I was waiting in line recently at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Brea. The woman standing in front of me ordered the brisket. “Can you trim away all that fat?” she asked.
That’s when I, the man directly behind me and the two guys after him, all raised our hands and volunteered to eat her fat. And here’s the funny thing: If you read the Yelp reviews, people have complained that Dickey’s brisket is too fatty. Idiots.
I’ve been searching for a while now for the ultimate barbecue joint, and while I’ve found some very good food, I’ve yet to find one place that follows all the rules and gets everything just right. So I thought it might be fun to revisit the rules.
1. Without smoke, it’s not barbecue.
If smoke doesn’t hit you in the face when you walk in the front door, turn around and get out. You certainly won’t have to turn around at Bad to the Bone in San Juan Capistrano or the Beach Pit in Costa Mesa.
I don’t care how fancy or expensive the restaurant’s ventilation system is. If they’re smoking it right, the place should still smell like the house is on fire. And if it doesn’t, they’re probably just baking it.
2. Smoking takes time and patience.
There’s no such thing as fast barbecue. It’s an art as much as a craft. Low and slow. All day. All night. Slow smoking creates that telltale smoke ring, that distinctive visual gradation of red and pink that is the hallmark of good ’cue. The deeper the ring, the more authentic the process. No ring, no love.
If I had to wager, I’d guess that no restaurant in Orange County smokes its meat as low and slow as Bigmista’s in Long Beach. Dickey’s and Lucille’s probably come the closest.
3. Brisket is king.
Brisket is the heart and soul of barbecue. Brisket should be sliced, never chopped (unless it’s going into a sandwich). The meat should be tender enough to cut with a fork or even a spoon. If you need a knife to cut the brisket, it’s garbage.
4. Don’t disrespect the king.
Brisket should be rimmed with fat. If you don’t like fat, you can trim it off yourself. But if the cook trims the fat before smoking it, the meat will never live up to its royal potential. Period. Brisket without fat is like One Direction without Zayn. Pointless.
5. Ribs needn’t be difficult to eat.
Beef ribs. Pork ribs. Piglet ribs. No matter the type, when ribs are properly cooked, the meat slides right off the bone. Tenderness, not messiness, is what makes them good.
If the customer must chew and gnaw like a caveman, ending up with meat stuck between every tooth, the cook has failed.
Bigmista’s does not fail. You won’t find better – or bigger – pork ribs than these beautiful behemoths.
6. Only the customer gets to apply the sauce.
Barbecue sauce should always be served on the side, never ladled or squirted over the top. If the cook feels the need to drench everything in sauce, it’s usually because the meat itself isn’t tender enough or juicy enough on its own.
And that’s key: If the meat doesn’t taste amazing without sauce, it’s not going to taste amazing with sauce. It’ll just taste like sauce. There are, of course, certain techniques that call for basting the meat while it cooks, and these items – chicken and sometimes ribs – can be mopped as they’re served, but never drenched in it, the way Bludso’s and Brew Hawg sadly do it.
7. Sauce brings personality.
First, see Rule No. 6. Now understand this: Although the meat is the star, the sauce is a critically important sidekick. Sauce is to barbecue what Ethel was to Lucy, and it’s what distinguishes one restaurant from another.
A tang, an undercurrent of jalapeño, a pinch of brown sugar or even a handful of brown sugar … every barbecue joint should have its own signature. With six distinctive custom blends, Lillie’s Q in Brea takes the prize here.
8. Sauce shouldn’t be rationed.
I’m looking at you, Bad to the Bone and Smokey Fred’s. Put it on the table, and stop being so stingy.
9. Tri-tip is tricky.
California barbecue heralds the tri-tip, but this ultra-lean hunk of meat almost never tastes better than brisket. Some chefs treat it like steak or prime rib, as is the case at Lillie’s Q, where it requires the assistance of a very sharp knife. (See Rule No. 3.) The only true fork-tender, slow-smoked tri-trip in O.C. is at Lucille’s.
10. Chicken isn’t real barbecue.
Although it can be extremely delicious, chicken is merely a side dish, just like coleslaw, beans, cornbread or smoked sausage.
Where to find the best barbecue in O.C.
*Additional locations available but not sampled for this story.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.