The ride up Highway 29 from the city of Napa to Calistoga takes you past some of the greatest wineries in North America — Silverado, Stag’s Leap, Grgich Hills (to name a few). But don’t limit your explorations to wine tasting. When you reach Calistoga, you’ll see a plume of smoke on the left and a parking lot where Harleys and pickup trucks idle next to Jags and Mercedes. Your nostrils will twitch at the scent of red meat roasting over an oak fire, and for a moment you’ll forget about varietals and vintages.
Welcome to Busters Southern BBQ — arguably the best Louisiana barbecue joint north of the Mason Dixon line and west of the Mississippi. No wine tasting required.
Charles Earl “Buster” Davis grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he learned the art of roasting whole hogs at the roadside restaurant run by his mother and uncles. He brought the technique to Ventura, California, where he opened the area’s first southern-style barbecue joint. Taking a move from the Santa Maria playbook, Buster soon switched from the hickory used back home to California oak and from pork to a uniquely Californian meat cut: beef tri-tip. In 2000, dispirited and down on his luck, Buster towed his pit north to cook with a friend for the weekend in Calistoga. Monday morning came and he never went back.
Today, Buster presides over a fiefdom that includes a low cinder block kitchen, dining room, and a parking lot scattered with picnic tables. Each month he burns 10 cords of oak (cut from the hillsides around the Napa Valley) in a raised cinder block pit equipped with a grate that raises and lowers hydraulically with the push of a button. The pit may strike some southerners as odd seeing as it has no lid: this is open pit barbecue of the sort pioneered by the vaqueros, Mexican cowboys of Santa Maria. The process would rightly be described as grilling, not smoking, although the meats acquire plenty of smoke flavor from the blazing oak.
Yes, Buster uses a rub, but he applies it the night before so as to cure the meat, not just season it. “It’s salt, black pepper, chili pepper, garlic powder, and MSG in roughly equal proportions,” he says. “There you have the recipe.” He uses the same rub on all his meats: pork loin, baby backs, astonishingly crusty beef ribs, and of course the house specialty — tri-tip seared black on the outside, served pink in the center, and tender enough to cut with the side of a fork. If you’ve never had tri-tip (if you live east of the Rocky Mountains, you have an excuse), imagine a boomerang-shaped piece of sirloin that cooks like steak, but slices like brisket, with a beef flavor that just won’t quit. Buster serves 2000 pounds of it each week. You can try making his tri-tip recipe yourself.
Buster shatters a few more barbecue myths doing things his way. For starters, he grills over burning logs, not embers, and his definition of “low and slow” is a quick 1 hour and 45 minutes for tri-tip over a fire he keeps between 210 and 215 degrees. His sauce is a not overly sweet amalgam of ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and here comes that “secret” ingredient you can’t quite place—tamarind powder. The sauce comes “regular” or “hot.” The latter owes its painful burn to habanero powder and a sign states clearly that no refunds will be given to any customer who finds it too hot.