The barbecue chain Lucille’s takes great pains to transport its customers to the South of fables, of rocking chairs on the front porch, of twangy blues music. It’s all artifice, of course, designed to convince you that the smoked meat you’re eating came from the recipe books of one Lucille Buchanan, a fictional character raised somewhere in the Barbecue Belt, and not Craig Hofman, owner of Hof’s Hut.
I thought about Lucille’s when I visited Ember BBQ in downtown Santa Ana; it felt like the complete opposite. First of all, it’s barely a restaurant. It calls itself a “pop-up,” sharing space with Native Son Alehouse; in this symbiotic relationship, the bar provides the beers and Ember the food.
When I came in one Saturday for lunch, there was no hostess to seat me, no waitress to take my order. The menu wasn’t posted anywhere, so I did what seemed to make sense: I walked up to the bartender. It was then that I noticed next to the point-of-sale tablet the stack of laminated menus, each a short list printed on a single sheet of paper.
“We have everything except for the brisket, which will take another two hours,” the bartender told me as he glanced toward the patio. Outside, a man in a trucker hat had just opened the hickory-fueled smoker to take out a foil-wrapped bundle of meat.
We were on the second story of the building, and the intoxicating aromas that had escaped the smoker now wafted into the bar. Everyone inside inhaled. “Now that’s what barbecue should smell like!” one gent at the bar said as he nursed a beer.
The man in the trucker hat is Derrick Foster, Ember’s owner and pit master. Unlike Lucille Buchanan, Foster has a real back story: He’s a former Marine who served in Afghanistan, studied cooking at the CIA, and went on to work for Sang Yoon at Lukshon and Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. His passion and the reason he started Ember, though, is to cook the food that’s practically religion in his hometown of Kansas City: barbecue.
When my pager buzzed to signal my combo platter was ready, it was Foster who handed it to me. I’d ordered chicken, St. Louis ribs and sausage. All the meat was arranged atop halved slices of white bread. Next to them were sliced jalapeños, pickled onions, dill pickles, and the sides that I picked based on the bartender’s advice: Foster’s cornbread and cheesy corn. They were good choices.
I loved the cornbread in particular. If it was the only thing I ate that afternoon, I would’ve been very happy. Despite being served cold, the wedge was so dense, moist and sweet it was akin to pound cake. And the cheesy corn—which Foster starts with an actual Mornay—was like getting two sides for the price of one. In its silky-creamy depths laid the soul of a mac and cheese and the texture and freshness of corn on the cob.
Foster’s smoked meats were just as exemplary. The half-chicken was moist and caked with spices, weeping juices when I bit into the drumstick. His natural-casing sausage—sliced on the bevel and studded with jewels of cheese and bits of jalapeño—snapped beneath my teeth and literally burst with flavor, the cheese oozing out and the peppers burning the back of my throat. Foster’s ribs—tenderly smoked and meaty—were homogenous in texture. It was as if I were chomping into a big piece of ham. And since they’re not shellacked in sauce, I was able to really taste the pork. I didn’t need to dip them in Foster’s homemade barbecue sauce, but I did anyway, for completeness.
More than anything, I realized this was what barbecue tasted like when it’s made not just by a CIA grad, but also by someone who knows it by heart and calls it a lifestyle.
Foster’s CIA training did seem to come into play when it came to a dish he called “Hogchos,” a play on nachos with pork rinds instead of tortilla chips. A lesser chef attempting this monstrous Atkins pile-up of pulled pork, cheese sauce and Chinese-style pork floss would’ve ended up with an overly rich, sickening mess. But by adding sour cream, pickled onions, jalapeños and barbecue sauce, Foster turned it into something inexplicably light and addictive. Though the dish looked like Jabba the Hut, it moved like Baryshnikov.
While eating the Hogchos, I was transported to another time and place. No, not to Kansas City, but to the future, where I foresee platoons of Foster’s Ember BBQ restaurants showing the likes of Lucille’s how it’s done.
Ember BBQ, 305 E. Fourth St., Ste. 200, Santa Ana, (714) 204-0337; emberpopup.com. Open Tues.-Wed., noon-6 p.m.; Thurs., noon-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon-10 p.m.; Sun., noon-7 p.m. Entrées, $16-$55. Beer and wine.