The name Barbecue 81 has a very special significance. It’s in honor of my dad, Ron Jessie, who wore the number 81 when he played for the L.A. Rams.
I had the chance to visit San Diego last week and one of the first things I noticed was that there were a lot of new BBQ restaurants that have popped up in the last couple of years.
I grew up in the Spring Valley/Lemon Grove area of San Diego County and there are two BBQ joints in Lemon Grove alone.
San Diego is lucky enough to have landed a Penzey’s Spices and you know I had to make a trip there. So I figured I’d find a BBQ joint in that area and give it a try. A quick search of Yelp led me to BBQ 81.
In remembrance of my dad, that I chose to honor him by using his number 81 as the name of my barbecue business.
Having learned my lesson on eating at BBQ restaurants with no wood pile or visible smoke I circled the block. I didn’t see a wood pile buy my nose did detect the smell of smoked meats. I parked down the street and peaked through the fence in the back of the restaurant just to check things out. If there was a real smoker this is wear it would be. Sure enough there it was, smoking away. So, I decided to give it a try.
When I reached the front windows and peeked in I was a little concerned. Here it was 12:15 pm, lunch hour, and the place was almost empty. Just two women sitting in a booth. I don’t normally make it a habit of eating in restaurants that are empty at times of the day they should have customers seated. But I was there and hungry so I put aside my fear and ventured in.
I ordered the pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and tater tots. I asked if the pull pork came already sauced and was told yes it did. Another red flag! I asked if I could get it without sauce and was told I couldn’t. I wasn’t thrilled. The joy of a pulled pork sandwich is that beautiful smoked pork flavor, with just a squeeze of sauce mixing with the cole slaw. That’s what I wanted, but I wasn’t going to get it so I crossed fingers and ordered it along with a side of greens and mac and cheese.
The food arrived and as I expected the pulled pork was smothered in sauce. It was completely over sauced. I understand that for 95% of BBQ consumers this is exactly what they want so I can’t really fault the restaurant for catering to lovers over BBQ sauce. The surprise came when I bit into the sandwich. The pork was not a big pile of pork mush like they normally are when served pre-sauced.
The saying is that if a restaurant pre-sauces their food they are hiding something. It was obvious the pork was freshly cooked and had only recently been sauced. So I suspect the only thing they were hiding was the taste of pork. I wish I could have had the pork without sauce, I suspect it would have been good. I really don’t understand why restaurants that serve pre-sauced pork don’t save a little for those that prefer it pure. The bun was toasted beautifully on a grill and that is a really nice touch. The cole slaw was good and complimented the sauce but there wasn’t enough of it, it was a dollars worth in my book.
The tater tots were just your ordinary store-bought tots that anyone can get and fry up at home. And you know what? That’s okay with me because I love ordinary store-bought tots. The tots were a nice change from the normal fries, onion rings or chips I’ve come to expect. You can also substitute the tots for another side. I suspect there is an extra charge for that but I’m not positive about that.
The side dishes were good, not excellent, but certainly better than most I’ve eaten in neighborhood BBQ restaurants. Actually the greens were pretty darn good. They were cooked perfectly with lots of pieces of smoked pork. I love me a mess of greens and these took are of the craving. There was a sort of bitter taste to them but it wasn’t a bad bitter taste. A few drops of hot sauce made them even better. I would order them again.
The mac & cheese was good. The pasta wasn’t over cooked and cheese sauce was good. I’m not sure if the cheese sauce had just been poured over cooked pasta and not baked at all. There was no sign of the crunchy little bits of baked cheese that make really good mac & cheese so good. I’d probably skip the mac & cheese next time in favor of trying the beans, but if all I had was the mac & cheese to choose from I wouldn’t be devastated.
So would I go back? Yeah, I think I would. I’d like to try a couple of the other items on the menu like the tri-tip and the ribs. The place had a nice BBQ atmosphere, blues music playing over the speakers, a roll of paper towels on the table, silverware wrapped in paper and Texas Pete as a table sauce were all things I love about BBQ restaurants. I do wish I could get un-sauced pulled pork. BBQ 81 is no Dinosaur BBQ but it certainly is better than most neighborhood BBQ joints I’ve eaten in. And based on the Yelp reviews I’m not the only one that enjoyed it.
BBQ 81 is located at 2302 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92104. www.barbecue81.com