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THE BARBECUE ISSUE / WINE & SPIRITS | MATTERS OF TASTE

He'd love to blend in

But everyone's favorite barbecue quaff just isn't his thing. So what to drink?

June 30, 2004|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

OK, it's summer -- my (and most everyone else's) favorite season, especially in Los Angeles, where summer means not the steam bath of the East, South and Midwest but simply more of the same, only better. Warmer weather, longer days, more light, more beach time, more baseball, more barbecue.

I have just one problem with summer.

Beer.

Almost everyone says beer is their favorite thirst-quencher, especially on a hot day. Many folks also say it's the best beverage to drink with barbecue. But I don't like beer -- any beer of any kind from any country at any time with (or without) any food. And, summer being summer, people keep offering it to me -- often with no liquid alternatives.

I wish I liked beer. I envy friends whose eyes light up at the mere thought of "a cold one." And, no, my disdain for beer is not some kind of wine-geek snobbism. I have every incentive to like beer. After all, friends say it not only goes well with barbecue but also with Mexican food, pizza and most Asian cuisines -- all of which I love. Beer is also a lot cheaper than wine.

But try as I might -- and believe me, I've tried -- I just don't like beer. Whether it's bottled or draft, imported or domestic, whether it's called beer, lager, ale, stout, porter, brew or anything else, it all tastes rotten, sour, spoiled to me. It all tastes like -- well, let's say I'd rather drink dishwater.

There are happy -- if inevitably more expensive -- substitute beverages for beer with most kinds of food. For me, sake and sushi are an ideal pairing, and Rieslings are excellent companions for most other Asian dishes. Pizza? I've found several $7 or $8 wines that are perfect with pepperoni, my favorite being the Falesco Vitiano from Umbria. Mexican food? A margarita -- on the rocks, not blended, with salt on the rim -- is my drink of choice.

But barbecue remains a problem -- a real problem -- because barbecue is one of my absolute favorite foods in all the world. I like my barbecue spicy. I use a lot of sriracha, the Thai hot sauce, in the barbecue sauce I make at home, and "small-end pork ribs with very hot sauce" is what I always order at Phillips in Leimert Park, my favorite L.A. 'cue stand. Unfortunately, the Rieslings that cut the spice in Asian foods just don't stand up to the combination of sauce and smoke in great barbecue.

So, what to do?

Some friends like Zinfandel with barbecue. It's a big, powerful wine -- "a motorcycle wine," as the teacher in my long-ago wine appreciation class said.

True enough. But if I'm going to think of wine on wheels, I'd rather think Mercedes than motorcycle. Besides, I'll always remember that same teacher going on to describe Zinfandel "hitting your palate -- plop! -- like an open can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs."

I haven't been able to look on Zinfandel as a serious wine since.

Many barbecue stands -- especially those with African American owners and/or pit-masters (which, in my view, are the only places to get good American barbecue) -- serve sweet sodas to their customers, not just Coke or 7Up but Hawaiian Punch and strawberry, orange, grape and other fruit-flavored sodas. Those are all too sweet for me.

So, with beer, soda and Zinfandel all out of the equation, I've come up with two solutions to my personal "What goes with ribs?" dilemma. Neither is ideal, but both, I've found, are eminently tolerable.

The first is to drink a good, slightly chilled rose. The combination of the cool temperature and just a hint of residual sugar effectively, and pleasantly, cuts the heat of most 'cue.

A fizzy alternative

My other barbecue solution is my favorite thirst-quencher under any circumstances, with or without food -- a mix of seltzer and lemonade on the rocks. The tartness of the lemon, the bubbles in the seltzer and the chill of the ice take the heat out of the barbecue and the day. OK, it's not sexy. And it's not alcoholic. But on a hot day, "not alcoholic" is not necessarily bad.

Besides, drinking it makes me feel terribly cosmopolitan -- at least it did once I found out that this drink is actually, if unwittingly, my version of similar drinks served in several south Asian countries, most notably in India, where soda water flavored with lime and sugar-water syrup is known as nimbu pani.

Still, I believe in periodically revisiting one's judgments, no matter how long or how firmly held. There are few foods I don't like, for example -- coconut, okra and Brussels sprouts being the only three that come readily to mind -- and when offered any of them, I don't automatically say, "Ugh, not on your life."

OK, maybe I say, "Ugh." But then I try them.

And I still don't like them.

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