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Jan 30, 2010 10:40 AM

Gator's Back Porch BBQ, San Mateo, CA - quite good for southern BBQ and sides in the Bay Area

On the tip of someone in a separate thread, this lifelong Southerner and recent Bay Area transplant decided to check out Gator's Back Porch BBQ yesterday, operated out the back of his more formal (and somewhat maligned) Dollie Marie's restaurant. I've often criticized Chef Gator for charging way too much for the quality of cuisine he puts out (middle-of-the-road level Southern food) but dolling up the atmosphere so that he can set his food at a too-high price point.

Well it looks like finally he's entertaining a concept where price and cuisine are in total harmony, and filling a vacuum of cuisine that the Bay Area currently suffers from - namely high-quality from-scratch casual Southern bbq and sides. A tent is set up at the back of his restaurant where you place your order and pay (cash only), with some grills/smokers set up there where the meats are smoked, and the order is sent to the indoor kitchen where the food is quickly plated for you (either to eat there at some picnic tables or take to go). The menu runs the gamut of yummy BBQ options - smoked chicken, honey-glazed beef brisket, smoked leg of lamb, ribs, and hot links. Sides include red beans & rice, collard greens, mac & cheese, pineapple cole slaw, and red potato salad. All meals come with cornbread, and one meat is $10, two meats for $12, and three meats for $14 (all taxes inclusive). You get a whole lotta food with your order.

The entire setup and quality reminds me of the impromptu church- or volunteer fire department-organized backyard BBQs you often find on warm Saturdays in the South. The quality of the meats used is high. I ordered smoked chicken and brisket. The chicken was juicy, although could've used more smokey flavor. I especially liked the beef brisket - the meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the honey glaze was excellent.

Collard greens were nearly out-of-this-world good. Very fresh, silky texture, although slightly sweet for my liking. The mac & cheese was just okay - should've used more vibrant cheeses and cut down on the cream, and bake it so that it develops a crust. Gator knows how to do it - he did it in his old restaurant - so maybe he's trying to keep costs down? He should switch to the more timeless rendition.

The cornbread was the sweet incarnation. I prefer a savory kind that has pork cracklins in it, but it's really yummy to have as a dessert.

All in all, this is an important step forward in the Bay Area's southern food scene, IMO. A casual offering of traditional southern meats and sides using fresh ingredients and a price that won't break the bank. If I had one complaint about the meal, is that it had a few too many sweet overtones and not quite enough smokey bite. My NC bbq tradition emphasizes the need of both sweet and sour. That's why we usually drink sweet tea with our southern food. Gator seems to subsume the sweet elements into the food itself while de-emphasizing the sour. I was hankering for some lemonade throughout the meal.

But all in all, I like what he's doing. From a pure BBQ perspective, I like the meats at Gorilla BBQ in Pacifica better, as well as their mac & cheese and red beans & rice. But Gator is doing collards, and that along with the brisket is enough to have me coming back every week.

Hours are 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. on weekdays right now. He's thinking of converting the restaurant itself to a casual BBQ place and expanding the hours. That would be grand.

1602 South El Camino Real
San Mateo, CA 94402
(650) 638-9238

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  1. With an appointment down the Peninsula yesterday, I made a beeline to Dollie Marie’s afterwards for my lunch stop. Thanks to “mikeh” and “alina555” for the lead on this one.

    Dollie Marie's is setback from busy El Camino Real in this jewel box of a house. I made a u-turn on El Camino to proceed into the driveway and parking lot, better to approach from behind the house from Jasmine Street next time.

    I was excited to check out the grill and smoker set up in the back. Turns out the barbecue is cooked in a larger set up at an off-site commercial kitchen then transported here. The hot links on the grill did look good. I asked the source and found out they’re made by Old World German Sausage in Oakland, if anyone knows that brand.

