Secret to great barbecue? Just listen
Where I come from, the best barbecue is found in the worst neighborhoods. I’ve savored soul food on the south side of Chicago and shouted for ribs through bullet-proof Plexiglas in the Fillmore District.
So I was unprepared for Boucane’s Smokehouse and Sweetery, opened in March by brother-sister act Nicole Burton and Brandon Ivey.
Their bright red tent and telltale smoker sit beside Curiosities Consignment Store at 1091 White Rock Road. The former Dusty Creek Lumber site is definitely not a scary neighborhood, unless you are afraid of good barbecue.
The dining area consists of several outdoor tables in the shade of an elaborate redwood arbor. It’s all very picnic-chic, and also strictly temporary.
Boucane’s is a work in progress — a licensed catering business that’s allowed to sell a limited to-go barbecue menu and a handful of amazing desserts over the counter, picnic-style, until a custom cooking trailer kitchen-on-wheels arrives from South Carolina in July.
They’ve worked with county officials each step of the way, and have a pragmatic plan to grow the business. The trailer will let them expand the restaurant menu and also provide a shot in the arm to the catering business. Once they’ve developed a customer base, they’ll open a restaurant with a roof, the siblings said. Based on meat and sauce we tasted last week, it won’t take long.
Cindy Critchfiled and Tara Galloway agree. They work next door at the post office and started smelling something good wafting through their parking lot a couple of months back, and stopped by to check it out last week. They dug into overstuffed pulled pork and tri-tip sandwiches, a bargain at $6.50 each, and were glowing.
“Bring your napkins,” said Galloway. “It’s a bomb.”
The pyrotechnicians are a Serrano-based brother-sister act from Oakland, neither of which is named Boucane. Burton, 44, and Ivey, 38, said they chose the name, which means “barbecue” in French, because it sounds good.
Boucane’s is not the first creative food startup to test the waters from the long-time lumber store site. The Shiver Sisters taught us about dragon’s blood shaved ice from that parking lot last summer. A beignet baker has come and gone.
Late Dusty Creek matriarch Phyllis Hautala, a much-loved El Dorado Hills personality from the pre-Town Center era, would be pleased to see the site coming back to life. Her daughters still control the legacy property.
Burton and Ivey are also upholding a legacy — a three-generation family food tradition that began at their grandmother’s kitchen table in Oakland, where Lou Rawls, the Pointer Sisters and other big-name black performers found great soul food when they were in town.
Her three sons took her recipes and her music industry contacts to Jack London Square in 1976 and opened Ivey’s Ribs and Spirits, a sophisticated dining and entertainment destination that became a waterfront landmark for Oakland’s African American A-list.
The brothers, led by Burton and Ivey’s father, had large appetites and gregarious personalities, which often clashed, said Burton, who was working in the kitchen when Ivey’s closed in 1988.
She was just 16 at the time and recalls being crushed. “All I ever wanted to do was run that place,” she said.
Ivey was just a boy, but also spent formative time in the restaurant.
Burton and Ivey have different mothers and grew up in separate households. “Papa was a rolling stone,” said Burton, mimicking the Temptations, who might also have spent time at her grandmother’s house.
“He’s 70 and still fighting off the ladies,” she said of her father.
Brother and sister each went on to study restaurant management and both spent time in the business. Ivey became a trainer for the Elephant Bar chain and later a bartender for El Torito’s. He married, and branched out into music, art, design and even massage therapy, all driven by the vision of running his own bed and breakfast one day, or even a resurrection of his namesake fine dining and entertainment business model.
“It never left my mind,” said Ivey.
After a tough divorce, he enlisted in the Army National Guard. Basic training at age 35 was tough, but not as tough as choking down what the mess hall served. He made a few suggestions and is now in charge of his company’s kitchen brigade, an assignment that suits him fine, he said. He was recently promoted to sergeant for his efforts.
“Brandon’s a chop-chef,” said Burton. “He has great instincts and can create amazing things with what’s at hand.”
In their current situation, his improvisations are limited to some imaginative desserts.
Burton also retained the dream of opening a food establishment and, like her brother, kept coming back to her father’s model. They rekindled the family connection five years ago and discovered their common vision.
Burton and her husband have lived in Serrano for 10 years, and are serial entrepreneurs. Until recently, the most demanding of their pursuits has been a successful commercial janitorial business.
Their first foray into the barbecue business was Burton’s Barbecue at the Folsom Hotel five years ago.
