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Review: Sam's BBQ

Sam's BBQ in San Jose scores with slow-cooked baby back pork ribs and brisket

THERE ARE a few things that everybody claims to know. Everybody thinks they know the right way to tend a fire. Everybody says they know whatís wrong with the world today. And everybody strongly believes they know good barbecue when they taste it. I find that last notion to be particularly strong.

As a nation of immigrants, America doesnít have a well-defined national cuisine or dish. Hot dogs? Bacon cheeseburgers? Tuna casserole? What we do have are a great many regional cuisines, and one of the stars of regional American food is barbecue. Texas, North Carolina, St. Louis and even Santa Maria, Calif., all lay claim to different styles and tastes of slow-smoked meats. Taken together, barbecue and the culture that surrounds it make for the most American of American foods. As such, everyone has something to say about it.

Alas, barbecue is not Silicon Valleyís strong suit, but if you know where to look you can find pockets of smoky goodness. I had been driving past Samís BBQ in San Jose for years but never stopped in until just recently. Open since 1992, Samís gets points for longevity if nothing else. But in barbecue-challenged Silicon Valley, Iím happy to report that it also gets points for its ícue, especially the ribs and brisket.

First a little history. Sam Carlino and Sam Carlino Jr. opened the restaurant in 1992. Sam senior owned San Joseís Time Market, an independent grocery store and meat market that opened in 1950. Sam junior started working in the market when he was 8 and helped his dad make Italian sausage. He went on to become a journeyman meat cutter for Zanottoís Market. Sam Sr. sold his share of Time Marketto his brother in 1979. The opening of Samís BBQ was the father and sonís second joint venture.

The walls of Samís are covered with Wild West bric-a-brac and knickknacks that give the restaurant an old-timey feel. I sat in the crowded dining room during my three visits, but the covered (and well-heated) patio off to the side is an appealing option, too.

The best bets at Samís are the baby back pork ribs ($15.95 half-rack/$23.95) and the brisket ($11.95). The ribs steal the show. Marinated and smoked over oak, theyíre beautifully caramelized and crusty outside and supremely tender and moist inside. Samís orders extra-meaty ribs, and that they are. The brisket is a standout, too. Smoked for 14 hours, the thick slices of beef are rendered tender and delicious. The crispy, jerkylike ends are my favorite part. The quarter-inch pink smoke ring is a testament to the beefís hours in the smoke.

Iíve been trying in vain to find a pulled-pork sandwich ($7.95) comparable to the ones I had in North Carolina years ago, but my search goes on. Samís version is good and made with tangy shredded pork shoulder, but it lacks the depth of flavor that I remember. And for me, the absence of a sturdy, toasted bun and pairing with vinegary cole slaw further held the sandwich back.

Although the meaty portion of pork shoulder ($11.99) was wonderfully tender, I found the flavor to be a little spare. Barbecue should stand on its own without the addition of sauce, but I needed a generous douse of sauce to punch up the flavor. Speaking of the sauce, Samís is really good, an artful blend of sweet and vinegary tang.

Chicken is my least-favorite barbecue dish. Chicken has little fat and canít spend too long in a barbecue lest it dry out. Better to go with beef or pork. But Samís salsa chicken turns out well. Marinated and cooked in tomato salsa, the chicken ($10.95/$14.95) is beautifully bronzed and moist with a great smoke flavor.

Side dishes, especially the chili and beans, are particularly good at Samís. Thereís a strong Texas streak to Samís barbecue, and thatís on display in the all-meat chili. As any Texan will tell you, real chili is made with just slow-cooked meat. No beans. But bean fans are well taken care of with the rich and meaty chili beans.

Desserts arenít made in-house and are not particularly memorable, but the spiced sweet-potato pie ($4.25) is a winner. Samís also gets high marks for its short but fine list of local wines: Cooper Garrod and Mann Cellars. You could do much worse than a glass of Mannís syrah and a plate of brisket or ribs and a side of chili beans, with a sweet-potato pie waiting in the wings.

Samís BBQ
Address: 1110 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose.
Phone: 408.297.9151
Hours: 11amĖ9pm MonĖSat.
Cuisine: Barbecue.
Price Range: $7.99Ė$23.95.
Website: samsbbq.com