Feast Your Eyes is a photo-driven introduction to an East Bay restaurant that’s been open for at least one year. We hope these stories will inspire you to check out these eateries for the first time, or remind you to visit again. If you have a recommendation for a restaurant we should feature, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All one needs to enjoy good BBQ is a nice picnic table outside and an ice cold beer. You’ll find both, and then some, at Smoke Berkeley.
This tiny, unpretentious BBQ joint is tucked to the side of a car wash located on San Pablo Avenue. Owner, chef and chief smoker Tina Ferguson-Riffe has been serving up Texas-style BBQ — from hickory-smoked beef brisket to spare ribs to smoked chicken — for more than seven years.
Last year, Smoke Berkeley added a beer garden in the back. Sure, you’ll hear the blast of pressured water rinsing off cars, but on a sunny day, it’s the perfect setting to chow down on the food.
Aside from feeding East Bay residents hungry for good BBQ, Ferguson-Riffe, who runs the tiny spot with her husband and son, has found other ways of giving to the community. Some of her current employees come from Rubicon Programs, an Richmond-based nonprofit that helps low-income or homeless people in the East Bay find employment. Ferguson-Riffe beams with pride when she says all her employees call her “Mama.”
But these are uncertain times for Ferguson-Riffe and Smoke Berkeley. The owner of the car wash wants to expand, and has given Ferguson-Riffe notice that her lease could end in the next six months or year as the expansion plans go through the city permitting process.
Ferguson-Riffe is weighing her options and trying to find a new home. But in the meantime, the smoker is still going strong and she’ll continue to serve up her BBQ until she can’t.
On a recent Saturday, I stopped in to Smoke Berkeley for lunch with a friend. I tried a two-meat combination plate ($22) with pork spare ribs and smoked chicken. Both meats had a distinct smokey taste with every bite, and the chicken was tender and easy to shred. While the spare ribs were also good, they weren’t necessarily fall-off-the-bone. It helps to dip the meat in the house-made BBQ sauce — available in mild, medium and hot — which had a nice balance of sweet and tangy.
My friend’s order is a great option for the eaters looking for something on the lighter side. The tea-smoked salmon ($18) comes with sides of baked beans and cole slaw. Sides are sometimes filler when eating BBQ, but they’re not to be missed at Smoke Berkeley (and almost all of them are gluten-free). I really enjoyed my sides of collard greens and potato salad, especially the greens, which were tender and flavorful, spiked with pork. The cornbread was buttery and crumbly.
Ferguson-Riffe, who graduated from California Culinary Academy, is also the pie maker, dishing up for dessert slices of chocolate pecan pie or sweet potato pie.
Smoke Berkeley is the kind of mom-and-pop BBQ joint people often reminisce about. Because the future remains unclear, this may be your last chance to try Smoke before it becomes just a memory.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.