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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Barbecue in Vallejo

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  • Melanie Wong Oct 17, 2003 11:56 PM

Shep aka 2 Cheap Hungry Guys said, “Vallejo is Que Town when they wanna be.” Two years later, I’m finally reporting back in on his lead.

Driving the streets and by-ways of Vallejo, you get the sense that this town is a final resting place for burned out and abandoned ‘cue joints. L. P. O. T. (Little Piece of Texas) and Rod’s Hickory Pit had already closed up shop before I got here, leaving behind only long vacant stores, smoke-covered walls and cock-eyed signs as memories of their earlier purpose.

From time to time I would peer into the closed storefront of Pipkins Pit BBQ wondering if and when it would ever open and let me buy something. The neighbors said that it was still in business and the little black kids riding their bikes in the parking lot swore the ribs were really good Some times a kind soul would answer the phone only to tell me they’d already sold out and to check back on Sunday after church – hallelujah! Then one night I noticed the lights were on and pulled up. The person packing up things inside said they were moving across the street to become Lady Nisee’s O Taste and See and offer fish too.

Lady Nisee’s O Taste and See, besides having one of the greatest restaurant names around, continued the habit of being a business that never seemed to be open. My calls were so frequent that Mrs. Pipkin could recognize my phone number on caller ID. “Hello, precious, no, we won’t be open today. The kids are in a tournament. Praise the Lord!” Or, “We’re taking the ministry on the road and forgot to start the ‘cue last night. God bless you!” A few months ago a “for sale” sign appeared on the building and I haven’t seen the Pipkins Minstry RV in the lot for a while, so I think it’s given up the ghost and gone to heaven.

I’ve been keeping an eye on King Albert’s this whole time, as there seemed to be some construction activity going on and the phone was still connected. Last week I finally got through to someone and learned that they’ll be reopening October 31 after a long remodeling project. The local ‘cue fans I’ve shared this news with have been ecstatic, as this had been the reigning favorite. We’ll see if it can win their hearts back again.

In the meantime, there are others to choose from. Meyers BBQ (private residence address of 419 Georgia, 707-208-6457) doesn’t have a retail location but sells at the Napa and Vallejo farmers market. I haven’t tried the product myself, but a couple friends stand by it.

Earl’s Texas Bar-B-Q (1601 Marine World Parkway, Suite 365, 707-649-1BBQ) has decent sauce that’s tomato-y and mildly spicy. Spareribs are dried out and stringy with little smoke flavor. They do a better job with fried catfish. Sandwich lunch specials for $3.95 are popular. The counter girl is surly, but you can sit down and eat in.

The gregarious owner of D’s Bar-B-Q (2909 Sonoma Blvd. @Nebraska, 707-557-6765) is from San Francisco and swears that we went to school together at Washington High. He’s handed me a sample of sausage or beef dipped in sauce the two times I’ve been here, but I don’t know if he does this for everyone. The medium sauce is plenty spicy for me and is a cross between the black coffee depth of Ernie Goods and the jammy fruitiness of E&J’s. The sliced beef is the specialty here with good smoky tones, although not as tender as Memphis Minnie’s. The homemade hot links are terrific – coarse ground, pretty lean with a dryish texture and the afterburn of lots of black pepper. The pork ribs are good too with a nice crust and deep smoke ring. While these meats are uniformly good, the three sides (potato salad, cole slaw, and baked beans) are gloppy and completely inedible. Don’t even try them, and certainly don’t buy extra. “To go” only.

The smell of smoke led me to the bright red trailer and rig that mark Gracie’s Family Bar-b-cue (formerly Kenelli’s, 2525 Springs Road, in the parking lot of William Kims Tae Kwon Do Center, 707-552-2254). A sign proclaims “Baby Back Ribs Smoked to the Bone”, and that is the specialty here. The lean sauce is more savory than sweet with mild spicing and tastes more like fresh veggies than long stewed flavors. But who needs sauce when the baby backs so outstanding on their own? Indeed smoked all the way to the bone, they’re meaty, not fatty, and very juicy and moist. A subtle rub, the smoke treatment and the natural sweetness of the smooth and succulent pork provide all the flavor for these toothsome beauties. Only available after 3pm, they often sell out before closing time. The chicken is good, as are the regular pork spareribs. The hot links made by Home Sausage with a hot dog-like fine grind that doesn’t suit me, but they’re plenty hot. Potato salad and baked beans are all right. A couple picnic tables and umbrellas provide seating. The menu (and a lunch discount coupon) can be viewed at
http://dinerboard.com/restdetails.pht...

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

Image: http://dinerboard.com/photos/VJKENELL...

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  1. I found Gracies's (Kenelli's) a few years ago when I was looking for Tasty Dogs - the closest thing to Kaspers in the Vallejo/Benicia area. I have found that there pork ribs and chicken to always be meaty, juicey and flavorful - about the only "rib joint" left in the area. I used to frequent Everrett and Jones, Flints and Rod's when I lived on the other side of the River but since moving to "North Bay" Gracie's is my favorite. (ribs at E & J and Flints were always hit or miss - Gracie's are always good) I just wish Gracie's had beef (brisket). When I get the craving for that "brown gravy style" sauce that Rod's would sell it's the Embers in San Pablo (ribs are very similar to Rod's). A quick mention of Tasty Dog - it's the closest I've found to being like Harry's Original Kaspers at Shattuck and Telegraph/45th Street - across from the old but long gone Bubble Machine car wash. I get that family run homey feeling there.

    14 Replies
    1. re: Steve N

      Well, dang, I think I'm gonna have to saddle up Nellie and head on up to Vallejo instead of my quarterly pilgrimage to the Central Texan BBQ in Castroville.

      You happen to mention that "brown gravy style" and it rang a bell with me. There's a little place called Barney's Hickory Pit at 3446 Clayton Road in Concord that does the same thing. They smother their ribs with a rich nut-brown gravy. Where is this BBQ style from? It's not something I've seen in Texas or the Southeast.

      1. re: nestorius

        Hey howdy, do you recommend Barney's?

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          And g'day to you, mate. I haven't been to Barney's in a number of years, but I do recall the 'cue as a positive thing, i.e., tasty but strange (in a good way). Sorta like the time I was served pasta with mayonnaise in Barcelona (turned out it was aliolli and it was a medieval dish, but that's another story).

          My bias is towards the Texas style slow-smoked meats that have been rubbed with spices and haven't been slabbered with sauce. So that's why I asked if anyone knew anything about the provenance of this type of BBQ. It may be a medieval thing too.

        2. re: nestorius

          I've heard that the "Rod's-style" brown gravy on ribs is a German style. The original Hickory Pit on Telegraph in Oakland's Temescal, later to become Emil Villa's, was founded by a German immigrant; it is said to have served its smoked meats with this type of mild brown gravy-sauce.

          That's what the old-timers said at the bar at Bertola's, anyway.

          1. re: Shep

            Interesting, perhaps there is still a chance of finding a medieval origin for Nestorius. (G)

            I have been asking the 'cue pits to try to learn the origin of the sauce since this question came up and everyone I talked to said it was idiosyncratic and not from any American regional 'cue tradition they were familiar with. One barbecue historian said that he felt it was something unique to the Hickory Pit and probabably emanated from one cook in the original kitchen. Your version lines up with that.

            And, wasn't the Hickory Pit group owned by Clorox at one time?

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              My husband informs me that Emil Villa's was indeed owned by Clorox in the late 70's/early 80's.

              1. re: Sue Adams
                r
                Richard Spross

                I was born in Oakland in 1947. Shortly thereafter my parents moved to North Berkeley where we lived
                until 1961. I believe I was introduced to Emil Villa's ribs around the age of seven. I was hooked.
                We bought it for take out from the Telegraph ave location. There were always lines fo people and the
                place was really busy. It was so successful that families just passed along the word generationally.

