There are very few restaurants of any kind - let alone barbecue restaurants - with which my relationship has changed more over the years. When I first started eating at the Wood Ranch in Agoura Hills, in 1999, there was perhaps no restaurant on Earth at which I would rather be. Not the Crab Cooker, not Hutch's, not the Far Western Tavern. The "America's Best BBQ Beef Sandwich" was arguably that (or at least I thought so at the time): a crusty roll stuffed with tender tri tip and drenched in sauce.
Then it changed and I changed and the love affair ended. We were both at fault. In 2000, I took the first trip of my adult life through the South and ate lots of barbecue along the way. I learned I much prefer pork to beef, and, more importantly, I prefer spicy vinegar and mustard-based sauces to the ketchup-based, sweet sauces of the Midwest and West. Wood Ranch's sauce is about as sweet as you can get.
I began to understand Charles Kuralt's advice in his magnificent memoir "Charles Kuralt's America":
“I have spent a good part of my life looking for the perfect barbecue. There is no point in looking in places like Texas, where they put some kind of ketchup on beef and call it barbecue."
For its part, Wood Ranch didn't make the effort it used to, either. I lived near the Grove for a while and visited the Wood Ranch there a few times. The portions were not close to the size of what I received out in Agoura Hills. After a couple visits to the Wood Ranch in Arcadia I decided I was probably done with the place. The portions were still small, and the tri tip sandwich was more often than not full of fat. This always perplexed me; tri tip is one of the leanest cuts. Did they actually add fat to the sandwich so they could use less meat?
Prices kept going up, quantity and quality kept going down, my barbecue tastes had changed. It was time to move on. Don't think twice, it's all right.
Then my friend Phil repeated a rumor he had heard somewhere that Wood Ranch was going to be coming out with a pulled pork sandwich. That grabbed my attention. For as good as the tri tip used to be at Wood Ranch, they didn't offer much else in terms of actual barbecue, other than ribs that tasted suspicously oven-baked. There was no pork, no brisket, no pulled chicken or hot links. The idea that they would start pulling pork was intriguing.
Once every few weeks I would go on to their website and check out the various locations' menus. There was never any mention of pulled pork. Finally I started seeing mentions of it showing up on Yelp, eventually enough that I figured the pulled pork was available.
Yesterday my brother and I decided to go out to lunch together. I came up with some suggestions, like Zelo ("I don't want pizza"), Din Tai Fung ("Last time I went there it was terrible") and Wood Ranch. Barbecue sounded good to him so we headed down to the Arcadia mall.
It was 11:28 when we walked in. The sign says they open at 11:30. Several people were sitting on the bench waiting. "It will be another five minutes." the hostess said. So apparently they don't open until 11:33. This would not be a big deal to me if it wasn't for the fact that several servers were standing around the bar joking with each other, and two others were play-boxing in another part of the restaurant. Apparently that's what they do until three minutes after their posted opening time. Of course, having been to this location about a dozen times, I was not surprised.
My brother and I did one lap around the food court and returned to the restaurant. We were shown to a booth. The table was covered with debris - several pieces of dirt, bread crumbs, and even a dead bug. You can re-read the previous paragraph and insert your own joke. I took the napkin on the table - rolled up around the silverware - and swept the debris off the table. The napkin was covered with crud.
"This napkin is filthy," I said to the server.
"Sorry," she said sweetly, "that's embarrassing."
She seemed like a very nice girl and was genuinely embarrassed, so I did not tell her why the napkin was filthy. She asked if I wanted a Coors Light, which surprised me. I do not know if I have ever been to a sit-down restaurant where the server flat-out asked me "Would you like a Coors Light?" Maybe I just look like a Coors Light kind of guy.
It was 11:35 in the morning, though, and it was already over 100 degrees out, so alcohol was the last thing on my mind. Okay, that's not true, it was probably the fourth thing on my mind, as usual. But all I wanted was water - I didn't even want the iced tea that I usually drink with barbecue - so I ordered one and turned my attention to the menu.
Not only is it pulled pork, but it is prepared Carolina-style, my absolute favorite style of barbecue. The menu promised the pork is smoked over hickory and apple wood (the latter is my favorite wood for smoking pork) and served with slaw and a vinegar sauce. I was equal parts very excited and apprehensive. That's the ideal description of how I want barbecue cooked and served, and yet, there was a nagging feeling that they wouldn't do it right.
We snacked on some of their garlic rolls while waiting for the food. My sandwich arrived and I studied it for a couple minutes. It certainly looked great. I decided to try a couple bites first without adding any sauce.
Wow. It was outstanding. I mean, this could have been a Big Mista sandwich. The pork was devoid of any fat and was slightly juicy with a touch of smoke taste. The slaw was very good. The sauce was okay. It was certainly better than the cloying house barbecue sauce, but there were some strange flavors in it, including a fair amount of, I believe, cinnamon. I would have preferred that vinegar be the main flavor of the sauce instead of the spices, but that is a very minor complaint, especially when the sandwich was this good.
The pulled pork sandwich is cheaper than the tri tip sandwich and more filling. I can't say that I now am once again in love with Wood Ranch, since this was my first time trying the pulled pork, but I certainly can say that I loved this particular sandwich, and I would gladly return to try another one.
My brother had the tri tip plate for lunch. He wanted to take pictures of it.
"Aw, man, these are going to be the best pictures that have ever appeared on your blog." My brother is nothing if not modest.