“BARBEQUE IS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES,” Bob Kantor told me as I sat down at a table with a checkered cloth in the sparkling yellow, pig themed Memphis Minnie’s. He poured me a cup of coffee and asked if we’d met before. We hadn’t, but he looked familiar, like a ’70s folk-rock singer; long hair pulled neatly back in a ponytail, crinkly eyes, a bushy mustache. “There’s not much profit in the real thing. It takes time, skill, and the key ingredients are costly. It’s a losing fight, although I’m going to keep hooking and jabbing. I’m fighting for barbecue.”
Kantor pointed to a bottle of his Texas style red barbecue sauce on the table. “This is the future of barbecue, because while it takes me 15 hours to cook pork butt, it takes me 15 minutes to make five gallons of barbecue sauce. [Barbecue] will become meat cooked in any way – boiled, fried, braised,thrown under the tires of a semi, as long as its got red sauce poured over it. “We’re here trying to educate people as to what barbecue really is. San Francisco doesn’t have a real barbecue tradition,” the Brooklyn native told me. “My mother was from Memphis, and I was a good son and named the joint after her.” But Kantor didn’t learn about barbecue in his or his mom’s birthplace. After graduating from the California Culinary Academy, Kantor worked in restaurants and eventually hung out a shingle as a restaurant consultant. Only after comingup with some barbecue recipes for a client did he become the zealot he is today.
Kantor makes three sauces: a South Carolina-style mustard sauce, a North Carolina-style vinegar sauce, and a Texas tomato-based sauce. But like Clifton Turner he refuses to slather them all over the meat. His sauces are served on the table as condiments. “If I were truly a man of my convictions, I probably wouldn’t serve sauce at all. I always ask people to taste the meat first. Barbecue is about meat. If people like the sauce so much, I’ll hand them a straw.”
Kantor, too, wanted to show me his smoker. “Wilbur is the brother of Piglet, who is semi-retired on a trailer I use for catering jobs.” It took a moment before I realized we were talking about his smoker and not a cook. Wilbur was smaller than Turner’s smoker, the size of just one refrigerator. Beautiful in its simplicity, it had a bottom door that opened to a wood fire, and the large door on the front opened to 10 racks of slowly-cooking meat.
“Wilbur runs 24/7 – no gas, no electric,” he told me proudly. Kantor cooks with wood only: white oak. “That provides the flavor. If it ain’t smoked, it ain’t barbecue. If it doesn’t involve wood, it ain’t barbecue.” And that’s Kantor’s gripe. “There are all sorts of cooks calling what they serve barbecue. They may be serving good food; it’s just not barbecue.”
He dished me up a sample of Memphis Minnie’s barbecue. I started with the brisket, which he told me was the best way to judge barbecue, “because it starts off as the toughest piece of meat there is.” The brisket melted on my tongue like filet. mignon, only more complex in flavor. The pork butt was sweet, juicy, and not a bit fatty. At the end of my feast, there were three cups of sauce on the table, untouched. Do Bob Kantor a favor. Get the word out. Barbecue’s about the meat.
– By Alexandra D’italia | SF Weekly • September, 2002