[Metroactive Dining]

[ Dining Index | Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Photographs by Felipe Buitrago

I Need a Man With a Slow Hand: Frank Bell considers himself lucky that he's now paid to make the food he once ate at his family's barbecues. But back then, it was a matter of survival.

Good for Your Soul

If barbecue is a metaphor for America—and, by the way, it is—then former sharecropper-turned-Mountain View meat maestro Uncle Frank is the living embodiment of this Southern-born culinary art. That's why his 30-hour smoked brisket has attracted a following that verges on the religious.

By Stett Holbrook

CALIFORNIA may be the land of milk and honey, but it ain't barbecue country. You can have just about anything here: premium-quality organic produce, ocean-fresh seafood, artisanal cheese, world-class wines and restaurants of every stripe. But really good barbecue is a rarity—the Southern-born food just doesn't translate well out West. Outside of Lockhart, Texas, a barbecue mecca south of Austin, Uncle Frank's BBQ Restaurant is the best I've had, especially the brisket.

You see, brisket is the ultimate test of a pit master's command of fire and smoke. In the wrong hands, the meat can be as tough and unyielding as a boot heel. The cut of meat, which comes from the breast of the animal between the front two legs, is coarse and heavily muscled. Brisket poses technical challenges because one side is richly marbled with fat while the other side is lean and dries out easily.

But treated right and cooked long and slow in the indirect heat of a smoldering hardwood fire, it reaffirms the righteousness of carnivorism. The big cut of meat yields juicy, tender slices of beef with a tangy, caramelized crust rimmed with a pink smoke ring, evidence of the meat's time in the smoker. The meat is so good it needs no adornment, but a dab of barbecue sauce accentuates the flavor.

Uncle Frank, a.k.a. Frank Bell, a big man with a clean-shaven head and sad, heavily lidded eyes, knows the value of taking his time. That's why his 30-hour smoked brisket has attracted a following that verges on the religious. And it may also explain how this former sharecropper with a third-grade education who grew up poor and often hungry is poised to spread the gospel of his barbecue across the Bay Area with the help of an extended family, an underground, word-of-mouth following and a little help from a few deep-pocketed venture capitalists who know a good thing when they see it. And taste it.

Keep the Pit Fires Burning

The old Uncle Frank's occupied a bunkerlike building on a hard-to-find backstreet in East Palo Alto. It began as EPA City Café, a restaurant specializing in the gut-filling, soul-satisfying food of the Deep South. Biscuits and gravy. Grits and fried eggs. Oxtails. Smothered steak. On weekends, Bell served barbecue like he learned to make back home in Hall Summit, La., and it was always a top-seller. While he barely broke even with his generous soul food breakfasts, barbecue held the promise of making a living, and in time he switched over to barbecue full time. It didn't take long for word to spread among Bay Area barbecue aficionados and Southern expats that Uncle Frank's was an outpost of extraordinarily good 'cue.

You knew it was good just by looking at the place. The restaurant had an old jukebox, a rickety screen door, about a dozen tables (each supplied with its own roll of paper towels) and a backroom with chicken wire over the windows. One wall inside the restaurant was covered with restaurant reviews praising the barbecue and the man behind it. Like any respectable barbecue joint, the food was served with paper plates and plastic utensils. Out back in a dirt lot, cord wood stacked chest-high fed the slow-burning smoker, or pit. While it was only half a mile east of Highway 101, Uncle Frank's felt like trip to the Mississippi Delta. All that was missing was the humidity.

In spite of its out-of-the-way location, Uncle Frank's attracted a rapt following from across the Bay Area and beyond. At lunch, diners wearing ties and expensive shoes sat down with the neighborhood's less prosperous locals. People from both sides of the tracks knew that Uncle Frank's was the real deal.

But then one day last year, the restaurant closed. Bell rented the building from a church next door and when they sold the land, he had to go. But neither Bell nor the cultlike fans of his barbecue were going to let the fire go out of his smoke pit for long.

Barbecue as a Way of Life

For Bell, 63, barbecue is more than a meal. It's a way of life that's rooted in his country upbringing in Red River Parish south of Shreveport, La., just across from the Texas border and fortunately out of reach of Hurricane Katrina's path of destruction.

Bell grew up dirt poor. Literally. As a boy he could see the dirt between the slats of the floor in his house. At night, stars shone through gaps in the roof. That, and the occasional rat snake on the hunt. And the hunting was good.

