By Frank Sabatini Jr.
An early peek into The Pioneer
Barbecue joints have been sprouting up throughout San Diego County like bougainvillea. Once far and few between, they’re now everywhere.
The latest buzz-worthy establishment is The Pioneer in San Carlos, an impressively designed restaurant and bar spearheaded by a trio of local industry experts.
What used to be McCarter’s Bar & Grill on Lake Murray Boulevard was given a complete makeover for the arrival of restaurateurs Hanis Cavin of San Diego’s Carnitas Snack Shack and David Cohn of Cohn Restaurant Group. Also on board is Willie DePascale of Moceri Produce, which supplies the kitchen with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Cavin is the chef with an established reputation earned from his pork-centric eateries in North Park and the Embarcadero. Here, his star staples are dry-rubbed ribs, cheddar sausage, pulled pork shoulder, brisket and split chickens, all slow-cooked in a Southern Pride smoker. Paired with rich sidekicks like short rib croquettes and pork belly corn, you best forget about your swimsuit figure until later because the food is a notch richer than what you’ll find in most other barbecue houses.
Take the BLT, for instance. The “T” represents fried green tomatoes. They bring savory fried batter into the scheme while adding extra girth to the sandwich. Even if you’re not a fan of these Southern-style green tomatoes, they strike a natural fit to the peppercorn bacon and garlic-bacon aioli.
Visiting with a friend who remembers eating at this location in the ’80s when it was Square Pan Pizza, we settled into a booth and marveled at the artistic farmhouse-meets-warehouse design. Yes, there are multiple flat-screens hovering over the dining areas and central bar, but they blend rather seamlessly into the rustic-industrial décor.
We kicked off the lunch with a plate of rib croquettes, served three to an order. The fluffy, finely shredded rib meat are shaped into orbs the size of golf balls, coated in panko bread crumbs, and crowned with chicharons. They’re set in little pools of Alabama white barbecue sauce, which basically equates to tangy aioli that performs admirably with red meat.
Other starters include smoked chicken wings, pulled pork flautas, and “dirty fries,” which feature a dramatic piling of smoky pulled pork, cheddar cheese, beans and mac n’ cheese over unusual house-made french fries, which our waitress said people either love or hate.
The spuds, which came unadorned with our BLT, drew instant praise from us. Picture steak fries that have been put through metal rollers and then fried again. They’re flat, crispy and verging toward potato chips, with just a wisp of pulp inside.
Our two-meat combo featured a quarter rack of dry-rubbed baby back ribs, and pork-beef cheddar sausage cut into substantial coins. Our two sides were super-fresh coleslaw coated lightly in a mayo-based dressing, and mac n’ cheese in a creamy, robust sauce of American, Parmesan and cheddar cheeses.
The ribs were slightly dry, but with a mild smoky essence and subtly spiced crust I prefer. My friend described their flavor as “way too neutral” while dabbling in the three styles of house-made barbecue sauces on the table: Carolina mustard, sweet St. Louis, and semi-spicy Kansas City. Texture wise, the ribs were neither the tenderest or toughest I’ve had. They fell somewhere in the middle.
Conversely, the sausage was incredibly juicy and soft to the bite. And much to our liking, it was spicy hot, probably from a good measure of cayenne pepper in the recipe. The embedded bits of cheddar helped smooth the burn, but just enough to keep our forks returning for more.
We pampered our palates afterwards with strawberry cobbler served in a cast-iron skillet. It was both sweet and tart, a perfect wrap to a hearty, smoky meal that jives to summer, but would certainly warm your bones on a mid-winter day.
By visiting for lunch, which was recently introduced, we dodged the dinner lines that have been commonplace since The Pioneer opened in late June. With a full beer and cocktail program in place, and a meat smoker that works around the clock, I’m betting the hoopla will continue for a while.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.