                Around 1960 he closed his telegraph location and opened locations in Walnut Creek and San Leandro.
                Apparently he had also had a location in Hayward for many years.
                In his new locations he was equally successful.
                In 1979 he retired and sold the business to Clorox. Corp.
                Clorox had visions of turning it into a national chain and quickly opened a bunch of new outlets.
                The down side was that they raised the prices and reduced the quantity of meat on the ribs.
                Also gradually the famous original sauce was downgraded as well until it had lost almost all it's flavor.
                In 1986 Clorox sold out to a group of investors who came in upgraded the menu by introducing new
                items, and St. Louis style baby back ribs and their own "Red sauce". The original sauce was abandoned
                and renamed " The brown sauce" This sauce was tasteless and had a medium brown color to it.
                The original sauce was a deeo burgandy black color. It was sooooooo good the flavor would last on
                one's lips for days!!!!!!
                In 1998 this group filed for bankruptcy and as of today have probably worked their way out.
                However most of the units opened by Clorox have been long closed. The two "chains' if one wishes
                to call them that are: Three units called "The Hickory Pit" in Walnut Creek, Campbell and maybe
                Corte Madera ( I'm not sure if Corte Madera is still open )
                The other outfit is called "Emil Villa's California Barbeque" owned by Kay corporation and they
                have units in San Leandro, Hayward, Livermore and San Ramon.
                I spent most of the decade of the eighties trying to enjoy Emil Villa's but the disappearance of the
                original sauce really was it's down fall. There were other issues. The really high prices and poor
                service. This caused the new group to errantly believe that Emil Villa's customers had died out
                and so they went on a new campaign to bring in new customers with the new menu.
                Had they restored the original sauce ( even doing all their upgrades ) many customers would have
                returned, but they would also have had to get a grip on server training.

                Anyway be that as it may, I had always had hope that one day I would stumble across the real McCoy.
                About four years ago, I and a friend were driving into Hayward to check out hamburger joints
                and we happened across Emil Villa's. Somehow this unit had been overlooked in my lifetime and
                we went in. By luck the real sauce was being made and served and all the original decor was in place>
                HOwever I knew it was a epoch about to end when the server asked me if I wanted the Red sauce or
                the brown sauce. Then I knew the bean counters were coming and for sure within a few months,
                the old waittresses were let go, replaced by young people who acted like robots. The original piggy
                was removed!!! and on the walls tasteless pictures of their new menuw were hung. Of course the
                original sauce was replaced by their tasteless medium to light brown gravy. No better than something
                off the shelf from Safeway or Albertsons.
                To this day it so remains. At last visit the quanitity of meat on the ribs was being reduced.
                Everything that should never have been has happened.

                I recently went to the outfit in Walnut Creek, tried the sauce and to my amazement they served it
                in black plastic cups. Why the hell black plastic. To hide the light brown color it had become.
                Do they think we're idiots? I spooned it up tasted it and as per expectation it had none.
                I and my friend asked the manager what had become of the sauce and this guy had the audacity to tell
                me it was the same as ever. I have thirty more years of eating Emil Villa's original barbeque on him
                and he became defensive. All we could say in response was. " Amazing, Amazing."
                Well I would have been nice if he had asked what was wrong with it? But the fact is he knows it isn't
                the same sauce.
                Most probaby, Clorox Corp. owns the rights to the recipe. That the Hayward location was overlooked
                for so long, is probably due to the owners being occupied with their other units and I suspect that
                Hayward kept bringing in the cash. Then when they had their whole business back on track they
                simply did to it what they had done to others.

                In the early eighties I had a job in San Ramon and a former cook from Emil Villa's Concord location
                opened his own store. We asked if he knew how to make the sauce and he said he couldn't because
                Clorox would sue him.

                So I haven't been to the present Emil Villa's in San Ramon or Livermore. There is always the hope
                that I might stumble acrosss the great sauce.

                How Emil Villa could be called a German is beyond me, the story I heard was he was from Spain,
                but I really don't know. I'm going to be doing more research on his background, since he began in
                1928 in Oakland There are a lot of years gone by before my saga with the company occurs.

                Maybe I'll have to try Rod's in Vallejo and compare.

                Hope you enjoyed this history. If you have any comments you can e-mail me.