He was raised by his mother and never knew his father because his parents divorced when he was young and his father moved away. His family scratched out a living as sharecroppers farming cotton and corn. They had a little garden to feed themselves, but the landowner took so much of what they grew there was often little left. When times were especially tight, meals consisted of corn bread and a glass of water sweetened with syrup.

"It was like being a slave," says Bell in his slow, deliberate drawl. "The landowner would take all the good stuff and not leave hardly nothing for us."

Bell's family was too poor for even chickens so he took to the woods that surrounded his house to hunt possums, coons and squirrels. But when the rains and boll weevils didn't get to the cotton and the harvest was good, his family could scrape up a little extra money and they'd eat well. As Bell recalls those meals of creamed corn, okra, grits, pork and gravy, chicken and dumplings, and peach cobbler, his voice changes tone, as if reciting a favorite old poem.

Beef was a luxury, so pork was the meat of choice. He learned to cook brisket later when money wasn't so tight. Watching his mother, Golda Monroe, and grandfather Wicke Monroe, Bell learned how to prepare and smoke a hog in his family's smokehouse using oak, walnut and some of the peach that grew wild nearby. Smoking meat wasn't a culinary flourish. It was a necessity.

"We had to smoke it," say Bell. "We didn't have no refrigerator."

Once the smoking was done, Bell would sneak in to savor a bite of the some of the barbecued pork before his mother chased him away.

"That stuff had to be rationed," he says. "We had to make it last."

When the family could afford it, they'd throw a big family reunion, and barbecue with all the trimmings was the main attraction. The fact that he now makes a living making the food he ate at his family's backwoods barbecues amazes him. "I never thought I could make a living doing this. Back then, we ate barbecue not because it was an art of something but because it was a way of life. That's the way we kept the family together. ... Those were the good times."

Bell moved to California in 1969. He had been working in a sawmill earning 75 cents an hour and knew he wasn't going anywhere, so he looked up a cousin and headed West. With his third-grade education he couldn't read or write, but he attended night school and taught himself to read, an experience that he says made him a better man.

In spite of growing up poor, he says his days back in Hall Summit were some of the best of his life. He's planning to write an autobiography interwoven with recipes that reflected his life of poverty and plenty. Using family recipes that are 100 years old, Bell's cooking connects to his mother and grandfather and his youth.

"It's something that my parents left me," he says.

The American Experience, With Sauce

Like jazz, barbecue is distinctly American and the result of the diverse cultural interaction of the people who make up this country. In the case of barbecue, Africans, Europeans, Mexicans and Native Americans all contributed to this uniquely American food. In Smokestack Lightning, an essential book on barbecue written by former Wynton Marsalis Septet road manager Lolis Eric Elie, Elie sums up barbecue's place in America in the book's opening pages.

"We know that barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense, and that it is a more appropriate metaphor than any other American food," he writes. "Barbecue alone encompasses the high and lowbrow, the sacred and the profane, the urban and rural, the learned and the unlettered, the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the reds, and the whites. Barbecue, then, is a fitting barometer for the changes, good and bad, that have taken place in the country."

While barbecue is beloved by people from all classes, it began as the food of the poor, made from what were cheap, tough, cast-off cuts of meat. But with time and technique, the pit master transforms lowly pieces of beef and pork into something sublime.

"The primitiveness of the implements employed is plain for all to see, but what often escapes note is the complexity and delicacy of the technique itself," says Elie. "In barbecuing at the highest levels, l'objet trouvé is wrought into l'objet d'art. There is nothing lucky or primitive or crude about the proceedings; there is only the quality that results from the work of master of the craft."

Generally speaking, there are three schools of barbecue: Texan, Southern and Midwestern. Given its cowboy culture and cattle grazing history, Texas barbecue is focused on beef, and brisket is usually the star attraction. Southern barbecue from states like Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Arkansas is best known for its pork, owing to the region's hog farming tradition. Pork ribs, pork butt and pork shoulder are the exemplars of Southern barbecue. Midwestern barbecue, like that in Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., is a blend of both beef and pork.

The kinds of sauce and seasoning used also break down along regional lines. Texas barbecue is characterized by the sparing use of seasoning and the absence of barbecue sauce. Carolina barbecue sauce is often mustard- and/or vinegar-based, while Midwestern barbecue sauce is tomato-based and generally sweeter.

Of course there are subgeographical variations as well. While some would argue it's not barbecue in the classic sense, Santa Maria, Calif., boasts its own brand of barbecue—tri-tip grilled (not smoked, mind you) over red oak fires. Bell's northwestern Louisiana barbecue is one of these local variants. He specializes in brisket and pork ribs, so that would put him in the Midwestern school of barbecue. Growing up near the east Texas border seems to be reflected in his affinity for brisket. His excellent sauce is tomato-based but is not too sweet and has a pronounced vinegar flavor.

The Pit Master: Uncle Frank's BBQ lost its first location in East Palo Alto just as Bell was having his first taste of success. But there were a couple of customers who couldn't imagine life without Bell's brisket, and invested in his new location.

Someone to Watch Over Meat

Just as Bell's business was humming and favorable restaurant reviews were coming in, he got word that he'd have to leave East Palo Alto. Lucky for him, he had a couple of customers who couldn't imagine life without his brisket, pork ribs, hot links and barbecued chicken. Bell, a religious man who reads the Bible every day, doesn't call it luck.

"I call it a blessing," he says.

Tod Ford, 32, grew up in a life of privilege in Menlo Park but struggled to find his calling in life. He sold cars and bought and sold mobile homes for a while in Texarkana, Texas, a city that's half in Texas and half in Arkansas and about 100 miles from Bell's childhood home in Louisiana. While living in the south, Ford developed a taste for barbecue as well as an affection for Southern hospitality and the way he says people looked you in the eyes and meant what they said.

Back in Menlo Park, he ran a construction crew and regularly took them to lunch at Uncle Frank's. Ford got to know Bell and asked if he had any interest in franchising his restaurant and opening other locations.

"Everybody knew it was great, but the location wasn't," Ford says.

Bell put him off at first, but he finally took him seriously as he faced eviction. Ford had enough money for a down payment on a house, but instead he invested it in Uncle Frank's.

"Now I'm a minority partner in a minority-owned business," he says proudly.

Ford, who has experience shepherding projects through local government, became Uncle Frank's point man in dealing with city and county officials as they worked to open the new restaurant. With one obstacle after another, these skills proved invaluable. What was supposed to be a couple of months before opening stretched to nearly 10 months.

"'Just two more weeks,'" Ford said. "That was the running joke. 'We'll be ready in two more weeks.'"

Although at times Ford wondered if they were ever going to open, Bell never wavered.

"He has just a wellspring of faith," Ford says. "He really helped me out."

Now that he's found work he believes in, Ford felt secure enough ask his girlfriend to marry him. She said yes.

"This has been the greatest thing I've ever done in my life."

Chris Crespi also had a taste for Uncle Frank's barbecue. With the nonchalance that comes with wealth, Crespi explains he was a former engineer who "worked on Wall Street" before retiring to a ranch in Hawaii with his Big Island-born wife. As a high-tech venture capitalist, Crespi spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and his good friend and Palo Alto VC Mike Gordon took him to Uncle Frank's for lunch. He was hooked.

"I've eaten barbecue everywhere, and Frank's is some of the best I've ever had," he says.

Crespi got to know Bell, and when he heard he was losing his restaurant, he offered to help.

"It's a real treasure in the Bay Area and it would be a shame for him to close his doors," he says.

To prove that he meant business, he flew Bell first class out to his ranch. Using local wood, Bell cooked up a mess of barbecue for Crespi and a group of friends and blew everyone away. Crespi says offers for space to lease poured in, but when he and his wife moved to the Bay Area, he and Bell decided to focus on the local market.

Bell remembers being skeptical at first, but when he toured Crespi's ranch and finally sat down to talk business, he knew he was for real and agreed to take him on as a partner. Together with Ford, and Bell's longtime partners Leonard Harris, who works as Bell's chef, and Will Griffin, they started planning the new restaurant.

Once the Mountain View restaurant is on a strong footing, the plan is to explore other locations such as San Jose, Marin County and Santa Cruz. After keeping recipes in his head for years, Bell has committed many to paper so they can be reproduced if and when they open additional restaurants.

"We did it all with a handshake," says Bell. "That impressed me because that's the way we did it back South."

Likewise, Bell impressed Crespi.

"It's been a refreshing way to do business. He does everything he says he's going to do."

In addition to Crespi, Gordon and another Bay Area investor have signed on to back Bell as well.

In Search of Uncle Frank

It had been nearly a year since I forked into a plate of Uncle Frank's brisket, and I was hungry. I longed for a taste of that slow-cooked, barbecue sauce-napped meat as I drove around the block a second time, trying to find his relocated restaurant in Mountain View.

I checked the address again for the new Uncle Frank's on Old Middlefield Way and pulled into the parking lot of Francesca's, a windowless dive bar that would have been sure to bring a thirsty smile to Charles Bukowski's face. But no sign of Uncle Frank's. Still unsure I had found the right place, I parked my car and got out.

That's when I saw it. Like a rising column of white smoke announcing the Vatican had named a new pope, the curling smoke wafting above Francesca's confirmed the Bay Area's bishop of barbecue was back in business. I breathed deeply as I caught a whiff of the hearty, campfire smell of oak and walnut and went inside.

The regulars seated at the bar looked over their shoulders at me as I opened the door and let in a ray of midday sun. The bar is the kind of place where a request for a microbrew would probably get you a Budweiser in a small glass. Uncle Frank's was in back in what looked like a 1970s basement rumpus room. U-shaped booths backed up against the wood-paneled walls. In the back was a stage for live music (there are plans for live blues on the small stage). The crack of a pool ball in the next room and music from the jukebox gave the place the feel of a friendly roadhouse. The smell of slow-cooking barbecue edged out the faint aroma of stale beer. It's the perfect place for a barbecue joint.

Because he was still winding through the labyrinthine halls of city and county government to get all the necessary permits and bring the kitchen up to code, the restaurant had not officially opened. And yet it was busy. Bell was serving a limited, pre-opening menu to those like me who had been yearning for his barbecue. Internet discussion boards like that on Chowhound.com kept tabs on Bell's progress, and when word spread that he would be cooking again, the crowds came. Bell also had a voicemail recording that provided updates on his pending grand opening, an opening that always seemed to get pushed back.

What was supposed to be a simple move across town from his old location in East Palo Alto became a nine-month bureaucratic ordeal. In order to conform to city and county health codes, he had to rebuild the tiny kitchen he took over in Francesca's. He had to install a new ventilation hood and buy a $25,000 new smoker.

Bell says anxious customers offered to picket Mountain View City Hall to protest the slow permitting process. Another offered him $100,000 to help grease the wheels. But Bell never lost faith.

"It's been a struggle. I've had a lot of support from the people," he said, referring to his old customers. "People want this food in the Bay Area."

When opening day finally came in August, Bell looked tired. He wore a black collared shirt with "Uncle Frank" written in silver sparkles on the back. But as he worked the room and walked up to each table to introduce himself, he beamed.

"I'm Uncle Frank. How's everything? You liking those ribs? How 'bout that brisket?"

The answer was always an emphatic yes.

San Jose resident Stephen Jacob first ate at Uncle Frank's in East Palo Alto and had been anxiously waiting for the new restaurant to open.

"It was the best barbecue I've ever had. It was incredible."

Jacob, who along with two co-workers was tackling a plate of brisket and ribs, is from Ireland, a place not known for its barbecue. But he says he's sampled barbecue all over the United States, including a legendary barbecue joint in Mississippi.

"This is better."

Reuel Warkov, a Los Gatos high-tech salesman, has the good fortune of working in Mountain View near Uncle Frank's. He never made it out to East Palo Alto but followed the Internet chatter about the restaurant. Warkov too has sampled barbecue across the country, even making a trip to famed Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, a restaurant that writer Calvin Trillin famously declared to be the best restaurant in the world.

"Barbecue is my passion," he says.

While he generally gives Bay Area barbecue thumbs down (it's just grilled meat, he says), when he finally made it to Uncle Frank's he tasted for himself what all the fuss was about.

"It was great. The man knows how to make brisket."

I finally sat down for a plate of brisket of my own. Well, brisket and some pork ribs and corn bread, collard greens, baked beans and cole slaw on the side. The brisket was just as I remembered. For a hunk of meat that could stop a bullet when it's first put in the smoker, the brisket had been transformed by smoke and gentle heat into delicious, tender strips of smoke-infused, juicy meat I could cut with a fork.

Bell makes his own sauce, and it's great, too—just the right balance between sweet and tang with a flicker of heat on the back end.

The ribs were really ribs in name only because they were almost all meat. While in the past Uncle Frank's had been a little dry at times, these were succulent in spite of the coal-black, smoke-darkened color outside. The woodsy smell on my fingers lingered like a memory all day.

Bell says the secret to his barbecue is simple: time.

"I can't operate fast. That's not the way it's done. I cook slow."

In Silicon Valley, the land of the new where trends are here today and gone that same afternoon, Bell is a delightful anomaly. He moves slowly. He's not after a quick buck, but worked for years to get where he is. He's tradition-bound. His education comes from experience, not universities. He's the real thing. Maybe that's why he continues to attract such a following. That, and his brisket, of course.

Uncle Frank's BBQ Restaurant and Catering, 2135 Old Middlefield Way, Mountain View; 650.964.4476.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate