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First Bite

Red Rock Cafe

By Heather Irwin

Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.

The smell hits you first. Clouds of hickory smoke billow and swirl, enveloping the entire block in a charred-meat mist. It immediately clings to hair and clothing, dashing any chance of denying where you've been. Yards from the door, involuntary salivation kicks into overdrive and the legs quicken almost imperceptibly. There's no turning back, now.

Hidden away in a Napa neighborhood in a world far, far away from company tabs and $50-a-plate bistros, the Red Rock Cafe--which turns into the Back Door Barbeque at the stroke of 4:30pm daily, serving up stacks of ribs literally out the back door--harks back to the days when folks headed into town for a quick burger and a beer before climbing back on to a tractor or combine, rather than an Escalade.

Inside, red-and-white checkered tabletops and well-worn wooden chairs are crammed into every available space--itself, postage-stamp-sized at best and dominated by a wall-to-wall bar (priorities, people) featuring beer on tap and Beringer wine by the glass. Corkage is $1, should you need to bring in some fancy-pants bottle of Cabernet, city boy.

But lingering longer than necessary at the Red Rock is not the point. Though there are plenty of chances to catch up on local gossip beneath the flying-pig tchotchkes, diners will do best to grab a sack and move on to more secluded environs--say, the parking lot--where it's safe to hunch unattractively over and tear into the weighty, paper-wrapped burger that lies within.

I played it safe and ordered my barbecue, bacon, cheddar and grilled onion burger (with pickles, onions, dijonaise, lettuce and tomato--the works, $9) to go, having been forewarned of the dangerous mess ahead and not, by nature, being a food exhibitionist. All items on the menu, from barbecue tri-tip sandwiches to salads (get serious, this is a barbecue joint) are available for takeout. The bag, and I'm not exaggerating here, weighed somewhere close to two pounds at least. And that's not including the wad of napkins I stuffed into my pocket on the way out the door.

Though the tri tip with au jus ($10.95) and barbecued pork sandwich on a Dutch crunch roll ($9.95) both looked good enough to snatch off the plates I passed by inside, my eyes were set on the prize: the Red Rock hamburger. A perennial local prize winner (best hamburger in town!), it's the work-a-day standby.

You'll be hard-pressed to wrap your lips around it at first pass, so large is this monstrosity of meat. Nibble around the edge, holding tight to the paper wrapper (the thin barrier between your pants and imminent disaster) before unlocking jaw and going in, head on. It's OK, everyone does it.

Ten minutes later, your belt undone at least one notch, your shirt dotted with dijonaise, you'll emerge from the eating frenzy licking your fingers and looking left, then right, to see if anyone witnessed the bloodbath.

At this point, relax, dab the corners of your mouth gently, rehinge your jaw, drink deeply of the soda bubbling in the cup holder next to you and take a deep, cleansing breath of the hickory and barbecue smell that even now wafts gently all around you.

Red Rock Cafe, 1010 Lincoln Ave., Napa. Open daily, 11am to 9pm. 707.252.9250.

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From the December 7-13, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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