                1. re: Richard Spross

                  Great background. Have you ever tried The Embers in Pinole? Where is Rods in Vallejo?

                  1. re: rworange

                    Rod's Hickory Pit is long closed, per the original post.

                    King Albert's appears to have opened finally.
                    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/404803

                  2. re: Richard Spross

                    Hi Richard, thanks for the great history! My parents went to The Pitt as we called it long before I was born and took me there in a laundry basket before I could walk. I was raised on their ribs, sauce and pies. I miss the flavor like you do. It was so spicy too, peppery, I can still taste it. Remember all the buttered buns they gave you with it?

                    I would love to know how to make the sauce if you ever stumble across a similar recipe.

                    I read a few years back that there is still an original Pitt in San Jose...don't know if that's true or not.

                    Thanks again...thought I was the only person on the planet who remember the original Pitt besides my brothers.

                    They still make a great burger with onions cooked inside.

                    1. re: tobycat

                      Hello tobycat,
                      Here we are 8 months later. I had computer issues for quite a while
                      and only recently have I been able to return to this venue. Thanks for
                      your kind words and a response. There is a place in Campbell,but
                      from my research it sounds like the same old "brown sauce". A new title for what was substituted for the original recipe.
                      I was experimenting last week in the kitchen and thought I had
                      come up with something close. Then later after using it on country
                      oven baked ribs which absorbed most of the sauce and made it
                      more mild, I realized that certain ingrediants need to be heightened to avoid the absorption, But still i bet the major misses are the smoking with real Hickory wood and what ever he
                      sprayed with his machine to baste the items being cooked.

                      Then he had his "secret brown sauce which to my vision is more
                      a blackish purple color with a strong after taste that lasts for days.
                      YUMMMM. I also figured he made his mark in hard times, and
                      had to use large volumes so whatever ingrediants he used had to
                      be easily obtained. This means no exotic ingrediants or store bought commercial things. It would have been prohibitively
                      expensive. So unfortunately recreating the original sauce and
                      circumstance is pretty difficult in the Bay Area unless one is blessed with a smoker, time and luck. I'm not even sure it is legal
                      anymore to run a wood fired barbeque. We keep getting squeezed
                      by the Air Quality Control Board. Don't burn your fireplaces. Don't drive your cars. Stay indoors. Be afraid to step outside. etc etc gets broadcast on the radio.
                      Since I live in an apartment, with limited space a barbeque is
                      pretty much out of the question.

                      As I've noted before I've had some luck at the Hayward location
                      but that's it and it is a fifty / fifty proposition.

                      All best,
                      Richard Spross

          2. re: Steve N

            The first time I found Kenelli's, it was evening and the owner was setting up the rig for the next day of sales. This was on a day (maybe Monday?) when they weren't open, so there was nothing to sell me. I was impressed that they smoke their meats slow and low overnight - so many don't anymore. But it was a couple weeks before I was back in the area. I'm glad to hear from someone who has more experience with Gracie's/Kenelli's - the quality of the ribs wasn't just luck.

            Could you tell us more about The Embers? Anything besides the ribs that you'd recommend?

            Do give D's a try for the beef. It's not Flint's, but might satisfy your brisket cravings in a pinch. I do like the sauce a lot, and be sure to try the hot links.

            Thanks for the word on Tasty Dogs. It was next up on my places to try, as I'd heard it's the real deal. Any of the combos you'd recommend?

            Sac's Tasty Hot Dogs
            2445 Springs Rd, Vallejo, CA 94591
            Phone: (707) 642-2442

            Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              Embers is a lot like Rod's and the Hickory Pit style restaurants - almost looks like they are chains with different names. I have only been there to order ribs to go - one of my brother's favorites - the ribs reminds me of old Rod's Hickory Pit at the old Golden Gate Lanes in El Cerrito (now the site of Target). Becareful if you go there early (5 PM) they have daily senior specials so it could be a little crowded. Sorry I don't have the address but it's located in a Strip mall on San Pablo Ave. between Appian Way and Terra Hills (that's about a long mile between the two streets) I also get confused if that part of town is still Richmond or Pinole. As for Sac's I tend to order the Tasty dog (reason I referred to it as Tasty Dogs instead of Sac's - senior moment) same as Kasper's although you can now ask for diced instead of sliced onions, they also have suaerkraut, cheese and chili to add to the dogs - chili dogs need to be eaten with a knife and fork - overflowing with chili (I have not tried one yet). I think there is also a Cajun dog (hot) on the menu. Sac's hours tend to very - they are not open late - I think they close around 5 or 6 PM, earlier on Sunday.

