The barbecue wars have arrived in midtown. Stroll down a stretch of J Street and you can sense the tension simmering between one of country’s biggest barbecue franchises and the local upstart that could.
Near the corner of 19th and J streets, you’ll find Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, which opened Nov. 21 and became the company’s 39th location in California. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit boasts more than 300 locations nationwide, with franchises in Natomas, Rancho Cordova, Roseville and Elk Grove.
Walk just a little farther down J Street – more like a quick hop over the railroad tracks between 19th and 20th – and you’ll find the locally owned Tank House BBQ and Bar, which held its grand opening in early September. The two spots sit nearly side by side, and both offer ribs, brisket and other smoked meats.
A sandwich board in front of Tank House proudly states: “3 Months Strong! Support Local! #EATREALBBQ.” All of this indie vs. corporate controversy smells like the brouhaha that erupted in 2001, when a Starbucks at 16th and P streets opened across the street from the locally owned Cup-A-Joe.
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But those of us who crave a bit of brisket in midtown now have some options. For all its bistros and farm-to-fork fetishizing, the restaurant-saturated central city has yet to become a hot spot for barbecue.
Sandra Dee’s at 15th and F streets has reigned as downtown’s go-to barbecue joint for well over a decade, outlasting such joints as My BBQ Spot, Luck’s BBQ and Negril Island Grill – all three formerly at 2502 J St.
Back to the newcomers, Dickey’s boasts a wider menu than its neighbor. Offerings include a dozen side dishes, meats by the pound, such sweets as pecan pie and soft-serve ice cream and a catering wing.
So will midtown locals embrace Big Barbecue? Let’s chomp on some ribs and more at Dickey’s and see how the competition is stacking up.
Menu: Step into this former Una Mas Mexican Grill location and you’ll find offerings that are like a greatest hits of down-home barbecue choices, including smoked beef, pork and chicken. Unlike barbecue joints that keep their smoker outside, Dickey’s uses a gas-powered cooker that’s kept behind the counter and gets fed with hickory logs to impart smoky flavor. The problem was we never could detect much smoke in our meats, especially in chicken breast and pulled pork that was relatively dry and tasteless.
Dickey’s menu includes beef brisket, a signature of Texas ’cue that’s perhaps the greatest test of a pit master’s mettle. It’s inherently a tough cut of meat that must be cooked at a slow and low tempo to melt the fat cap and turn the meat tender. The texture of the meat here was moist enough, but once again, we wanted more smoke. The end result tasted closer to a pot roast than a properly smoked brisket.
We also dug into a half rack of ribs, which were pre-trimmed in a rectangular cut with the bottom flap removed (a signature of St. Louis-style barbecue). However, it’s Barbecue 101 that the membrane on the bottom side of the rib must be removed, or else smoke and seasonings won’t properly penetrate the rack. Dickey’s failed the membrane removal test – as did Tank House during our first taste.
On the plus side, Dickey’s ribs featured a decent amount of chew. That fall-off-the-bone stuff doesn’t mean good barbecue; that’s the end result of overcooking. However, the ribs at Dickey’s tasted overly salty, especially the end pieces. The main problem with the ribs, along with all the other meats, was they were served lukewarm at best. Temperature control needed better management.
The sides were serviceable enough, including a creamy but fairly standard mac ‘n’ cheese; the jalapeño beans struck us as bland.
Price point: This barbecue won’t break the budget. A three-meat plate that includes two sides, a roll, pickles and onion, costs $12.95. (Compare that to $19 for a three-meat platter at Sandra Dee’s). Sandwich prices range from $4.50 for the “Lil’ Hoagie” to $7.95 for “The Westerner,” which is piled with two meats and cheese. Adding two sides to a sandwich plate costs an extra $3.50.
For those looking for barbecue in bulk, trimmed meats cost $13 per pound and whole, untrimmed meats are $12 per pound. Family packs cost $25.95, $39.95 and $49.95, which include meats, sides, rolls and sauce.
Ambiance: Rib shack meets Chipotle. Dickey’s aims for a down-home yet strip-mall-friendly vibe with corrugated steel trim, checkerboard table coverings ensconced in plastic and Texas-style honky-tonk tunes playing in the background. In a cue from Kreuz Market, perhaps the most legendary smokehouse in Texas’ barbecue belt, Dickey’s serves its foods in trays lined with wax paper instead of plates. (Kreuz uses butcher paper.)
Drinks: Wash down that barbecue with soda from the fountain, beer, signature sweet tea or other beverages. Dickey’s also offers its version of the Big Gulp with a 32-ounce “Big Yellow Cup.”
Service: The Dickey’s experience starts by placing your order at a meat station, then a second worker handles the order for sides and drinks. You’ll see many of the meats behind the counter nestled in plastic wrap, or sitting under a heat lamp, before they’re sliced. Service was friendly enough, and the counter operations moved smoothly.
First impressions: Well, at least it’s better than the McRib. But the temperature control issues and lack of smoky character in the meat made for barbecue that tasted mediocre at best.
Try it if: You’re hankering for a quick barbecue lunch, or craving ribs after “last call” on the weekends. This Dickey’s stays open until 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Forget it if: You like barbecue that actually tastes like it was smoked.