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When Smoke Clears, 2 Joints Take Different 'Cues


Summer is a-comin' in, and barbecue fans are stoking up the pit. I recently sampled the wares at two local barbecue restaurants, one in Irvine, the other in Costa Mesa. The experience confirmed my belief that there is no substitute for good wood.

Exhibit A: Porter Street Barbecue. You'll probably smell this place before you see it. An enormous hood and grill arrangement stands directly in front of the entrance, sending barbecue aromas shooting down the block.

The name can be confusing, because there is no Porter Street in Irvine. The owner is merely paying homage to the Central California town of Porterville, where a plain, oak-fired style of 'cue predominates. I happen to be partial to this style of barbecue, which relies on nothing more than salt, pepper and smoke.

You'll actually pass a cord of oak as you squeeze by the grill area to enter. The pitman won't notice you. He'll be busy turning slabs of beef and pork ribs, tending to his beautifully bronzed chickens and slicing up hunks of tri-tip sirloin for sandwiches.

You order at the counter. You can eat inside this bright, rather sterile-looking restaurant, the one advantage to that being that you won't get smoke on your clothes. The outside dining area consists of a line of plastic patio tables shielded by large sunshades, facing the parking lot.

It is nearly impossible to resist the barbecued meats, such as the country-style pork ribs. One of the best is the dark, smoky chicken, not dissimilar in character to the lacquered ducks you see hanging in Chinese barbecues. For those who crave the basic, try the savory, hand-formed hamburger, also cooked in the wood pit.

A couple of the meats could be improved upon. The huge beef ribs have a nice flavor but are tough and fatty. Tri-tip sirloin comes in thick slices, making it less oaky than the other meats and more like roast beef in flavor.

The menu also includes three composed salads and one or two afterthoughts such as chili and beans. The potato and macaroni salads are simple and appealingly firm in texture, both made with chopped eggs, minced black olives, a smidgen of mayonnaise and a judicious amount of salt. The cole slaw is coarsely shredded, not too sugary, rather neutral.

Meats are served without sauce, but the cashier will hand you a squeeze bottle containing a reddish-brown sauce. It is sweet, spicy and complex and goes wonderfully with the chicken.

Porter Street Barbecue is inexpensive. Sandwiches are $2.09 to $4.29. Meats a la carte are $1.19 to $11.99.


* 15455 Jeffrey Road, No. 310, Irvine.

* (714) 559-4189.

* 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, till 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* Visa, MasterCard.


More trouble for the literal-minded: Just as there is no Porter Street in Irvine, there is no Newport Rib Co. in Newport Beach. The restaurant is in Costa Mesa.

Don't bother trying to find it by following your nose. This place specializes in meats that are baked and then finished on a gas grill. Nothing you'll eat here hits the olfactories with the force of the smoky barbecued meats at Porter Street.

However, there are compensations. This is a more comfortable restaurant, and a good-looking one, nicely done up in green and copper, appointed with a full bar, mirrored walls, stained glass room dividers and a handsome wood-paneled ceiling.

And there's more to the menu. You have an actual choice of appetizers: onion brick (a cube of fried shredded onions), potato skins with gooey cheese toppings, or a snappy grilled artichoke hollandaise. The dinners themselves come with hot corn bread, cole slaw and a choice of steak fries, barbecue beans or baked potato.

Perhaps the meats would have tasted better to me if I hadn't visited an oak pit the day before, because in many ways their quality is actually good. The baby back ribs, for instance, are lean and tender; the meat practically falls off the bone when the ribs are pulled apart. "Mountain ribs" are meaty, full-sized pork ribs, not baby backs. Another specialty is a boneless breast of chicken, as alien to barbecue tradition as that might sound.

The problem is that the barbecued meats don't have much flavor. It doesn't help that the barbecue sauce they're basted with is sweet and insipid. What these ribs really need is some fire, some guts.

A little wood, maybe--wood smoke would make a big difference. Because no matter how many gimmicks this place uses (and there are a few, such as a pineapple-based "Hawaiian luau sauce," or Hawaiian-style chicken breast with lemon garlic butter), the barbecue here is stone bland.

Sandwiches, all made with sourdough bread, include sliced brisket and pork--both tough meats that should have been cooked more slowly and shouldn't have been so heavily smeared with the sweet, sticky house barbecue sauce. The Louisiana hot sausage isn't hot at all. And chicken on the bone is rubbery, a cipher when compared with the woody, smoke-on-the-hands encounter one has at Porter Street Barbecue.

The Newport Rib Co. is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.75 to $6.95. Sandwiches are $4.75 to $7.50. Dinners are $6.50 to $15.95.


* 2000 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa.

* (714) 631-2110.

* 4-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, from 2 p.m. Sundays.

* All major cards.

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