              1. re: Steve N

                Thanks for the input, Steve. I found an old post that mentions the Original Hickory Pit in Fremont and the brown gravy on the ribs. Maybe one of our senior 'hounds can tell us what the relationship is between the various Hickory Pit style restaurants.

                I also appreciated hearing from someone else who knows something about Vallejo. Until my time's up, I'll have fun trying places and reporting on them, just 'cuz the conventional wisdom is that there's nothing worthwhile up there.

                Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

          3. Earl's Texas BBQ is now in the parking lot at 2525 Springs Rd, so he apparently took over from Kinelli's. I've eaten there twice and it's OK but nothing special. The ribs are the best bet (altho I haven't tried the catfish). The brisket I had for luch today was dried out and tasteless. My cue-hound brother says the meats are parboiled and then smoked. There wasn't a lot of smoke flavor but they were meaty, tender, and had a nice rub. The sides are totally forgettable.
            Earl came out and introduced himself to us, brought napkins and helped clean up. Nice guy. I'd go back if I worked in the area but overall I prefer the place on Somona near Georgia (which I thought was Gracies, but I'm probably confused)

            5 Replies
            1. re: Sisiutl

              The original post is from 2003. Gracie's opened a place on Sonoma Blvd., here's rworange's post on it,
              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/45150...

              Michael's took over Earl's old place when Earl moved to a mobile unit.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Folks should try Barney's Hickory Pit in Concord--best white BBQ in the world.

                No connection to Emil Villa's.....massively better though.....

                1. re: Marlowe

                  One web page says that Barney's is closed.

                  http://chefmoz.org/United_States/CA/C...

                  1. re: Mick Ruthven

                    I saw that too---not correct. Just ate there last weekend (7/7/07)

                    Cheers.

                    1. re: Mick Ruthven

                      Barney's is still open for business; I drive by it all the time - you could consider that statement a capsule review, though it probably comes across as a little more harsh than I intend.

                      I personally wouldn't call what they do BBQ. They serve oven roasted meats, such as ham, turkey, pork loin, and baron of beef that are lightly smoked while roasting. Anybody looking for southern or Texas style BBQ is not going to find that here. Years ago, this kind of place was sometimes referred to as a carvery or a hofbrau house. Roast meats are sliced off to your order for sandwiches or a dinner platter, as you choose.

                      Regardless of what you call their style, I wouldn't say it's the best in the world. It's perfectly fine, and good value for the money. Worth a visit if you're in the area and hungry, but by no means worthy of an excursion to Concord.

                      They have a brown sauce --brown gravy, really-- that's typical of many a mid-price hash house anywhere in the country. You've seen this on a thousand open-face sandwiches and salisbury steaks. It's good, but not memorable.

              2. unfortunately the service staff is truly rude and the owner unwilling to compromise - tried buying multiple sanwidches w/o the trimmings for a pot lunch and the answer was no. I' sorry but a sandwich with redbeans and rice for almost 10 is way to much even for vallejo. the restaurant is good - unfortunately they have be nasty - (service has never been nice - just efficent)

                1 Reply
                1. re: Justin from vallejo

                  >unfortunately the service staff is truly rude ...<

                  What place are you referring to?

                2. I'm not a BBQ expert, so I couldn't tell you what makes for good 'cue or not, but I did want to say it seems like Pipkins Pitt BBQ has reopened next to the Best Western near Six Flags (a place that has killed a LOT of previous tenants from Burger King on down) windows all emblazoned with that flaming rocket/drumstick logo.