For a town that has more Texas in it than the rest of California combined, Bakersfield has not always been a stronghold for barbecue.
Oh, sure, Jake's has been around forever, but they don't offer ribs and link sausages and such, and so many places that do have come and gone over the years. I recall my wife's uncle, a true aficionado, sometimes griping to me about how hard it was to find good barbecue in this town, how places came and went.
But it seems lately that we're glimpsing a coming golden era of barbecue, with exceptional pulled pork at many places, the recent relocation of the Grill Hut into larger quarters on White Lane and new ownership at what was once The Q Rib Shack on Rosedale. The place is now called Salty's BBQ & Catering, and owner Jeff Salters is using the humble walk-up establishment as the base for the catering business he started in 2010.
I'd hesitate to call the aforementioned pulled pork the big draw at Salty's, though the pork here is amazing in so many ways. Some places serve a version that is a cousin to pit-style beef: stringy, chunky in spots, varying from moist to crunchy. The texture of what we sampled at Salty's was truly amazing -- moist, almost pulverized, sweet/smoky and just so seductive. The texture is not something you can shortchange; it has to be slow-cooked. You can get it alone in a dinner with two sides ($9.99), on two different sandwiches (one topped with coleslaw) or in a combo. If you have any affection for this creation, be sure to try Salty's version.
But that's not all that's good, and we got to sample a lot of different choices by ordering two of the combos: chicken and ribs ($15.99, half a chicken, two beef ribs and two pork ribs) and tri-tip and pulled pork ($10.99 for a quarter pound of each). The combos come with a grilled Pyrenees roll given the garlic butter brush and a side dish (chili beans, potato salad, coleslaw or green beans). We got the chili beans because they were out of the green beans, which I've heard are great. The beans are a soup with a fair amount of ground beef and bits of green pepper in the muddy mix.
As much as I liked the pulled pork, I can't complain about the other meats we sampled. The tri-tip was thinly sliced, very smoky and perfect on that roll they supply (the counter man said it used to be smoked, like the pork, but now it's grilled). The menu says it's cooked over red oak, which adds a familiar taste to the meat. The chicken lost most of its skin in the cooking process yet had a smokiness that was irresistible. The pieces were not too dried out, a regrettably common occurrence at barbecue spots.
The ribs are available with or without sauce, and both the pork and beef are exceptionally meaty cuts. In fact, one of the two beef ribs was what I like to call the Fred Flintstone rib, the one on the end large enough to topple his car. Tearing away the beef from the rib will test your teeth, but that's as it should be. I want to work for the satisfaction when I'm eating a beef rib. The pork is far more tender, but you can tell from the rich taste that it, like the pulled pork, earned that texture from slow-cooking. The meat on top has not been trimmed away, so it can seem like an amazingly meaty offering.
Salty's is located in a small cabin near Calloway that, in the past, has been a coffee kiosk and a hot dog spot. It's still not much on atmosphere -- a few picnic tables and a lot of people ordering takeout on their way home. Maybe on a nice spring day lunch there might seem like a good idea, but it's still a bit chilly. The small crew inside the box is fast and organized, which is appreciated at the end of a work day.
The menu is a bit different from when it was the Q: Gone are the specialty hamburgers that were pretty amazing, as well as the daily lunch and dinner specials that used to pull me in, especially the Wednesday beef rib bonanza for $19.95. But perhaps the simplification of it all is merely a shift to concentrating on strengths.
We're in a good barbecue upswing right now. Enjoy it while it lasts.