurant News & Reviews

Urban Roots brings distinctly Sacramento spin to the art of barbecue and beer

Barbecue always seems to come with controversy, something Sacramento has seen amply demonstrated of late. But even setting aside incendiary kitchen-makeover shows, where there’s smoke, there are typically fiery opinions on regional differences, sauce types, meat type, wood in the smoker, amount of meat in the greens and much, much more.

Urban Roots, the cheerful and expansive new brewery and BBQ joint near Southside Park, aims to chill out all these heated debates. With a huge and stylish indoor space that seats hundreds, quick counter service, relatively affordable pricing and a shaded patio complete with misters for battling summer heat, Urban Roots not surprisingly has been packing in both the downtown and midtown crowds, all chowing down on meats served up on battered, utilitarian quarter-sheet pans.

Its secret ingredients for barbecue bonhomie include plenty of beer and something for everyone in its mix of sauces, meats (brisket, ribs and even — relax your grip on those pearls, BBQ purists — salmon) and sides both classic and newfangled.

The beer offered up by co-founders Rob Archie (who also owns beloved beer institution Pangaea) and Peter Hoey, the brewmaster, takes a similar inclusive approach. Every one is available in a full or half pour, a nice option for lighter drinkers or those wishing to taste a lot. (For nondrinkers, sweet tea and iced tea, plus housemade lemonade, are on hand.)

As a server told me as I dithered about what to order from among nearly a dozen rotating offerings, Urban Roots goes out of its way to brew something for everyone, not just the hard-charging hopheads. There’s a crisp rice-based lager, a snappy and tart grisette and restrained, fruity saisons as well as IPAs (of which I’m not always a fan, but the citrusy Like Riding a Bike goes down easy). Collabs with other breweries, like a chocolatey porter brewed with Three Weavers, are ever changing as well.

According to Archie, by next year the brewery will have more barrel-aged beers with a longer lead time — such as stouts and mixed-fermentation styles like saison — on offer, as well as limited releases and plans to max out at 18-20 taps. “By this time next year, it’s almost going to be like a reopening,” says Archie — though Hoey began brewing more than two months in advance of the brewery’s official May grand opening.

It’s not just their beer that requires careful advance planning. Meats are smoked for 18-24 hours, which in the restaurant’s early days led to occasional shortages. “It’s not like you can just whip up more brisket real fast,” says Archie, laughing. Accordingly, the kitchen — helmed by executive chef Brett Stockdale, who was previously executive chef at Pangaea and has butchering experience as well — amped up its pace and now has two “pull” times (11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily) for getting meat out of the smoker, ensuring customers get freshly cooked meat — or they should.

On one of my visits, I asked about the brisket on my tray at about 5:30, hoping to get the newly pulled meat, but they were still using up the meat from lunch service, according to the server. It tasted fine and deeply smoky, but the texture was just a bit dry — something I noticed with the brisket on another visit as well.

Ribs, which managed to be both fall-off-the-bone tender and moist, were another story, just about perfect each time I tried them. All the meat at Urban Roots is served without sauce, as it’s done in Texas. According to Archie, in the planning stages the team visited Memphis, Austin, Nashville and more, leaning slightly to the Texas style but adding local twists and a range of options in sauces: There’s a spiky, excellent mustard sauce and a thin vinegar sauce in addition to tangy mild and hot versions of the classic sauce. The hot version, however, tasted only allegedly hot; I’d have liked it more piquant.

Such classics as ribs and brisket, plus pulled pork shoulder, are de rigueur, but Urban Roots also branches into less commonly seen meats: housemade smoked sausage, porky and peppery; smoked turkey that was juicy but salty enough to be reminiscent of ham; and salmon, a bit light on smoke flavor but delicious in a sandwich with herb aioli and arugula. (The salmon is also available on an appetizer tray with pickled vegetables and baguette.)

Sandwiches include pulled pork, with thick chestnut-colored onion rings that I wished also came as a side, and brisket. Both left it to diners to anoint them with BBQ sauce, which fixed a certain dryness.

As at many BBQ joints, the menu is modular and flexible, allowing diners to pick types of meats and an array of made-in-house, from-scratch sides (all conveniently served in paper cups; if, as is likely, your eyes prove bigger than your stomach, it’s easy to take things home). My favorite sides included tender collard greens in porky, slightly spicy juices, a richly dressed, dill-scented potato salad and fresh, balanced coleslaw.

