Pitmaster Gary Nana had been up all night tending to his smoker, preparing meat and some 300 of his signature baked potatoes for a charity event in Marina. When we dropped in that afternoon – a Saturday – he had ribs on the smoker, timed for another event, a retirement party that evening.
Timing is everything when it comes to barbecue. His was looking good – the ribs and guests were still a few hours away, the former peaking when the latter arrived. Ours wasn’t. Nana had little ready for the dining room during the intermission.
But the veteran pitmaster is not one to let people go away unwelcomed. No problem. Sit, sit, I’ll take care of you.
Nana’s BBQ in Chualar is more of a life force than a restaurant. There is vitality, largesse, a little joie de vivre and tireless activity, whirling from what looks like a weary and haggard dive. The pitmaster’s enthusiasm and good humor – “Here I am serving meat and everyone wants fish,” he says about the time he forgot about Ash Wednesday – can win you over.
Pork ribs lifted from the grill before their time can, however, answer with a thud of reality. In this case they were reluctant, fighting back against each bite or stroke of a blade. Fortunately, the tri-tip was ready, nudged to the fringes of rare and sliced thin. Supple fibers fell away with ease, leaving the burly savor of red meat and a slowly drifting haze of smoke.
This is barbecue at its most essential. Nana believes in a simple dry rub applied sparingly, oak wood and a weather-beaten smoker. “You don’t want it heavy,” he says of the seasoning. “You get the flavor of oak and the meat itself.” Indeed, despite needing more time on the grill, the ribs smoke gave a balancing streak of bite to the nutty sweetness of the pork.
Clearly Nana knows the ways of wood and fire. He opened Nana’s some four and a half years ago, but he has been doing the low and slow routine for 30 years, learning it as a pastime from his father – “My dad was Filipino and he’d get a pig and cook it outside,” Nana recalls – and as a profession thanks to the owners of Quality Market, who let him operate in the parking lot.
Nana’s BBQ also prepares chicken, burgers and, when traffic gets heavier, brisket. The meats come as platters or in sandwich form. It’s a basic lineup and the sides at Nana’s BBQ are rudimentary, as well – beans, rice, mac and cheese and potatoes.
The pitmaster has a touch with baked potatoes, coaxing a crispy, earthy skin around a fluffy interior, although grocery aisle-quality cheese doesn’t do any favors. His Godfather presentation started with an online search for the largest potatoes on the market and became the restaurant’s signature dish. It’s nearly two feet of potato plied with butter, cheese, jalepeño slices, sour cream, chives and meat.
Nana had served 300 of them earlier in the day. He had more ready for the oven come party time. And when someone is eager to help out and events conspire, traveling diners sometimes slip through the cracks.
Bad timing, but still a good time.
NANA’S BBQ 24377 Grant St., Chualar. 10am-8pm daily. 679-2920.