If sun and sand don't define our city's national image, craft beer does. And if there's one type of beer that put San Diego on the sudsy map, it's the IPA. The hop-forward nature of the IPA style is a shockingly good match with barbecue, another bona fide San Diego trend. And that's where a different IPA comes in to play: Iron Pig Alehouse (1520 Garnet Ave.) in Pacific Beach.
If there's one style of barbecue that San Diego seems to do well, its Texas barbecue. Coop's West Texas Barbeque in Lemon Grove has done an excellent take on it for some time. The ambiance at Grand Ole BBQ y Asado is as close as you can get to the Texas experience this side of the Guadalupe Mountains. Iron Pig Alehouse, on the other hand, is Texas barbecue done San Diego style.
IPA's rib tips (a by-product of butchering St. Louis ribs) are an excellent starter—bits of succulent meat around a cartilaginous structure. They're best ordered dry rather than sauced. Savory, tender and juicy, the meat isn't quite falling off the bone but gives just enough resistance to make sucking the last bits off the cartilage a little bowl of fun.
The baby back ribs are more of the same—tender, toothsome with the meat (as it should be) the star of the show. In Executive Chef Rick Daniels' hands, hickory smoke plays the role of a judiciously applied spice rather than taking over as the main player. The barbecue sauce, neither cloyingly sweet nor dominantly spicy, complements the meat rather than overpowering it.
On one trip on a Monday, the sliced brisket sandwich was glorious. The smoke and sauce framed the meat but didn't take over. The Texas toast, buttery and caramelized, was so flavorful it could have starred but instead complemented. On a Thursday trip, it was a different story altogether. The meat was dry; the only moisture came from the sauce drowning the meat. The hickory smoke dominated when not locked in combat with that sauce.
I would later find out why: Thursday is Chef Daniels' day off. It's not the day to go to IPA. The story with the rib tips ordered that same day was the same: too much smoke, too much sauce and too little meaty flavor.
But Thursdays aside, there's much to love at IPA. The Southern greens—collards slowly cooked down in a pot liquor of smoked pork, onions and garlic so good it should be a menu item on its own—is one of, if not the best, take on this dish in town. Not much of a dessert guy, I went home raving about the perfect acid-sugar balance of the key lime pie Chef Daniels based on his grandmother's recipe.
With or without an IPA in hand, the barbecue at Iron Pig Alehouse is some of the best in San Diego. The beach-community vibe and energy gives it a distinctly San Diego feel. If Iron Pig Alehouse isn't what people think of when they think about San Diego, maybe it should be (just not on a Thursday).