by Ari Weinzweig
My eating habits have changed a lot since I was a kid. When I was thirteen years old I was happily having grilled cheese sandwiches made from pre-sliced plastic wrapped American cheese singles on white bread, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Pop Tarts, and Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks fried up “fresh” from the freezer, and other great American grocery store icons from three or four decades ago. (Actually, now that I think about it, all of those foods are probably still pretty prominent in supermarkets today – that’s pretty good staying power. Back then “making orange juice” for me usually meant mixing up a few spoonfuls of Tang with cold water. We also ate Space Sticks just like the astronauts did. (And thanks to Nancy Eubanks, I now what’s in them. Honestly I had no clue even though we ate them for years. Michael Pollan would not be surprised to see that the number one ingredient is corn syrup).
Anyways at the same age that I was eating like a poster child for American industrial food, Alex was already cooking, and cooking really well. While he’s a bit younger than I am, he’s not that much younger that this is a generational issue. It’s pretty clear that Alex has been into food and cooking from a very young age. For which I’m very thankful because I get to eat so many things that he’s been working on for so many years. At the top of that list is what we now know as Alex’s Red Rage Barbecue Sauce, which he started making back when he was all of thirteen years old. If I have the story straight he was living in Bolinas. When his mother and stepfather went out of town he invited about 100 people over for a barbecue. And this is basically the sauce that he made. He’s spent the last 30 years or so continuing to tweak it but if my math is right, the core recipe began back in 1979.
Given Alex’s skills I’m guessing it was pretty darned good then, exceptionally so given that he was barely old enough to have had a bar mitzvah (if he was Jewish of course). With a few changes over the years it’s seemingly just gotten better. If you haven’t tasted it lately ask for a sample next time you’re in the Roadhouse.
The sauce really is pretty special – tomato-based with plenty of beer (Bell’s Pilsner), Urfa pepper from Turkey, piquin chile pepper from New Mexico, Telicherry black pepper, coffee (Roadhouse Joe, of course), Muscovado brown sugar, really good molasses, raw honey, and some chipotle to spice it up a bit. It’s really, I think, a perfect example (there are certainly others across the ZCoB, too) of the way we define “full flavor” here – complexity, balance and finish are there in force. The coffee, the dark brown sugar and the beer give it a lot of depth; its well balanced – slightly sweet, hot but not too hot, much more than just tomato with chiles and sugar. The Turkish peppers add flavor, not just heat. The sauce is rich and full bodied in a way that reminds me of a good Porter, yet it has no thickening agents added to it. And it’s got a really nice, long finish with a nice heat that creeps up on you, settles softly on top of your tongue and then wanders its way down the back of your throat. Not enough to clear the sinuses (for me at least, but of course, heat is really relative) but enough to make me want another sip of beer.
You can taste the sauce on any number of Roadhouse menu items – the ribs, the brisket, the Memphis pork barbecue, and the barbecue chicken sandwich. Not on the menu but I happen to think worth ordering anyways, it’s excellent on one of those ground daily from fresh Niman Ranch chuck burgers. Same goes for Kathleen Craig’s favorite – what the Roadhouse crew calls “Memphis Mac” but is actually known in Memphis as BBQ Spaghetti. Very good stuff and the famous dish for many decades of a place called BBQ Joint in Memphis. We do it with Martelli pasta that uses the Red Rage as the sauce and is topped with pulled pork and a bit of parmesan). Lately I had the belated glimpse of the obvious that it’s really excellent with the hand cut, double-cooked fries. You can of course, also take the sauce home by the pound/pint and use it any way you like. Thanks to Alex for working on this special sauce for so many years now so that the rest of us can enjoy it.