Sneaky’s BBQ — catch it while you can

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerMeat

Critics typically avoid pop-ups; who wants to review a restaurant that might never return? I once reviewed a Caribbean pop-up in Berkeley, only to learn the cook left for Jamaica a week later. Fool me once.

OK, fool me twice. I want to review Sneaky’s BBQ now, with full knowledge that it could disappear into the fog.  

Here’s the abridged Sneaky’s story: Part-time rocker Ben Thorne, a Maine native with no barbecue experience, inherited a smoker with his friend Pat Wachter. They self-schooled for many moons, transforming from “comically inept” to smoker savants.

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After dazzling friends with their new ’cue wizardry, Thorne and Wachter busted into The City’s underground dining scene. A cult following emerged.

By the time Sneaky’s scored a semipermanent space, co-opting the kitchen at Rebel gay bar, mainstream food media were bewitched. Among many accolades, Food and Wine listed Sneaky’s as one of the six best new barbecue joints last year, nationwide.

You’d think this story would follow a familiar “pop-up goes proper” arc, but alas. Earlier this year, the whole thing unraveled.

At some point, the distance between Sneaky’s culinary goals and Rebel’s clubby aspirations became irreconcilable; Thorne said a family of four would stop by for Sunday lunch, only to find a “gyrating go-go dancer up in their face.” Awkward.

Sneaky’s fans took solace with talk of a new, permanent location in the Mission. Sadly, the deal fell through. “It would’ve been a lot of work for a place that wasn’t quite right,” Thorne laments.

Kind of the opposite of former pop-up Mission Chinese (coming soon to Brooklyn and Oklahoma City), Sneaky’s has now shrunk to virtually nothing. Now, we’re left with some irregular delivery, the odd monthly pop-up and an erratic Twitter feed. It feels like a slow fade-out.

By some chancy kismet, I dropped into the mustache-thick Dear Mom bar recently, during one of Sneaky’s rare public appearances. My rewards were handsome.

There was a beautiful pulled-pork sandwich, rippled with waves of crunch, searing fat bubbles and tangy N.C. sauce. There was a pork belly BLT, with thin carvings of Sneaky’s signature kurobuta giving the classic sandwich a luxurious turn.

And the smoky fried wings, bathed in creamy Rooster sauce, prompted my friend Steve — not a man prone to hyperbole — to claim they were San Francisco’s finest. He was not drunk.

Even the vegan option was compelling: fleshy, artichoke-heartlike barbecue jackfruit and slaw on a big, fluffy bun.
This meal was not enough. I rushed home to order a Friday home delivery and celebrated my riches all week. The smoke-rich, thick-cut, fat-rippled brisket prompted me to speak in clichés — “A revelation!” — and prompted my near-vegetarian ladyfriend to steal a piece while I was sleeping.

And dear Lord, the dense rectangles of Bassian Farms pork belly were intense. Caked in a peppery rub, each nugget was the porcine equivalent of some decadent French pastry, with supple pink meat interwoven with moist bands of fat. “I can’t eat another bite” segued into “I must eat another bite.”

If you want your own Sneaky’s fix, email sneakysbbq@gmail.com to learn about future citywide delivery days (usually Fridays) and pop-ups. And do it now.

You see, I have a fear. Thorne is in four local bands; what if he decides barbecue is getting in the way of his music? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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