By Frank Sabatini Jr.
An “asado” is the Argentinean term for weekend barbecue, when meats are sprinkled with sea salt and then cooked on open fires amid festive gatherings of friends and family. At Grand Ole BBQ y Asado, the event takes place from noon to 6 p.m. every Sunday.
On Wednesdays through Saturdays, the menu is pure Texas-style barbecue supported by a jumbo smoker that owner Andy Harris calls LBJ. It’s a big, bold contraption he purchased in Texas Hill County, not far from where President Lyndon B. Johnson grew up.
Harris knows both types of barbecue well. Relatives on his mom’s side of the family moved here from Argentina when he was a kid, and they often grilled asado meals on Sundays. He also became accustomed to Texas-style barbecue when visiting his father and other family members in Central Texas, where meats such as brisket, turkey and ribs undergo slow smoking without ever coming in contact with flames.
After working several years as a tour manager for rock bands, and practicing his culinary expertise at pop-up barbecues, Harris opened his outdoor eatery in October, at the quaint intersection of 32nd and Thorn streets in what used to be a garden store.
The place is fronted by the imposing LBJ smoker, as well as sturdy, wooden picnic tables, some of them quite large. A screened-in kitchen toward the back is where customers place their orders while witnessing cleaver-wielding employees chop the cooked meats into desired portions. Like in Texas, they’re sold market-style, meaning by the pound or in any fractional weight thereof.
We came for asado Sunday, arriving midday to an enthusiastic line of people swept up by the charry clouds of whole chickens, lamb shoulder, skirt steak and Argentine chorizo casting their bewitching scents from a flame grill.
A tri-tip sandwich comprised our hodgepodge, offering smooth, substantial cuts of beef on a fresh hoagie roll. In classic Argentine style, we applied a few smears of chimichurri sauce inside, which gave the sandwich a bright parsley essence and a wisp of garlic that wasn’t as overpowering as the bastardized versions I’ve had from other kitchens. Here, the sauce pays tribute to the meat rather than dominating it.
The entrada skirt steak, served simply in a generous pile, was my favorite grill item due to the fact that it’s lightly marinated in chimichurri before hitting the fire. The result was a tangy flavor that played well with the natural savor of the beef.
My companion gravitated most to the tira asado, which were super-thick short beef ribs that flaunted a fair amount of fat enveloping flesh that tasted as appealing as a juicy T-bone steak. Much like something you’d imagine served in medieval days, they were weighty and messy but well worth the effort.
We also tried the Argentine chorizo, which unlike Mexican versions, contains greater ratios of beef over pork. The flavor was more subdued as well, although we detected hints of wine used in the recipe, which Harris says nearby Parkside Foods carries out for him due to his limited space. The jumbo link was cut into coins and topped with chimichurri, and we devoured each piece as though disciples of the Dr. Atkins diet.
Indeed, you come here for the meaty proteins or don’t come at all. There isn’t much else in the offing other than a few side dishes that include garden or caprese salads; creamy polenta, which called for a little black pepper; and comforting white Peruvian beans flavored meekly with spices or herbs that we couldn’t identify.
Harris doesn’t have license to sell alcohol, but he allows patrons to bring in their own wine and beer. He also treats customers occasionally to free “wine for line,” serving it from a tray to carnivores in wait.
The meal is one you won’t find so easily in San Diego, and enjoyed in a festive, picnic-like atmosphere that puts good food over high design. Based on everything we consumed and the fanfare surrounding the business, there’s no doubt Harris’ Texas barbecue will rock our socks as well when we return other than a Sunday.
—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. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.