    As of yesterday, lunch seating is now INSIDE Dollie Marie’s to accommodate more customers and to serve “rain or shine”. The sign on the front door pointing to the BBQ in back will be changed starting today, I was told. After placing my order outside, I was asked to take a seat indoors. All the places are set with order forms and pens, so I think one can start inside need not order at the grill.

    The dining room at Dollie Marie’s is quite a bit more elegant than any other ‘cue joint I’ve frequented with fresh flowers in bud vases on the tables, crystal chandeliers, and orchid purple motifs. Here’s a shot looking back toward the reception area of Dollie Marie's restaurant from the front dining room where I sat.

    Not knowing when I’d be back here again, I went for the three-meat meal, $14, ordering smoked leg of lamb, pork spare ribs and brisket. For sides, I chose collard greens and pineapple cole slaw. Fresh lemonade was $3. Here’s the ordering form showing the selection.

    The styro box and drink were brought to my table. My heart sank when I opened the box and saw the flood of sauce on my meat: note to self, ask for sauce on the side next time. A shame because after I scraped most of the sauce off, the huge pile of barbecued meats showed good potential.

    Loved the cornbread with its crackly honey glaze. Collard greens were as good as mikeh promised. Pineapple cole slaw was fresh and crispy, not gobbed with mayo, but sweet fruity slaw may not be my thing.

    The mesquite smoked leg of lamb was cooked to well-done but wasn’t dry. Sliced very thinly it was hard to get a sense of the seasoning or smoke influence due to the incursion of the sauce so I really can’t comment on it.

    The pork spare ribs had the tough piece of flank still on them. The rib tips were cut off separately into small blocks and were the tastiest part of the meat. They’d been stacked underneath the ribs and saved from drowning in the sauce. The taste of the rub, crusty smoked edges and succulent meat of these tips made them oh so delectable. The spareribs themselves had good flavor, but what looked like potentially nice bark (crusty outer surface) was soggy from the sauce and wasted. The sparerib meat was overcooked pulling from the bone too easily but not by much.

    I liked the maple smoked beef brisket as well. Using the juicy, fattier and more flavorful brisket point cut, Gator hit the texture perfectly. Luscious mouthfeel and tender without falling apart, the brisket was served in attractive slices, not an easy feat with point cut. Only in the smoker about four hours, the brisket’s smoking was quite light, complemented by some sweetness. Personally, I’d like more seasoning and smoke influence on the meat itself without relying on sauce. If he can tinker with this, I told Gator he would have one of the few BBQ briskets in our area worth eating.

    Not busy at late lunch hour, Gator and his wife who works the front of the house had time to talk with me about their barbecue plans. Gator said his style blends Texas and Memphis traditions but he’s still fine-tuning. He’s interested in the competition circuit and I was able to share information about the Kansas City Barbecue Society contests in our area.

    Dollie Marie's
    1602 S El Camino Real, San Mateo, CA 94402

    5 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      It's very encouraging to see that they take customer's comments to heart. The brisket today had a wonderful smoky flavor to it without being overpowering. I ordered the sauce on the side this time, and it was nearly perfect. Paired with red beans and rice and collards, you basically don't have to use the sauce because the flavors of all those taken in turn juxtapose very nicely.

      1. re: mikeh

        Well, you've made good on your threat to return every week! One thing about Gator, he's trying to come up with his own style of barbecue, said he hadn't cooked it much before this. He doesn't have a particular orthodoxy that he's trying to stick with. Maybe you can ask him to experiment with pulled pork. He came up with the sauce to market with his partner, and I think that drove the tendency to use it too liberally. He had also mentioned that he wanted to come up with some "healthier" sides. I encouraged him to do that, as they're almost always disappointing at our local 'cue joints, healthy or not. With his fine dining background, I'll be interested in seeing what else he comes up with.

        Oh, have you tried the peach cobbler?