Green beans with smoked tomatoes, a California spin on the standard green-bean side, had promise but never quite came together with a unified flavor; the mac and cheese was creamy. Thick baked beans (which are vegetarian) were not too sweet, with excellent seasoning. I wanted more defined poblano and corn flavor out of the grits, but it was drowned by a heavy hand with the cream — though that was itself delicious.

Appetizers for sharing over beer come under the heading “More Food” on the highly explanatory menu. Among them are a pretzel (not quite in line with the BBQ theme), a very good and unusual pickle tray — green tomatoes, crisp cauliflower and jalapeños were some of the best items — and its polar opposite, a dirty mac and cheese with spicy rib meat.

In response to customer demand, Urban Roots has added vegan and vegetarian dishes, including a vegan baked pasta with seasonal vegetables — nicely flavored and fresh tasting, but with overcooked pasta. Enormous salads also offer vegetarians a meal-sized option, though the house salad with creamy cilantro dressing and tortilla strips was a touch overdressed and overwhelmingly salty.

Aiming to please is an Urban Roots signature, and signage abounds within the restaurant pointing customers to where to order, where to stand in line and where to pick up BBQ sauce, utensils and other fixings. You order at the counter and get a buzzer that goes off when your food — which tended to come out reasonably quickly — is ready.

So much thought has been put into these elements that it’s surprising to find one big point of confusion: To pick up food when it’s ready, customers have no choice other than to cut right into the line for ordering, which leads to a lot of awkward shuffling and some occasional confusion of the “are you in line?” variety. It’s an unfortunate spot to choke off the restaurant’s considerable traffic flow, and it would be great if the team could figure out some way to ameliorate it before someone drops a tray or steps on the feet of people in line.

Trying to be all things to all people can often go awry, in the restaurant biz no less than any other walk of life. Urban Roots, however, offers a thoughtful take on barbecue traditions that coalesces into a smokehouse style that may borrow from Texas and the Carolinas but ultimately feels distinctly Sacramentan: down to earth, easygoing, a little gritty and mostly unselfconscious — though maybe a bit eager to please. That’s OK with me. Barbecue with something for everyone and without a fight? Sign me up.

Urban Roots Brewing & Smokehouse

1322 V St., 916-706-3741

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Beverage options: Beer, beer and more beer, brewed in house and in some cases in collaboration with other area brewers, plus a few wines, soda, and iced tea in both sweet and unsweetened varieties.

Vegetarian friendly: Well, it’s a barbecue place, so it’s heavy on meat, but there are several vegetarian and a few vegan items, and they’re clearly marked on the menu.

Gluten-free options: Yes, clearly marked on the menu.

Noise levels: Loud, especially when the cavernous dining room gets full. Conversation may be easier on the inviting patio outside.

Ambiance: There’s a summertime-and-the-living-is-easy feel at Urban Roots that seems likely to persist even in the off season, thanks to its cheery blue and yellow color scheme, hip murals and big open spaces indoors and out.

Overall

☆☆☆ (three)

Sprawling and user-friendly, Urban Roots is drawing crowds for good reason: a well-rounded lineup of easy-to-like beers (available in half and full pours), lavish helpings of spot-on smoked meats and pleasing-to-all sauces, sides both classic (collard greens, mac and cheese) and updated (creamy poblano grits, green beans with smoked tomatoes), and a celebratory, flexible air that makes it equally good for groups, families or just a quick lunch.

Food

☆☆☆1/2 (three and a half)

The BBQ here leans toward Texas (served unsauced, with brisket listed first) but designed to please partisans of other regions, with ultratender ribs, juicy house-made sausage and succulent smoked turkey all winners. Don’t miss the richly savory collard greens or the housemade pickle plate.

Service

☆☆1/2 (two and a half)

Despite big crowds of fellow diners and drinkers and a pay-and-pick-up model, service mostly runs efficiently and easily, with few hitches and a lot of signs posted to guide the confused through the ordering lines and at the bar. One quibble: Food pickup at the kitchen can be a traffic jam, since diners must mingle with the ordering line to get their trays.

Value

☆☆☆ (three)

You can eat or drink here relatively inexpensively, especially considering the quality and freshness. Sides are as low as $3, appetizers and giant salads $6-$12, big sandwiches with a side in the $15 range and hearty dinner trays with 10 ounces of meat under $20.

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