Bob Shallit

Will Buckhorn’s ‘California barbecue’ catch on in Texas?

Char-roasted tri-tip at Buckhorn Grill in Sacramento. The meat is marinated and hand-rubbed, char-roasted over an open fire and then oven-smoked to a medium-rare finish.
Char-roasted tri-tip at Buckhorn Grill in Sacramento. The meat is marinated and hand-rubbed, char-roasted over an open fire and then oven-smoked to a medium-rare finish. mjones@sacbee.com

Buckhorn Grill founder John Pickerel has a favorite slogan he sometimes uses on radio ads for his beef-centric restaurant business: “We convert die-hard vegetarians, stubborn children and skeptical Texans.”

The last part of that boast will be put to the test early next year when Buckhorn – a 36-year-old business with its roots in Winters – takes its successful formula to the Lone Star State.

In its biggest expansion outside California, Buckhorn is planning to open five of its eateries in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – a place where the natives are very particular about their meat and more partial to brisket than the succulent, medium-rare tri-tip cut that has long been Buckhorn’s signature product.

Pickerel, 63, likes that challenge.

“I think they’ll embrace tri-trip,” he said, adding that he expects to win over people there just as easily as he did the “skeptical Texan” who became a part of Buckhorn’s marketing message after tasting some of Pickerel’s “California barbecue” years ago at a catered event in Sacramento and proclaiming, “That’s just as good as any brisket.”

Texas won’t be Buckhorn’s most distant outpost. The company opened a franchised location in 2010 in New York City – at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, no less. And followed up with a second Big Apple site two years later at Grand Central Station.

But the Texas move is certainly Buckhorn’s most audacious expansion, and it comes at a time when the fast-casual operation is rebranding itself as a barbecue place, albeit one with a California bent, distinct from the traditional ’cue joints in the South and Midwest.

“I think it’s time to just change the game a little,” Pickerel said of the new marketing strategy. One of the chain’s newest restaurants opened in Vacaville as Buckhorn Barbecue. One slated to open around Thanksgiving at Sacramento’s University Village will carry the same name.

The Texas operations, however, will be called Tri Tip Grill. The franchisee there “doesn’t want to confront barbecue (sellers) head on,” Pickerel said.

Purists may disagree, but Pickerel does have a claim to the barbecue name. His Angus sirloin tri-tip cuts are cooked in the style developed in Santa Maria, in Santa Barbara County, in the mid-1800s.

Buckhorn chars its seasoned meat over an open flame, just like traditional ’cue spots, then puts it in a smoker oven that uses hickory wood chips for fuel and flavor.

“It is absolutely barbecue,” Pickerel said.

Pickerel developed his tri-tip cooking method over the years after opening Buckhorn Steakhouse in the former Hotel De Vilbiss on Main Street in Winters in 1980. That venture led to a side business, focused on tri-tip, that had Buckhorn staffers hauling big smokers to events in Napa, Sacramento and the Bay Area.

The success of that traveling enterprise caught the eye of Sony Corp. executives who had a spot for a small restaurant at the Metreon complex they were opening in 1999 in San Francisco.

“They wanted something very cool and unique,” Pickerel recalled of his meetings with Sony. “And we said we’re really cool and unique. They said, ‘Can we come out and look at your restaurant?’ and we said, ‘We don’t have one.’ 

But Buckhorn got the San Francisco space anyway and later expanded throughout the Bay Area and the Sacramento Valley, with restaurants that feature tri-tip, ribs, pulled pork, burgers and salads, among other fare.

There are 15 restaurants now, including the original steakhouse and a cafe in Winters. Locally, there’s one in midtown Sacramento and one in Roseville in addition to the 3,400-square-foot restaurant opening in November at what’s now a CVS Pharmacy at University Village, at Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard.

Next up after Texas? Most likely a move into Southern California, Pickerel said.

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