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Just had it today.... red beans and rice plus mac n cheese with the hot links bbq. It was refreshingly delicious.... all those flavors just hung in my mouth... edgy but not overwhelming... savory, sweet, spicy and a little bit of vinegar-ness (not too much tho and I love me some vinegar)... it was truly a perfect combination other than having it prior to the afternoon when I want to sleeeeeeeeep it off.

          Just confirming that he said he is closing it down and will re-open as a casual BBQ place within a couple weeks.

          Exciting! His first restaurant was fantastic, but I think this is going to be a perfect balance, and an exciting new treat. And the OP was correct... price vs. cuisine is completely and expertly balanced... and it does remind me of the old time impromptu church BBQ behind the parking lot. It was a wonderful and surprising experience!

          1. re: pavlov

            Yup, got official word that effective March 1st they will be opening the BBQ joint Monday through Saturdays from 11-8. Now I can enjoy it for dinner or on the weekends!

            1. re: alina555

              Yeah I concur this has some pretty good bbq.

              Had 3 Meat Meal ($14) Maple Smoked Beef Brisket, BBQ Pork Spare Ribs and 1/2 BBQ Smoked chicken. The two high quality ribs had tender meat falling off the bone. The brisket was also cooked to a super tender level and fairly smokey. No knife needed. The chicken were from the meatier areas, not dry, but not very tender. I'd suggest ordering something else instead of chicken.

              The sauce was solid though they need to dish out more of it and not make you buy a bottle!

              Pictures of menu here:

    2. Thanks for all the postings on this. I tried it tonight and it's some of the tastiest barbecue in our area. As mentioned before, it's an individual style, combining a California ingredient-centric attitude with a southern sweet tooth. So the meats are high quality, complimented by a sweet and spicy (in that order) sauce. Smoke flavor is quite minimal, but with the meat and sauce flavors in such balance, one can see why he does it like that. I had that pork ribs / beef brisket combo, and this is some of the best pork and beef flavor I've ever had in barbecue.

      There's a great menu of sides, and you get to choose two with the dinner. Red beans and brown rice were yummy. The collards on my visit were quite bitter / sour; I want some of that in the greens to balance the other dishes, but this was overdone. Next up to try is the sweet potato grits (pureed sweet potato mixed with grits). The glazed cornbread ia quite nice. The peach cobbler was unexciting and not at the level of the savory dishes.

      The beer selection is limited to a few bottles, but those are bottles of Abita, naturally. The amber went very nicely with the barbecue. The menu now includes a few southern non-barbecue dishes like jambalaya, but I didn't try that on this visit. Most people seemed to be ordering the barbecue.

      If you want the barbecue-in-a-cute-house effect, you'd better get here soon. Gator's lease is coming due and he's trying to secure an easier-to-find location in the general San Mateo area. A sibling restaurant is planned to open in April in the Agenda space in downtown San Jose, with offerings a bit more upscale than the current menu.

      Recommended for an individual take on barbecue that de-emphasizes the smoke for meatier and saucier flavors.


      15 Replies
      1. re: mdg

        A few points -

        Arguably this isn't "BBQ" in the traditional Southern sense of the definition anymore, but that's okay. I'm not sure whether he's actually smoking the brisket anymore instead of crock potting it low-and-slow. In any case, it's tender, juicy, and flavorful meat. with off-the-hook Southern sides (sweet potato grits - you're going to that desert island with me). Call it Gator's Back Porch Southern and I think that captures the style of cooking more accurately - which is great, our area needs something like this.

        Second - It's always a pet peeve of mine when people claim that Southern food that adopts an "ingredient-centric" approach isn't downright Southern but somehow distilled through "California sensibilities" or whatnot. As someone who spent 20+ years in the South, I can tell you that down-home, classic, authentic Southern cuisine is HIGHLY driven by fresh, local ingredients. Go to any hometown country cooking eatery and you can be almost certain that all the veggies and meats are being sourced from local farms. Even when you go from country cooking to more upscale Southern food, so much of it has been as ingredient-driven and "slow food local" as California cuisine, and for about as long.

