There’s a moment – if you’ve spent any time in Texas – when an elated gasp escapes your lips, maybe followed by a “finally!” and a simultaneous slap of your hand against the table. Yes, it makes for a spectacle, but you can’t help it.
The moment comes when you first try the brisket at Big Sur Smokehouse. Glistening, silken fibers almost dissolve, allowing the burly savor of beef to drench the palate. A frail but swarthy bark has just enough presence to accent this with a distant haze of mellow smoke.
It’s as if in one bite you’ve been transported to the famed smokehouses of Lockhart. But there’s a kicker. Pitmaster “Big Mike” Lipscomb is hardly a fan of the difficult cut. “I try to make it look like I am,” he says with a laugh after admitting as much.
At least he understands the secret to coaxing honest flavors and supple tenderness from the tenacious hunk that is brisket – slow and very low, sitting overnight at no more than 225 degrees. And the rub is nothing more than salt and pepper.
“We’re not trying to mask the meat,” he explains. “We try to do things simple.”
This is evident with the pulled pork, as well. Traces of smoke waft through, drawn by a subtle toasty spice. But the sauce – a Carolina style dabbed with pineapple for a candied effect that translates nicely with the natural sweetness of the meat – is applied so sparingly it just peeks through. You can apply more, but why?
Lipscomb suggests that California pitmasters don’t have the patience of those from the fabled barbecue regions of America. But the crew responsible for Big Sur Smokehouse grew up in the South, which is likely why collard greens appear on the menu.
The braised greens are bitter, with a dense grassy note akin to nori. Shards of bacon allow for a comfortable meaty background – all nice and Southern, but there’s a sneaky heat. The dish combines three family recipes that all happen to use the same ingredients. Well, except one.
“Chili flakes – that was from my family,” Lipscomb says, beaming.
If the pitmaster strays from his restraint with smoked meat, you find it in – or rather on – the chicken. The bird receives a dusty, Southwestern mesa hue from a rub involving cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, garlic and other spices. And while it’s the same thing he applies to the pork, it becomes prominent here, giving the skin an earthy, smoky hot, enigmatic and almost playful tune. The chicken itself is delicate and juicy thanks to a night soaking in brine. Yet it is domestic white meat and offers little more than a tame, creamy hum. It welcomes the aggressive rub, and benefits further from a hit of the housemade coffee-stout sauce, which starts as a basic Texas red sauce until splashed with beer and espresso.
“You can’t go wrong with it,” Lipscomb says, adding that if you spread it on your car’s bumper, even the pitted chrome would taste good.
Doubtful. But there is no doubting that Big Sur Smokehouse’s mashup of Carolina,Texas, Kansas City/Memphis (when they do ribs) and California is barbecuing in style.
BIG SUR SMOKEHOUSE 48123 Highway 1, Big Sur. Wed-Sun, 11am-9pm. 667-2419, bigsursmokehouse.com