By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Like a divided Congress, there are two sides of the aisle when it comes to barbecue: one makes its case by blowing a lot of smoke and the other pontificates with scorching flames. Rarely does either party find common ground.
The debate over what constitutes as “real” barbecue, however, hits a peaceful impasse at Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill, a Hazard Center newcomer where meat smokers and fiery grills operate in fluid concert.
From smoked brisket and beef ribs (ala Texas-style) to sauce-brushed “all-American” baby backs sporting stripes from direct heat (like those found throughout the Northeast), the menu captures an array of American barbecue options that aren’t typically available under one roof.
It also offers the Kansas City delicacy known as “burnt ends,” which are double-roasted, double-smoked cubes of meat from the marbled, top layer of brisket. We sadly missed out on them because they’re available only as a special on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Wood Ranch was established 23 years ago when longtime friends Eric Anders and Ofer Shemtov rescued a failed barbecue joint in Moorpark, California. They’ve since branched into 16 locations, mostly throughout Southern California. For their San Diego debut, they gutted and remodeled what used to be Randy Jones’ All American Sports Grill (and Trophy’s before that).
The reconfigured space mixes wood, brick and metal in a hip and comfortable motif that frequent restaurant-goers know well. Conveniently, a separate entrance is designated for take-out, and there are several parking slots reserved for receiving food orders to your vehicle before toting them to tailgate parties.
The kitchen is equipped with more than a dozen Alto-Shaam smokers, which double as convection ovens for slow-roasting brined chickens and other meats before some get finished briefly on wood-fired grills.
Among them is the BBQ half chicken, which yielded moist flesh and crackly, charred skin permeated meekly by semi-sweet barbecue sauce. The kicker came when applying to the bird a few drops of Texas-inspired habanero-peach puree served alongside. Fruity up front for about two seconds, it’s the spiciest sauce in the house.
The tri-tip tasted Santa Maria-style, though doesn’t claim to be. It’s caramelized over flames and seemingly marinated in a traditional salt mixture containing onion and garlic powders. The difference is that the meat initially receives a long, gentle roasting in the oven opposed to a full run on the grill. But so what; the texture was fork tender as we jabbed into numerous pieces strewn throughout a superb salad accented with muddled mint and tangy tomato dressing.
St. Louis ribs are defined by their trimmed cartilage. In addition, their gnarly backside membranes are removed. Served straight from the smoker in precise, rectangular half slabs, they were dangerously delicious. Each rib oozed with just the right amount of fat while marrying with the ultra-tender meat and the prized sheath of “bark” that forms on top during the smoking process.
The rub was on point — peppery with sweet undertones. It needed no interference from Wood Ranch’s proprietary, bottled barbecue sauce, a mediocre recipe with high-fructose corn syrup listed as a leading ingredient.
But the house chipotle-cherry sauce we requested with a plate of tender brisket tasted lusciously homespun, wowing us with its striking balance of chilies and stone fruit. Chalk it up as one of those sauces tailor-made for red meat, whether smoked or broiled.
In a subsequent visit, we loosened our belts for half-pound burgers licked wholly by mesquite flames. They were chubby, juicy and delicious. But we made the mistake of applying mustard and ketchup to them, which was as unnecessary as smearing A-1 Steak Sauce onto filet mignon.
Carolina pulled pork from hormone-free pigs is also on the menu. So are Nebraska-sourced steaks broiled over non-pungent white oak to maintain flavor integrity. Pescetarians have less to choose from, with only grilled shrimp, rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon comprising the seafood list.
Plates, burgers and sandwiches each come with a side dish. Our choices included lightly oiled peanut coleslaw; a full ear of grilled sweet corn; and a withered Idaho baked potato, lacking steam. Compared to the latter, the mashed spuds were notably better, given their naughty lacings of butter and sour cream.
At less than two months in, the wait staff appeared to operate sharply. Cocktails from the bar and house-made lemonade from the kitchen arrived to the table quickly. Our water glasses were refilled regularly, and there were no hiccups in our food orders.
Based on the welcoming vibe of the place and the breadth of the menu, I’m betting that Wood Ranch is here to stay.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.