Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
SAUCY NEWCOMER: Will Griffin prepares beef brisket at Uncle Frank's BBQ restaurant.
A new pit master keeps Uncle Frank's BBQ smokin'
By Stett Holbrook
IDON'T KNOW where it comes from, but every once in a while I get a powerful hankering for a messy plate of barbecue. Barbecue elicits a visceral craving in me that must be satisfied. It also gets me to say things like "powerful hankering." Problem is, good barbecue is scarce in these parts. The last really good barbecue I had was at Uncle Frank's BBQ restaurant in Mountain View, but that was more than three years ago. Uncle Frank's barbecue, particularly the brisket and pork ribs, is the best I've had this side of Texas. The time had come to check back in to see how the old pit master was doing.
Turns out Uncle Frank, a.k.a. Frank Bell, wasn't there. He has been on an extended visit to Georgia, where he opened another restaurant and is visiting family. He's coming back, but in the meantime Will Griffin, Uncle Frank's partner and founder of the restaurant, has been keeping the flame alive in more ways than one.
The odds are already stacked in Uncle Frank's favor just because of the setting. It's located in the back of Francesca's, a windowless bar and pool room. If those aren't auspicious surroundings for a barbecue joint, I don't know what is. First timers may wonder if they're in the wrong place as they enter the dimly lit bar and the regulars swivel on their stools to look at you, but then the whiff of wood smoke hits you, and you know you're in the right place. It's actually not the right place if you're under 21, but there is a patio out back where minors are welcome.
While I last stopped in at Uncle Frank's shortly after it relocated from East Palo Alto after an extended hiatus, the new red smoker in the kitchen gleamed like a Ferrari fresh off the lot. Three years later, I peaked in on the apparatus and now it's coated in a beautiful patina of black soot from innumerable fires that smoked thousands of pounds of meat. The restaurant uses a blend of oak, walnut, peach and other hardwoods.
This time around, the brisket ($16.75 for more than you'll eat) was a touch on the dry side and lacked the faint pink interior, but it was tender and intensely flavorful. It's still the restaurant's signature dish. Brisket is tough cut of beef that's transformed into something smoky, juicy and delicious after hours in the barbecue. In the case of Uncle Frank's that's about 18 hours. Griffin mans the barbecue in Bell's absence and he's more than holding down the fort.
For a real treat, ask for a few "burnt ends." Burnt ends are just what they sound like—the crispy, blackened ends of the brisket. It's an intense, carbon-packed barbecue experience, kind of like doing a shot of beef and smoke. No, it's not good for you.
Uncle Frank's bottles and sells his barbecue sauce, but in-house the sauce, spicy and mild, is made fresh daily. It's as good as ever, thick and faintly sweet but balanced with a vinegary bite. And the spicy version isn't shy with heat.
The pork ribs ($15.75) are more meat than rib and as juicy and delicious as I remember. The long hunks of meat are beautiful to look at, glistening, mahogany colored and just begging to be bitten.
Pulled pork was advertised as a special during my visits, and special it was. Made from shredded pork shoulder, the meat arrives in a messy mound in a little paper boat like all the other meats. Order the dinner portion and you'll definitely be taking some home. It's all you could ask for—tender, flavorful, smoky—but next time I think I'll ask for it in a sandwich and with the sauce on the side. The kitchen has a heavy hand with the sauce ladle.
If you like it hot, the hot links ($13) are for you. The Louisiana-style beef sausage is laced with dried chile flakes, but it's not just about the spiciness. The smoked beef flavor comes right through. The sausage arrives sliced up but it still squirts spicy, beef juice upon contact with your fork.
Sides are often an afterthought at barbecue restaurants, but most of Uncle Frank's offerings are strong. The cole slaw and potato salad are good. Better bets are the black-eyed peas, collard greens and Cajun corn, a spicy version of creamed corn. The corn bread, however, is weak. It's fine grained, delicate and sweet, more like corn cake than corn bread.
Desserts are essential. The recipe for the peach cobbler ($4) has reportedly been tinkered with and it's an improvement on what I remember was already quite good. The crust maintains its integrity and bite in all that peachy goodness. My favorite is the dense but not too sweet sweet potato pie ($2.50). The deep brown sugar and spice flavors and buttery (lardy?) crust are outstanding.
The restaurant continues to attract a cross section of mainly male Silicon Valley barbecue aficionados, working class types, techies with ID badges dangling from their belts and suit-wearing execs with ties carefully flopped over one shoulder to avoid the inevitable drip of sauce.
I left Uncle Frank's with my craving more than satisfied and the smell of wood smoke lingering on my fingers. I found myself fondly sniffing my hands to relive the experience hours later. But one hand washing and the bewitching aroma was gone. This time it won't take me three years to come back.
Uncle Frank's BBQ and Catering
Address: 2135 Old Middlefield Way, Mountain View.
Hours: 11:30am–2:30pm and 5–8pm Tue–Fri; noon–2:30pm and 5–8pm Sat.
Price Range: Dinners $13–$16.75.
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