Do you get exasperated when the meat on the rib you're eating falls off the bone on its way from the tray to your mouth?
Does the anger build inside you when you're forced to use paper towel after paper towel to clean up your sticky face?
Do you fly into an uncontrollable, tofu-fueled rage when your friends take you to a barbecue joint without a vegan option?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, Slow Hand BBQ in Pleasant Hill isn't the place for you.
The Oak Park Boulevard restaurant opened in July in the building that housed Smokin' Okie's for years and the original Back Forty Texas BBQ years before that. The neon pig out front is gone, but the 32-year-old, wood-burning smoker remains.
The layout of the place hasn't changed much. You enter to an open floor of booths and tables with a kitchen in the back behind a right-angled bar. A couple of TVs usually show sports, and blues tunes play from overhead. But the music-themed decor is gone, replaced with orange and black paint and photos of owner Dan Frengs tending the smoker. There's also a photo of his license plate, which reads, "SLO (hand symbol) BBQ."
You order at a counter from chalk-scribbled blackboards. The meals are served on big metal trays covered in butcher paper.
Slow Hand veterans used to forgo the provided paper towels for the Wonder Bread "napkins" that came with each meal, but the closing of Hostess has left barbecue joints across the nation, including Slow Hand, wondering what simple staple to serve.
The sides come in Styrofoam containers, and the two kinds of sauce -- hot and sweet -- are in ketchup tubes. It's purposefully simple, a theme that sticks at Slow Hand.
Frengs spent years working in the beer business, and it shows in his taps. He always carries selections from Northern California institutions Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing, and hipster fuel (Pabst Blue Ribbon) is a constant. Expect to find about 10 others from all over on the board, which recently included New Belgium's 1554 (Fort Collins, Colo.), Ale Industries' Rye'd Piper (Concord), Radeberger's Pilsner (Radeberg, Germany) and North Coast's Red Seal (Fort Bragg).
The selection of sides, again, is simple: coleslaw, German potato salad, beer-spiked beans with bacon and mac 'n' cheese. Unlike many East Bay barbecue joints, not one dab of mayonnaise makes its way into the coleslaw or potato salad.
The coleslaw is a standout. It's vinegar and oil based, with cilantro, red bell pepper, green onion, herbs and seasoning. If you get one side, get this. If you get two, get two orders of this.
The mac 'n' cheese can be uneven. At times, it's spot on; other times, it's clumpy and bland.
The German potato salad is served warm and made with vinegar, oil, onion, cider and bacon. It's heavy, but a nice change of pace from tired mayo-soaked versions with rock-hard tubers.
But let's get to the meat of this review.
The Texas-style brisket and Carolina-style pulled pork are sold by the quarter-pound. One pound feeds two to three people; it's $16 for the brisket and $12 for the pork. The ordering? Simple.
You can buy a half-chicken for $5.75 or a whole one for $9.75. The bird is soaked in a saltwater brine, then slow-cooked in the smoker.
But it's all about the ribs, and Slow Hand sells two kinds of them: St. Louis and baby backs, the best-seller. For both, it's $12.95 for a half-rack and $22.95 for a full. With both, the meat falls off the bone. The baby backs are cut from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs. The St. Louis are spare ribs and have a little more fat than the baby backs. They're seasoned the same, with just salt and pepper.
Frengs grew up in Pleasant Hill and has roots in San Francisco. He seems to let a straightforward ethos guide him: Keep the seasoning simple, and let the smoker work its magic.
He started barbecuing for beer events and then at farmers markets in 2010. He moved on to setting up "shop" on San Francisco street corners, where he'd sell his slow-smoked eats a little less than legally. He earned an SF Weekly "Best of S.F." title and found hundreds of catering gigs to pay the bills, allowing him to open his own place in his hometown.
The smoker is what sold Frengs on the spot, and now he's cooking bone-in pork butts in it. After 12 hours inside the heavy, sooty doors, the meat gets chopped up and mixed with a mustard-vinegar sauce you might find in the Carolinas. The pork is served less stringy and more flavorful than what you'll find at, say, every sports-bar-turned-gastro-pub from here to Hollister.
Frengs and his crew cook the 10- to 14-pound briskets at 250 degrees for an hour a pound. They rotate in the smoker, the juices dripping from one to the next in a harmony of dribbles and drizzles of fatty flavor, all while enveloped by the sweet-smelling smoke from the oak burning below.
The ribs? A similar symphony that would make many a mouth water in anticipation. The baby backs cook for four to six hours; the St. Louis ribs cook for seven to eight.
At this barbecue joint, it's slow and steady -- and simple -- that win the day.
Follow Tim O'Rourke at Twitter.com/timothyorourke.
Slow Hand BBQ
" * * *
FOOD: * * * ½
AMBIENCE: * * ½
SERVICE: * * *
WHERE: 1941 Oak Park Blvd., Pleasant Hill
CONTACT: 925-942-0149, www.slowhandbbq.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
VEGETARIAN: Just the some of the sides
BEVERAGES: Impressive wine and draft beer lists that are ever-changing.
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Private lot and street parking
KIDS: No special menu, but what kid doesn't like gnawing on ribs or eating macaroni and cheese?
PLUSES: The brisket, the ribs, the pulled pork -- pretty much all the meat they're smoking.
MINUSES: The options are close to nonexistent if someone in your party isn't a meat-eater. Some diners would like to see cornbread on the menu.
DATE OPENED: July
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