Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Barbecue joints tend to be located on the wrong side of the tracks. Whether that's down to the cheap rent, tradition or that folk in those communities are less likely to complain about the smoke is unclear. But great barbecue in high-rent neighborhoods is the exception, not the rule. Enter Bugsy's BBQ (827 Fifth Ave.) in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Not so long ago, San Diego was definitely not a barbecue town. There was little beyond the mediocrity of Phil's BBQ and Kansas City Barbecue's appearance in Top Gun. Suddenly, though, Coop's West Texas Barbecue came to Lemon Grove, Cali Comfort BBQ moved in to Spring Valley, and there's Iron Pig Alehouse, Mark's Bark Barbecue and more. San Diego has clearly upped its íque game. So when Pitmaster Jake Greene announced the opening of a "southern soul barbecue" in the heart of the Gaslamp, there was reason to be hopeful.
But Bugsy's looks more like a sports bar than a BBQ joint. And there's the semi-ironic play on Vegas' mobster-era or is it the Rat Pack? What any of that has to do with barbecue is another question altogether. The test, though, lay in the 'cue.
The best offering at Bugsy's is the brisket. So often—even at some of the best barbecue places in town—brisket ends up dry and over-smoked. Not Greene's. Moist, savory and succulent, Bugsy's barbecued brisket was all about the meat's natural flavor. It's delicious straight up and without sauce.
If everything at Bugsy's were as good as the brisket it would be a very good barbecue joint indeed. Everything wasn't. The beef ribs were overdone but still tasty with a flavor that was savory with just a smoky accent. While the smoke on the St. Louis-style ribs was good, they were, plainly and simply, overcooked. The baby back ribs, on the other hand, were both overcooked and overly smoky. The pulled pork was overly dry and the only flavor seemed to come from the smoke (and way too much of it).
Bugsy's best take on pork ribs were its rib tips. A short, meaty section attached to the lower end of the rib, it's a by-product of butchering St. Louis ribs. Where back or spare ribs have bones, rib tips' structure is cartilage. Bugsy's were tender and meaty, but were also absolutely drowning in sauce. It was a challenge to taste the quality of the meat and the cook through all that sauce.
Frankly, Bugsy's sauces were almost all over-the-top sweet and seemed to compete with the meats rather than complement them. The best was "da grim reaper" which was not nearly as hot as the name suggested. The sauces, though, were part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Bugsy's inability to decide whether it is a sports bar or a barbecue joint would not be much of a problem if the barbecue emerging from its pit was excellent. It isn't. While the brisket was memorably good, the rest is better not remembered.
It's barbecue that wouldn't even cut it on the wrong side of the tracks.