Meat, by itself has little flavor. Pork and chicken, especially, are neutral vehicles. Beef has a slight umami tang, with steak tartare and carpaccio the few preparations that draw out the pure beef taste.

There are only three core techniques for making meat taste good: roasting the fat, spicing with rub or sauce and smoking over hardwood.

Growing up in the mid-Atlantic suburban sprawl, summer was a time for barbecue. A barbecue meant cooking outside—over charcoal—chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs and corn.

The chicken would be slathered in a spicy sauce and cooked slowly, but the taste of the sauce only attached to the skin. The chicken skin would crisp if cooked carefully, which was part of the treat. Correctly, we called this “a barbecue,’ not “eating barbecue.’ But summer corn and carefully roasted chicken skin still evoke that perfect childhood lazy afternoon.

In college, I first had friends from the South—mostly North Carolina—who were aghast with my understanding of barbecue. Barbecue, as a noun, is a special art form of meat cooking, with dimensions of sauce, smoke and roast.

Each pig pit in North Carolina boasts its own combination of sauce, smoke and roast. With Texas, St. Louis and Memphis styles, barbecue seems contentious and parochial. Even Oakland has a distinct style, with the legendary and lamented Flint’s serving the best links and sauce through the ‘90s.

On a popular Internet food discussion board the South Bay was recently described as the “worst population-to-barbecue ratio in the nation,’ but in typical Silicon Valley style, there are a few standouts worth visiting. Each has a large smoker on display and caters. 

For me, the true test of a barbecue house is the three-meat combo—usually chicken, ribs and brisket. The individual style of the cook, with his or her bias toward smoke, sauce, rub or fat, comes through loud and clear. In this test, I tried for breadth, attempting to eat as many kinds of barbecue with as many sauces as possible.

Andy’s Bar-B-Que in Santa Clara, struck me with immediate nostalgia for the old Silicon Valley. One of the iconic bars of Silicon Valley was Walker’s Wagon Wheel on Middlefield Road in Mountain View. It’s gone now, but through the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Wagon Wheel was the Silicon Valley hangout down the street from Fairchild where the builders of chips and semiconductors drank and shared secrets. Andy’s has the same feel and relaxed old atmosphere without trying.

At Andy’s, I had the four-meat combo (serves two), which includes ribs, chicken, links, and brisket with toasted garlic bread and a side salad. For $31, it was a tower of meat, enough for four meals. Unfortunately, the meat was simply good but not special. The brisket was fatty and tender, the ribs were succulent, but no smoke ring (a layer of color on the exterior of the meat that indicates how much time it’s spent in the barbecue.). The sauce was tomato-based and sprightly with little complexity.

San Jose’s Smoking Pig lays on a three-meat combo for $13.99. Portions are reasonable, and the place is bright, new and friendly, with the earnest and obvious owner checking in with every table. The beer selection includes several excellent microbrews in bottles and every tabled has a selection of sauces. The lack of artifice and focus on food was charming and extraordinarily pleasant on a late Sunday afternoon.

They were out of ribs, so I ordered brisket, pulled pork and chicken. Only for the sake of equality, I avoided the special of the night: a prime-rib barbecue. The sauces were an afterthought, and even the pulled pork was served dry. The Pig believes in smoke with a little spice rub.

The brisket here is served fatty or lean, and the clear choice is fatty. This meat worked, with a crackling brown skin and succulent interior. It was neither greasy nor like a pork rind. It was simply barbecue. Between the pleasant atmosphere, reasonable cost and portion sizes—and frequent live blues—I would place the Pig on my regular rotation if I lived closer.

Trail Dust BBQ in Morgan Hill is the outlier South Bay barbecue location. As you drive out to Morgan Hill, you’ll remember that California is a farming and ranching state. The atmosphere is clean, wholesome and almost airbrushed, but the taste of the meat is exceptional.

A three-meat combo is $28, and for that price I was served a large stack of ribs, tri-tip and chicken. The star was the tri-tip. The flavor of the smoke hung heavy in the meat. The taste was somewhere between hickory and oak. The sauces and rub are worth exploring, but the meat stood best alone—with every tender and juicy bite exploding with the savory tang of smoke and unctuous fat.

The next time a patriot of the South waxes nostalgic and belittles California barbecue, don’t change the topic to dim sum or pho. Take them to Trail Dust.

Andy’s Bar-B-Que
2367 El Camino Real, Santa Clara; 408.313.5797

The Smoking Pig
1144 N. Fourth St., San Jose; 408.380.4784

Trail Dust BBQ
17240 Monterey St., Morgan Hill; 408.776.9072