My New Favorite Barbecue

Courtesy of Google Street View

I’d seen the sign many times over the 3-1/2 years of driving my son back and forth to San Luis Obispo for college.  I wanted to stop but never felt I could spare the time (and was usually heading the opposite direction when my son was with me).  Intrigued, I had googled it and found a recent article declaring it “the best sandwich in California”.  Still, I hadn’t ever stopped to try it.

Never mind that the directions were worryingly simplistic — “Next 3 Right Turns” — I just couldn’t justify the time and, frankly, expected cost.

It was the day after my mother-in-law’s funeral and I was driving Jared back to school.  As we approached to tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Prunedale, I made a decision.  It had been a tough few weeks and Jared and I were both still reeling from the loss of a vibrant, feisty woman.  I asked Jared, “You want to try that barbecue place?”  A true gourmet, Jared was definitely down for it.

We were going the wrong way to follow the directions but I found an exit off the highway just past it and managed to get back on 101 going north.  We saw the sign and followed the directions — you just have to trust them and you’ll be fine — and we ended up in front of a non-descript, small-town looking store at the end of a road.  I looked at the door and saw the sign saying “Cash Only / No ATM”.  I very rarely carry any cash these days and certainly not enough to cover lunch for a couple of hungry guys.

I looked at Jared in defeat.  But we’d come this far; I wasn’t about to give up so easily.  I got out of the car and went inside.  I saw the proprietor and asked if he knew of an ATM anywhere nearby.  He told me that if I went back the way I came and got back on the highway headed north, there was a Safeway about a minute up the road.  That was good enough for me.

Jared and I wound our way back to the highway — despite being literally right next to it, it’s nearly a mile to the highway on-ramp — and headed to the Safeway.  Located in a small shopping area, there was actually a bank right next to it with ATMs outside.  I took out what I thought would be enough and we made our way back to the market.

When we walked in, he seemed almost surprised to see us.  “You came back!” he exclaimed.  I imagine that a lot of people are turned off by the “Cash Only” sign.  I’m very glad we weren’t.

The Prunedale Market & Deli is part convenience store and part deli and a whole lot of hospitality.  It’s very open with a few racks of chips and some refrigerators with drinks and, opposite the cash register and deli, a couple of tables.  We looked up at the board and, to be honest, I don’t remember exactly what it said, other than that a sandwich was $16.99 and a half rack of ribs was $18.  A quart of soup was $10; a smaller container was less.  There were other options but we simply said we were there for the barbecue.

He suggested we split a sandwich and a half rack of ribs which sounded good to me except that I said we’d each get a full sandwich and split the ribs.  Now, mind you, I had recently gotten a sandwich at the world famous Tommy’s Joynt (across the street from the Jack Tar hospital where my mother-in-law was) and it was good but not what I’d call big.  And it cost about the same as what was on the menu board at the Prunedale Market.  So that was my point of reference; I figured we would eat the sandwiches and a rib and then Jared would take the rest for the next day and a half before coming home for spring break.

Boy was I wrong.  But more on that later.  First…

As we stood there, the proprietor reached over the counter and plopped down two containers of soup — a delicious chicken and corn chowder — and said “give this a try, on me.  Spoons are right there.”  So we picked up the soup and dug in while our other food was prepared.  We chatted and joked and shortly it was ready.  He brought out our two sandwiches and gave them to us before going back behind the counter to get the ribs.  We made our way to the tall table in the back and sat down in awe.  Remember that sandwich from Tommy’s Joynt?  This was easily twice the size and piled a lot higher.

A Sandwich from the Prunedale Market

There was lettuce and onions and barbecue sauce on a giant roll.  And meat.  Lots of meat.  Tri tip, to be exact.  And it was all topped by some spicy chips (Fritos, maybe?) that put me off at first but I put my faith in our host and dug in.  It was fantastic, chips and all.  And then came the ribs.  It was definitely not a skimpy half-rack; it might have even been more like two-thirds of a rack.  And, he told us, he added a smoked sausage and some potatoes to try as well.

It was all delicious and definitely far too much; I ended up taking a half sandwich home and it was a filling lunch the next day.  Jared took home a whole mess of ribs and half his sandwich as well.

As we were eating, our host came over to check on us and noticed that I had finished the soup.  “Let me get you some more of that.”  He took the container (a 1-pint to-go tub) and came back with it full.  Naturally, I ate that too.

I had expected to pay when the food was ready but as he carried the ribs to the table, he said we could pay him after, “if we liked it”.  Now, we’d ordered, by my quick estimation, somewhere close to $60 worth of food and that didn’t include the soup or other extras.  I had taken $80 out of the bank earlier.  He came up with $55 so I handed him $60 and then gave him the other $20 (what did I need it for?  I would only spend it anyway).  At first, he refused to take any of the extra but I insisted.  I’d read that article that told of how he helped the local kids and wanted to help out.

Oh, and speaking of that SF Gate article?  When I originally read it, I figured there was some hyperbole involved.  It was, after all, just a lifestyle article, not hard news.  After going there, however, I have to say that, if anything, the article undersold it.

A bit of smoked chicken

Finally, the proprietor took the money but said he wanted to give us something.  He filled up a large (quart) tub of the soup and said to me “You’ve got a wife at home, right?”  I said yes, but that she couldn’t eat anything because she had celiac disease.  “How about chicken?  I’ve got some on the smoker right now!”  I admitted, yes, she could eat chicken and he disappeared outside.  He came back and gave us a box with chicken and then said “and I have some nice corned beef” and threw that in another box.  Jared ended up taking the corned beef and I brought the chicken home; it became dinner for Rachel, Ezra and I.

Now, I don’t know why he gave us all that extra food.  Maybe it was because we had shared that we’d just been to my mother-in-law’s funeral the day before.  Maybe it was because we actually came back after going to the ATM.  Maybe it’s because people seem to like me (or feel sorry for me) for some inexplicable reason.  Or maybe, just maybe, he’s just a super nice guy that likes taking care of people.

All I know is that from now on, every time I head down the coast to take Jared to school or to pick him up, or for any other reason, for that matter, I’m going to stop at an ATM first.  And I suggest you do the same.

Note: It’s probably not really safe for celiacs but I figured chicken straight from the smoker was probably pretty safe.  Rachel didn’t have any problems after eating it.

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