On Father’s Day, I had a virtual heart attack and I am just now beginning to recover.
My family and I were hunting for good barbecue and had no luck. Since we’ve moved here to California, we’ve tried a few places but nothing seemed to taste right. We’re from North Carolina where barbecue is everywhere, and we’re friends with a few Texans who know how to smoke a mean brisket. We had just about given up on finding some home-cooked barbecue until my wife turned on the television and saw a local business profile show that featured a barbecue place that opened up eight months ago. I glanced over and saw probably the largest beef rib I had ever seen in my life.
“Where is that? Because that’s where I want to be on Father’s Day.”
And off we went to Looney’s Barbecue Smokehouse on Father’s Day.
The history of the place lies with the owner. His name is actually Ken Looney, so the barbecue place isn’t a crazy name, but I thought he was crazy for opening up his first restaurant in Berkley, California. Berkley has more Indian and Pakistani restaurants on one strip than New York has McDonald’s. Every other store is either vegetarian, organic, or some sort of garden, and Ken Looney decides to smoke meat right across from the stadium. “I just wanted to be closer to the college kids,” he says. Soon after, Ken’s got a modern-looking building full of meaty goodness and just waiting for football season to start since he’s directly diagonal from the college stadium.
Ken tells me (and everyone else he comes across in his restaurant) that he was a nuclear submarine officer in the Navy for 10 years. All along the way he kept eating good barbecue and decided he would learn to cook it. He got the hang of it and experimented with sauces from all over like Kansas City, Texas, and the Carolinas. Then Ken one day decided he was going to open up his own restaurant and cooked what he liked. He had no prior business experience, no prior restaurant experience, but plenty of barbecue experience. And Looney’s barbecue is no joke.
We only ordered three plates of food, but we came home with much more than we could handle. I asked for the beef rib and pork spare rib combo plate with hush puppies and corn bread on the side. My wife asked for the pulled pork platter because it came with the North Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce. I asked for the same sauce on the side and Ken happily obliged. My kids split a grilled cheeseburger that came pre-seasoned.
The ribs looked just like they did on television. The meat on the bone was prime rib and made you feel like you were biting into a dinosaur. It was so tender, juicy, and perfect with the spicy Kansas City sauce. The hush puppies were o.k., and the corn bread wasn’t too bad, either. But the beef rib and the spare ribs were dead on target. I don’t see how anyone could have ordered a full rack of the beef ribs unless they had planned to feed the Salvation Army that night.
My wife’s pulled pork was very spicy but tasty. It came with spicy Mac n’ cheese, so there was too much heat going on for her taste. I really liked her pulled pork and the Carolina sauce was pretty close to the real deal from home, but she couldn’t take it. Ken had no problem replacing it with the beef brisket plate and it was done in a matter of minutes.
The brisket didn’t disappoint, either. She was full after three slices because so much came onto the plate. We gave my daughter a slice, I took a slice, and we still had plenty to take home. All the while we’re still trying to figure out how Ken Looney manages to get all the styles of barbecue so close to the real deal. Even the burgers practically filled my children’s bellies, and they normally eat their plates plus whatever else we have. “Daddy, this is a goooood burger” my son told me.
But Ken wasn’t done with us yet. “I got a sample for you, since you’re new here.” Mr. Looney definitely showed his crazy side when he plopped a slice of filet mignon onto my wife’s plate. “We’re working on this one and just got it out the smoker.” And yes, it was as tender as tender could be. We took very little slices, closed our eyes, chewed it like butter, and then put it to the side to take home for later.
We thought we were done, but no. This is the moment I had the virtual heart attack. “Here’s some free bread pudding for you. Everyone says it’s the best.” And it was. I thought it was bread pudding made from Cinnabon because of the easy pull and smooth icing, except Cinnabon doesn’t use bourbon like Ken does.
“Hey man, we just re-did some pulled pork. I’ll bring you a sample of that in a sec”…I couldn’t take it. I had to turn Ken down on that one. I was already in food heaven and slowly getting the “-itis.” For those of you not in the know, the -it is (pronounced “eye tis” as in tonsillitis, appendicitis, etc.) is when you eat food so good and filling that you instantly get sleepy. You can barely breathe because your diaphragm has food on top of it, and your eyes get shallow, rendering you useless for the remainder of the day.
Looney’s Barbecue Smokehouse is an -itis inducer. I am literally still feeling the good food almost two days later. I highly, highly recommend this for any fan of good barbecue done right. Getting full plates like we did will cost about $15 a piece, whereas the sandwiches are reasonably priced around $7 or $8. So you won’t bust your wallet to get a taste of real quality barbecue. I plan to return to Looney’s in the near future, once my heart recovers.