Tim DeCinces didn't amount to much as a baseball player. The Baltimore Orioles chose the son of former California Angels third baseman Doug DeCinces in 1996 with the 501st pick in that year's draft. Tim lived up to the low expectations by floundering around the minor leagues for seven years, batting a paltry .254 in the process before retiring in 2003 without ever reaching the big leagues.
But the baseball and culinary gods work in mysterious ways, sometimes in tandem. As Tim bounced around between Bluefield, West Virginia, and Frederick, Maryland, and Mobile, Alabama, he found salvation in Southern vittles.
"I was able to see many parts of the country and taste the various culinary cultures," DeCinces writes on the website for Beach Pit BBQ, his new Costa Mesa restaurant. "I fell in love with not only the taste of true, wood-smoked Southern BBQ, but also the hospitality and comfort that came with it." And so in September, DeCinces opened Beach Pit BBQ, vowing to produce 'cue "unlike anything Southern Californians have ever tasted before."
That's quite a presumptuous statement even in Orange County, where big-meat aficionados have gnawed on the Santa Maria-style tri-tip at Lou's Oak Oven BBQ in Huntington Beach or Burrell's slaw-covered pork shoulder sandwiches for decades. But DeCinces is definitely on to something: after just a couple of months, Beach Bit BBQ is already smoking out some of the best chunks of beef, pork and chicken south of the 55 freeway.
DeCinces designed Beach Pit BBQ in a way that evokes a classic Southern roadhouse, and the simulacrum is largely successful. The building is small—just a main dining room that could double as a bedroom—and most of the seating is outside, where picnic tables draped with checkered cloths overlook an Astroturf playground for kiddies. Meals come in red plastic baskets lined with wax paper—a nice hillbilly touch, but be careful you don't shovel fragments of the paper into your mouth along with your lunch like a certain food critic.
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DeCinces focuses his menu on pan-Southern fare like sausage, pulled pork, chicken, brisket and ribs—no regional styles yet, although the off-the-menu pork taquitos hint at what Southerners can expect as more Mexicans settle in Dixie. I'm partial to the smoked sausage, each about the size of a kielbasa and arriving five to an order. Beach Pit BBQ prepares them in a manner that allows the skin to maintain a distinct smoked flavor even as the interior houses a wonderful mix of juice, spice and pork.
The chicken and brisket are also worthwhile—the skin on the hens is crispy but lean, while the brisket arrives in many folds and is so tender you can't scoop it into your mouth without shreds falling through the fork as if it were soup. But DeCinces still needs to work on some small but nagging faults. His cooks slop too much too-sweet, too-thick sauce on everything, almost drowning the already impressive flavors of the meat. And while the sweet potato fries please, the Beach Pit BBQ crew severely tempers the peculiar sweetness of the tuber—in fact, every Orange County restaurant, save the Peruvian joints, does this to one of nature's finest organic sweets.
DeCinces must know this latter point; how else to explain the glorious banana pudding? I'm a big banana flavor fan but usually despise the actual fruit—something about its mushiness causes me to doubt my manhood. Beach Pit BBQ's banana pudding contains substantial bits of the fruit amongst the actual goop, which sits chilled below a swirl of whipped cream. But the light tang of the cream complements the banana and the pudding, and the veins of brown sugar that snake through the pudding like vines around a gate transform the dish from an afterthought into a must-eat Orange County dessert. Tim DeCinces might not be able to hit a major-league fastball, but the food at Beach Pit BBQ shows he'll never have to waste time on a lame comeback.
BEACH PIT BBQ, 1676 TUSTIN AVE., COSTA MESA, (949) 645-RIBS; WWW.BEACHPITBBQ.COM. OPEN 11 A.M.-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $15-$42, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE.