By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Past pretty flower beds leading to the indoor food court, and then through its second set of doors near Dante’s Pizza, is Grossmont Center’s big barbecue secret. But if you’re sniffing around for it on weekends or any late afternoon, you’ll be let down.
Smokin Blaine’s BBQ operates only from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Marked by a quaint wooden façade with two windows flanking the entrance, the 600-square-foot eatery resides in an unseen nook partly enclosed by an outer wall of Macy’s.
Outside is a common patio area with a restful water fountain. Inside, seating is limited to several stools running along the window ledges amid automobile-theme décor that includes an antiquated Mobilgas pump in pristine condition.
The business is owned by Blaine Sellers and his wife, Lorrie. They previously operated Izzy’s Café in El Cajon for nearly two decades before opening Smokin’ Blaine’s last year as their entry into semi-retirement.
Blaine is the smoke master. He uses hickory wood to smoke meats ever so gently, thus allowing you to actually distinguish the flavors between beef and pork. In other words, the proteins I tried didn’t resemble remnants from some an intense house fire, which diehard fans of Texas-style barbecue tend to prefer.
The brisket, for example, tasted beefy with moderate nuances of smoke surfacing through peppery vinegar-based barbecue sauce. The flavors were in harmony rather than in competition with the smokiness. I ordered it on a sandwich, which came with the bonus of a puffy potato-bread bun that screamed of freshness from the touch of a finger.
For the smothered house-cut french fries called “the bomb,” I chose pulled pork as my meat choice. The classic essence of the swine mingled succulently with Carolina-style barbecue sauce, which revealed whispers of mustard and sugar. Unless you possess a bottomless steel stomach, this is a shareable item fortified also by cheddar cheese, sour cream and green onions.
The aforementioned potato bun captured a crispy, buttermilk-battered chicken breast with lettuce, tomato and a smear of mayo. Before hitting the deep fryer, Blaine uses what he described as “a special machine” to marinate the chicken in secret ingredients.
Indeed, the filet was moist and flavorful throughout. And the craggy outer crust sported the addicting crunch of potato chips — just how I like my fried chicken.
A third house-made barbecue sauce, which goes into the baked beans and can be requested to augment sandwiches and plates, beckons to Oklahoma. It’s thick, smoky and sweet from molasses, a sassy enhancement for adding a little caramel action to the baby back ribs.
In addition to the beans, other sidekicks include house-made coleslaw, red potato salad and regular or sweet potato french fries.
Most of the menu affords shoppers atypical mall food, from deep-fried pickles and okra to the authentic smoked meats and sinful sandwiches such as the Texas Twister, made with brisket, a beef hot link and bacon.
If you make it to the finishing line, the signature dessert is deep-fried peach pie, which was out of the question on this visit. But I did toss into my doggie bag an oven-fresh chocolate chip cookie, which are free on Mondays.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.