        1. re: mikeh

          Point taken. But my reference was to barbecue rather than Southern cooking. I've eaten barbecue all over the country for decades, and have never had such a big deal made about organic meats - or about the source of the meat, period. Maybe it's the talking about it that's more Californian than the actual ingredient choices...


          1. re: mikeh

            Mikeh, to your second point, I could not agree more. The late, great Edna Lewis was the quintessential southern cook and I consider her the original Alice Waters.

            1. re: mikeh

              Gator's Back Porch BBQ new San Mateo location opening next week.

              1. re: Todd510

                Todd, do you have an address? The website and FB page haven't been updated for months. Is Chef Gator continuing at Bayonne?

                399 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95113

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Yes he will still have bayonne. The address is 1855 South Delaware St. San Mateo, 94402.

                  1. re: Todd510

                    Thanks for the update! This is great if he can do both and keep up the quality; the menus of the two places have little overlap. This is what he was talking about doing on my visit to the older Gator's location shortly before it closed.


                    1. re: mdg

                      It will be called Gator's at The Grill and should be up and running some time next week, per communication tonight with Chef Gator. I'm waiting to hear what other information he's ready to share.

                      Edited to add: Here's my post with more info.

                      The Grill
                      1855 S Delaware St, San Mateo, CA 94402

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

               that's a yelp restaurant link... Dec. 12. I am going RIGHT NOW... whoot!

                        1. re: pavlov

                          That's a false posting, it has a wrong start date, and Jelly's in Pier 50 is closed.

                          1. re: pavlov

                            That yelp link also shows a location in SF at Jelly's on Pier 50. Has anyone been there?

                            1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                              Chef Gator said that some else made the deal with Jelly's. He said he didn't have anything to do with the barbecue served there and only found out about it when his cousin stumbled on it and told him about it.

                              He said that his wife's company is Gator's Back Porch BBQ LLC and she was upset hearing about that. That was the entity that ran Dollie Marie's (dba) and the barbecue place in San Mateo until it shut down. I found this listing in the California Secretary of State's database that might be it (slight difference in spelling).

                              Entity Name: GATER'S BACK PORCH BBQ LLC
                              Entity Number: 200821710057
                              Date Filed: 08/01/2008
                              Status: ACTIVE
                              Jurisdiction: CALIFORNIA

                            2. re: pavlov

                              I've talked to Chef Gator, will type more when I get home about his saga. He starts cleaning & organizing the kitchen tomorrow w goal of starting to serve his menu at lunch on Monday, 12/20.

                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                During the weekend I spoke to the owner of The Grill and he told me they planned an all u can eat BBQ for Thursday. So I guess that was wishful thinking on his part. Whoever is doing the cooking is the only one that matters. Thanks for the update Melanie.

                                1. re: L C

                                  Yeah, as of friday night, Chef Gator thought he'd be serving this week too. I got an email from someone who said he had called The Grill to try find out what's going on after reading the announcements on Yelp. He said that there weren't any details and would only say that Glen (Gator) Thompson would be doing something in the kitchen but not when. Maybe there will be "practice" BBQ on Thursday?

                                  New launch date -

                                  I saw a couple non-food posts in the other thread before they were removed. My email address is in my profile, if anyone wants to contact me. Click on my name below to go to my profile.

              2. Gator's is closed again, this from Grace Ann Walden's email:

                Gator Bounces Back

                Sadly, Gator Thompson closed his Dollie Marie restaurant in San Mateo. I commiserated with Gator and he told me what's up: "So with that said I will be the head chef in San Jose at Agenda Lounge starting April 1st.

                "I will be bringing my healthy southern-style to the South Bay without the
                headache of being the owner."

                Dollie Marie's
                1602 S El Camino Real, San Mateo, CA 94402