If there's any debate worth having about barbecue, it's the one about the debate. Otherwise, the only agreement you'll reach is that there's a lot of disagreement. A Texan will, naturally, have to disavow anything that someone from Memphis considers good, and vice versa, and Carolina and Kentucky and all the regional 'cue traditions. But among those warring tribes, there is one point of unity: corporate outfits such as Tony Roma's go against the grain of barbecue, an affront to its folksiness.
But the question must be asked: If barbecue should only be eaten at holes-in-the-wall, where proprietors guard recipes with proclamations of “If I told you, I'd have to kill you,” how has Lucille's Smokehouse, arguably the biggest 'cue chain around these parts, with its faux-southernness and fictional titular character, become so successful? And how has Wood Ranch BBQ, its closest competitor, managed to expand and nip at Lucille's heels, even as smaller outfits by purported contest-winning chefs have failed?
Born in 1992 in Moorpark, conceived by a couple of MBAs, Wood Ranch seems to understand that as long as the basics are there, the public at large isn't interested in nitpicking the lore or worshiping with the barbecue cult. It bets that a typical customer won't look for the pink smoke ring, usually the telltale sign a rack spent an eternity inside a slow smoker. Wood Ranch's baby backs do not possess it. Slow roasting with lighter woods, and then quickly finishing the bones over a grill to sear, Wood Ranch knows that, at least in California, most people couldn't care less about barbecue esoterics and judge ribs solely on their ability to be stripped with minimal effort and whether diners want to lick sauce off their fingers afterward. These are the benchmarks Wood Ranch strives for and achieves, even as the glaze tends to lean toward cloying and the meat light on flavor.
The ribs aren't even the thing to get at Wood Ranch. I'm of the opinion that the tri tip could possibly win a few barbecue contests if given the opportunity. It exists not in slices, but as a whole, gold-brick-sized steak—a long, thick rectangle of meat singed on every side, with grill marks where it isn't as shiny as oiled leather. Approach it from any angle, and it cuts the same, as if your knife were a lightsaber and the beef were Jell-O. Along with tenderness, there's a fullness of flavor—a deep-seeded, cellular-level attribute that immediately renders moot Wood Ranch's roster of other steaks. It might even supplant the need to waste your appetite on the lackluster and pasty mac and cheese, the not-as-spicy-as-advertised green beans, or the innocuous plate-dump of fried onion straws that constitutes a typically ordered appetizer.
Forgo every meat on offer in favor of the tri tip, especially the roasted half-chicken, which, despite a heavy caking of spices, is flavor-neutral and with a floppy skin. If you have to order it, know that the breast meat is cooked well and in a seemingly never-ending supply. The hens seem plumped up to unnatural, engorged states. As if the chicken needed some insurance, Wood Ranch supplies a dipping broth au jus presumably made of its drippings. Though intriguing, it unfortunately doesn't add anything to the meal except confusion as to what to do with it.
Wood Ranch BBQ's newest location at the Irvine Spectrum is its third in OC. Located at a prime spot next to the theater, lines there have been a constant since its debut. Perhaps it's because it fills a niche at the mega-complex missing since Crazy Horse was scuttled in favor of an Old Navy. Or perhaps the Wood Ranch execs really do know what the public wants. They certainly have designed an inviting restaurant: clean and polished with a restraint that sees no steer heads on the walls or a speck of sawdust on the floor. The hostess who led me to my table not only asked me how my day was, but also wasn't afraid to ask for specifics. In fact, Wood Ranch's closest kin isn't actually Lucille's, which revels in kitsch, but rather Houston's. And before you balk at that description, ask yourself this: What is more quintessentially American than BBQ if not corporatization?
This review appeared in print as “All-American 'Cue: Don't let Wood Ranch BBQ's corporate sheen dissuade you from trying its tri tip.”