It forced them to refine their recipes, but required that they complement them with standard bar fare. Nicole tired of serving “stuff I didn’t want to serve to people I didn’t want to serve to,” she said, a reference to the historic watering hole’s late-night clientele.
They left the hotel after a year, but were eager to jump back in to the business, especially with Brandon on board as front-man.
Burton and her husband are shy by nature, she said, but Ivey has a long dose of his father’s genetics, including youthful good looks and an outgoing personality.
If last Wednesday is any indication, he’s attracted a following.
Kristina Mitchell drove all the way from South Lake Tahoe for a taste of his barbecue.
“It’s the best stuff I’ve ever tasted,” she said, licking the sauce off her fingers. “I was craving these chicken breasts, so I just drove down. The sauce is amazing.”
She’s right. The flavors are deep and complex, without being too sweet; a perfect complement to the smoky meat.
Importantly, the sauce also has a good story. The recipe allegedly came from a friend of their father’s named “Mr. Earl,” who might have been R&B pioneer Earl “Speedoo” Carroll, the lead singer of the Cardinals, the New York Doo Wop outfit whose biggest hit, “Speedoo,” was named after him.
Customers looking for a similarly colorful story often ask where they come from and what style barbecue they make.
Ivey’s fiction has the family hailing from the tiny island of Hanago, which means “a little bit of everything.” Hanago also describes Boucane’s food, “The best of what we like,” he said.
Head chef Burton makes extensive use of rubs and marinades, sometimes in combination, to create Hanago-style barbecue. “I know food, I’m particular about it, and I know what I like,” she said.
Her recipes are far from exotic. The preparations are unconventional, heretical by some standards, but starkly practical and uncomplicated. There are no secret ingredients, par-boiling or injections.
Instead, she relies on a sixth sense of seasoning that Ivey describes as “pixie dust,” but his ever-grounded sister explains is simply “knowing when it’s right.”
She knows because she listens. “It has to sound right when it hits the pan,” she said. “I can definitely hear it.”
She doesn’t call it “cooking by ear,” but we will.
Beef brisket, a mainstay on barbecue menus, is absent on this one. “It’s nasty,” she said.
She cooks Tri-tip instead. Her problem with brisket is the abundance of connective tissue it contains, tissue which must be cooked for hours, and requires a layer of fat to keep it from drying out. Burton hates fat. She orders all her cuts as lean as possible. In a departure from most main-stream barbecue thinking, she also removes all visible fat before cooking.
This is a practical woman running two active businesses — a woman with a daughter in middle school and another in high school who also makes time to care for two grandchildren in the area.
This is a woman who realizes the value of her time, and has learned “there are all sorts of unnecessary things being done to barbecue.”
She fills the big smoker with a mix of regular charcoal, pecan and hickory, and is done cooking a full day’s meat in a couple of hours. The meat doesn’t seem to mind the heresy. Her ribs are tender and juicy; her mind-bending tri-tip bears the telltale pink smoke ring.
The one exception is the simple pork roast, whose conversion to succulent pulled pork takes a full 24 hours — the first 12 in a brine and the second in the smoke, with the fat on. But it’s removed immediately thereafter and hand-pulled.
A generous dose of sauce and a dash of pixie dust later, it explodes with flavor but not fat.
All the meat, including hot links made to Burton’s specifications, are purchased fresh from a compliant butcher daily. Once the meat is cooked, minimal other food preparation is allowed under the terms of Boucane’s catering license.
Side dishes are an essential part of the barbecue experience. Ivey can’t wait to start making his exotic veggie burgers and tasting Burton’s amazing fried corn, both of which are on the catering menu and will be available in the restaurant once the trailer arrives.
Until then, the mainstay sides that can be prepared in advance are holding down the fort: smoky baked beans, two kinds of corn bread — one sweet one savory — and the essential coleslaw, served up fresh and crisp.
Burton can’t stand soupy cole slaw. “You can’t let it sit in the pan and disintegrate,” she said. That’s why hers is assembled on-the-fly when ordered.
“We’ve started a lot of businesses, and none of them has ever fallen into place like this,” said Burton. “Everyone has been so nice, the customers, the county … maybe this is the one.”
Ivey picks up the theme. “Everything we’ve done here has been a test of our concept, to see whether people liked what we liked.”
We like. Now pass the barbecue sauce please.
Boucane’s is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunda. Catering and dessert menus are available on Boucane’s website, boucanes.com, or call (916) 221-8897.