by Emily R. See
Let’s get one thing clear right away:
Barbecuing and grilling are two separate beasts. Although many Americans (with the exceptions of Texans or South Carolinians) use them interchangeably, barbecue has nothing to do with cooking over a gas grill in your backyard. Real barbecue is slowly smoked, slathered in sauce (to keep it moist), and the subject of as much argument, secrecy, and speculation as Area 51. That’s why Jonathan Banks, owner of Cities BBQ, can’t divulge the ingredients that make up the restaurant’s sauce, only revealing that there are “more than 15.”
The concept for the rib joint was born last summer with Mathu Chrestenson, former owner of the building’s previous eatery, City Kitchen, and currently the “Pit Boss” for Cities BBQ. Banks, who comes from a family full of great cooks, was instantly impressed. “I’ve eaten a lot of ribs,” he said, “but when I tried the ribs Mathu was doing, I knew he was on to something.” Barbecue is rapidly gaining popularity throughout the country, Banks explained, and no one in Santa Barbara was doing it.
The key to good barbecue is simple, sort of: good meat, good wood, good sauce. Good meat starts with the cut. St. Louis is usually considered the best cut for smoking, although leaner baby-back ribs are good as well.
That’s about where consensus ends and barbecue lore begins. The wood Cities BBQ uses is a blend that includes hickory, apple, mesquite, and a wood that Chrestenson specially developed with their supplier, known only as “sweet.” Just as important, said Banks, is how the meat is arranged in the smoker.
Then there’s the sauce. Cities’s was the product of much tinkering. “Mathu has a keen palate,” Banks said, describing Chrestenson’s ability to figure out any recipe’s “secret” ingredient. And the tinkering continues. They’ve just returned from the Super Bowl of BBQ in Memphis, Tennessee, where they scouted out some additional tricks of the trade and looked for inspiration.
Of course, man cannot live on meat alone. Which brings us to the sides. “Good barbecue usually comes with bad sides,” said Banks, and they obviously wanted to break that trend. So rather than ordering up five-gallon buckets of ranch beans, he and Chrestenson created a menu full of premium, homemade recipes, such as the hush puppies (printed at upper right).
The menu at Cities BBQ also features such sides as collard greens, succotash, and peaches and bourbon. And while you can barbecue anything, from chicken to tri-tip, for Banks, “ribs are the star.”