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Rick's Secret Spot, the best barbecue joint in Orange County, is in the unlikeliest of spots—on the San Clemente frontier east of the 5, up a winding road, toward the back of an industrial park, a cubbyhole where the scent of sauces and meats smacks your senses like the summer sun dipped in molasses. The menu, like the restaurant, is simple. Ribs. Chicken. Pulled pork. In a box or slopped onto a sandwich. Sides—coleslaw, sweet beans, collard greens. Plastic utensils. Specials scrawled on a dry-erase board. Towelettes. No cutesy decorations, no obnoxious blues in the background—just straight-ahead 'cue.
I visited in the middle of one of those perfect Orange County days, when the sun distills the pigment of every little thing—hills the color of cornbread, a sky bluer than blue—and Santiago Peak looms on the horizon. My friend and I ordered sandwiches—a North Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich for me, Memphis-style ribs for the boss. Each sandwich was as long as a Vietnamese banh mi and as fat as a Mexican torta. The loaf, crunchy and golden, soaked up the swampy, spicy sauce painted across my pulled pork. The pork, soft and sweet, fell into my mouth with just the slightest of nibbles. I dumped some of the coleslaw—cold, alternately sweet and bitter, with a delightful crunch—into the sandwich to lend yet another layer of flavor. And the sides! The sweet beans, flecked with bacon slices, combined the earthiness of pinto with the sugary delight of Boston baked. My friend's sides of mac and cheese and collard greens inspired him to confess he hadn't enjoyed such a down-home meal since a summer visit to Arkansas.
We moved on to a rib trio—big, but not outlandish. Rick could succeed by slopping a one-size-fits-all sauce on everything, but he doesn't. The rib sauce is so thick you could slap a man's face with it; on the pulled pork, the sauce was lighter, spicier. Buttressing the ribs was corn bread from heaven—fluffy but substantial, sweet but earthy, moist with a massive glob of butter that tasted as if Rick had spiked it with spun honey.
We returned inside and offered our compliments to Rick—turns out the man travels each summer across the country in a quest for 'cue secrets (last summer he did 36 states in six weeks and barely stayed ahead of Hurricane Katrina). My friend asked Rick what his secrets were. "Secrets?" Rick scoffed, like an uncle teaching you how to smack a golf ball. "Barbecue is a God-given talent!" He sent us off with some of his homemade Dutch apple macadamia pie, and my friend sang of Arkansas again.
RICK'S SECRET SPOT, 1030 CALLE SOMBRA, STE. G, SAN CLEMENTE, (949) 429-7768; WWW.RICKSSECRETSPOT.COM.
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