In Texas, Missouri and Tennessee, barbecue tends to happen when you least expect it. You can be driving, minding your own business, when the aroma of brisket suddenly wafts into your open window. I’ve gone to those states specifically to eat barbecue at restaurants such as Pecan Lodge in Dallas’ Deep Ellum; Killen’s in Pearland, Texas; and Corky’s in Memphis—but in truth, I could’ve just wandered the highways aimlessly and eventually come upon great barbecue by someone who has set up a smoker on some random street corner.
In Kansas City, Kansas, a gas station happens to be the home of a barbecue joint that the late Anthony Bourdain put on his list of “13 Places to Eat Before You Die.” Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que is now considered smoked-meat mecca—but even this started when a couple of barbecue obsessives bought a portable smoker, took their setup to barbecue competitions, and, after winning a whole bunch of first-place trophies, set up shop at that gas station.
The owner of the Q Joint, a new food stall at the SoCo Farmers’ Market in Costa Mesa, also has ties to the barbecue circuit—not as a contestant, but rather a judge. Benny Chang is a member of the Kansas City BBQ Society, a Master BBQ Judge and an instructor at the California BBQ Association.
And now he’s decided to dive into the trenches to be judged by the likes of you and me. You can find Chang in the closest thing you can get in Orange County to those roadside set-ups: inside a tent at the end of the SoCo parking lot on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., doling ribs, brisket, chicken, pulled pork and burnt ends into Styrofoam containers. Behind his tent is a smoker the size of a dorm-room refrigerator.
You could get Chang’s meats in any number of permutations, but the Judge’s Box—which comes with barbecue beans, coleslaw and a slice of butter-soaked Texas toast—has all of them in one shot. Your eyes will gravitate immediately toward the chicken. Completely deboned and meticulously tucked into a perfect poultry pillow, the case made from its own taut skin, this is thigh meat as it is always presented at those barbecue contests. And the care and detail Chang puts into them is evident. He braises the meat in butter, rubs it with spices, smokes it for two hours with California red oak, then slathers it in sauce. The results straddle the sweet spot between dark-meat moistness and white-meat uniformity—probably the best barbecued chicken I’ve ever had.
The pulled pork is also excellent. Marinated for a day, then smoked for 12 hours with hickory, it weeps so much juice it’s almost a stew. I haven’t had it in one of Chang’s pulled pork sandwiches, but if I did, I don’t think it would require any condiments; this pork is its own sauce. And then there’s Chang’s miraculous barbecue beans, which he packs with so much chopped brisket and other meats that it’s more protein than bean, more meal than side dish.
His coleslaw, however, is just coleslaw. And his brisket, cut in thick slices, falters when it’s judged against his own burnt ends, which come in two precious bite-sized morsels rimmed with a concentrate of jet-black bark, melted collagen and gushing fat. Though very tender, the brisket is dryer by comparison and lacking the elasticity you expect when you try to pull it apart with your fingers. To be fair, I found the brisket at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que also paled when eaten after its burnt ends.
Chang prepares his St. Louis pork ribs with the same kind of care he takes with the chicken, giving them a “competition trim” so there’s just enough exposed bone to hold onto. And after being smoked for five hours with applewood, the meat ends up as ruddy as Chinese char siu. You do, however, need sauce for this. And the one that Chang has formulated for it is wonderful. It’s tangy and sweet at first, then builds to a slow, long-lasting chile burn. In fact, its hotness sticks around for hours at the back of your throat, longer than the stand itself lasts at the Farmers’ Market.
But there’s something about procuring barbecue from a temporary structure such as this that’s always better than Lucille’s. It’s probably because I know the person who chooses to haul all that equipment out there isn’t doing it without a passion for the art—or, as in the case of Benny Chang, without knowing what it takes for a judge such as him to award a first-place trophy.
The Q Joint at SoCo Farmers’ Market, 3315 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa; www.theqjointbbq.com. Open Sat., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Judge’s Box meal, $34. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.