Best Joint: Bo’s Barbecue and Catering
Where: 3422 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, CA (925) 283-7133
What: Brisket, Ribs, Chicken, Links, and Steak
Why: See essay below
Barbecue in Northern California?!
If you were trying to find the best barbecue joint in the country, you probably wouldn’t look first in Northern California. In fact, you might not even look there at all. You’d start maybe in Memphis, hit Kansas City for sure, then maybe roll on down to Texas, with a few stops in North Carolina along the way. Of course, if it were the best French or Italian food you were after, you might just make a beeline for San Francisco and never leave. But barbecue? Can great barbecue be found here; so far from its roots in the Deep South? I was skeptical. We have a few joints in Oakland and Berkeley, but frankly, I’d been disappointed by all of them. There was one however, I hadn’t tried, and for good reason. Bo’s Barbecue and Catering is located in upscale, suburban, Lafayette. Lafayette is about the most unlikely place to find a barbecue joint you can imagine. The parking lots are filled with Range Rovers and BMW’s, the median home price is $662,000, and the local market sells four kinds of tofu. Given that “barbecue comes from a place and time where any kind of meat was a rare and enviable commodity*”, it wasn’t likely to be found in Lafayette.
Now, even though I live in Northern California, I belong to the cult of barbecue nonetheless. In fact, I’m a bit of a BBQ snob (just ask my wife). I’m a contest cook and a Certified Barbecue Judge. This means I’ve eaten my share of outstanding BBQ (and I have the gut to prove it). Most recently, at the 2003 Memphis in May World Championship, I had the good fortune to feast upon the incomparable pork shoulder of Big Bob Gibson. Big Bob’s is the terminator of contest ‘Q. They’ve won Grand Champion at Memphis in May an astonishing three times. It was with that experience in my culinary memory that I set out to evaluate Bo’s.
I was skeptical about Bo’s in the same way I’m skeptical about all commercial ‘Q. Is it about the money, or the meat? In my opinion, the best BBQ is cooked in the backyard by Dad, or at contests where what’s at stake is pride, not profit. Adding to my skepticism was the rumor that Bo serves Acme Baguette with his smoked meats. If you want the traditional fluffy white stuff, you’ll have to bring your own. Bo also serves what my wife calls, “weed salad” with his ‘Q – aka mixed greens with balsamic vinaigrette. Oh, and did I mention the large wine selection? Salad? Uppity bread?? Wine??? Is this a BBQ joint or a spa?! So it was that Bo’s opened in 1999, but I hadn’t been until just a short while ago.
The Skeptic Reconsiders
When I pulled in to Bo’s I saw the first encouraging sign – two cords or more of oak logs piled near the back entrance. Those logs were destined for what caught my eye as I walked in the door – a huge, black steel barbecue pit. In an instant I recognized it as a J&R Manufacturing “Oyler”. Made in Mesquite Texas, the Oyler is 4,000 pounds of burning love - a fine and serious pit with one key characteristic. It burns wood and wood only. Bo don’t need no stinkin’ gas to cook his ‘Q, thank you. Now I was starting to get excited - Bo’s a purist. Cheaper than wood and easier to use, gas is a crutch for a ‘Q joint. It’s virtually foolproof, which is why management likes it. But the food suffers. Call it “Bar-B-Kew”, or “Bar-Bee-Q”, meat cooked over gas still might be good, but it isn’t the real thing.
If Bo is serious about wood (and he is), he’s just as serious about meat. A small sign near the chalkboard menu identified his meat supplier as Niman Ranch, an artisan producer of fine beef, pork, and lamb. Niman Ranch meat is expensive and not widely available at the retail level. It’s raised on small family farms with a focus on flavor, rather than on scale or speed to market traits. It’s sold mostly to high end restaurants. My guess is that Bo’s is the only ‘Q joint in the entire country using it.
On the other side of the menu was a poster of blues great Robert Johnson. Blues was playing on the tunebox and I quickly noticed that in addition to the large wine selection, Bo serves dozens of beers from all over the world. Bo himself is a genuine and engaging African American with Mississippi roots. He uses his mother’s recipes and his father’s last name – McSwine. No fooling – it’s his real name. I took it as a sign. If that’s not enough to like, each Thanksgiving Bo fills the smoker with Turkeys and feeds the homeless. All the details seemed to be in place – now to the food.
The menu at Bo’s consists of brisket, spare ribs, chicken, links, and steak. I ordered a slab of ribs and a brisket plate. With the first bite of the ribs, it was apparent that the hog who gave his life for my dinner did not die in vain. The meat was rich, succulent, and melt in your mouth tender from six hours in the smoker over smoldering oak. It pulled clean off the bone with the slightest tug and had the subtle, rarely encountered taste of genuine pork in abundance. To my great surprise, this was contest level ‘Q. The smoke and the spice rub complemented the flavor of the pork. The sauce was served on the side, in a little Styrofoam cup. Sauce is another crutch for a ‘Q joint. Used to “make good” what’s not necessarily good on it’s own, it can be used to disguise boiled, burnt, or gas cooked meat. Bo’s sauce was good; sweet, vinegary, with hits of black pepper and chile. The meal was served with a baked sweet potato, potato salad, and very good sweet corn along with the weed salad and uppity bread.
The brisket was crusty and dark on the outside and heavily smoked. Of all the barbecue meats, brisket is the most difficult, with a hundred ways to screw it up, and just one to get it right. Bo got it right. Sliced thick (which indicates Bo knows it’s tender, and it was), it had spent 13 hours in the smoker. Slices from the flat were served topped by a hefty portion of “burnt ends” from the brisket point. The burnt ends were unbelievably rich and delicious. Over the long cooking period, the fat and gristle in the meat had melted into a delightfully round fullness. In a word, it was outstanding.
Chicken, Links, and Steak
Bo uses free-range chickens, and after four hours in the smoker they come out a burnished mahogany. The links are made on site, according to Bo’s own special recipe. But it’s the steak that will get you. You have to order it 24 hours in advance. When you do, Bo dials up the vault at Niman ranch and they send over a two inch thick, bone in rib steak that’s been dry aging for three weeks. After Bo works his magic upon it - it’s as good as it gets; absolutely extraordinary.
In short, Bo’s is an anomaly; an unlikely outpost on the barbecue frontier. Plunked down into a place that’s as far apart in space and time from the deep south as you can get, Bo churns out the real thing day after day. Thanks Bo. We’re glad you’re here.
* John Thorne, Serious Pig page 332