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DINING REVIEW: The Taste Buds pig out at Brazen BBQ - and that's a good thing!

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News has a regular dining-out column written by The Taste Buds, SDGLN's resident foodies. Today's review is by Sweet, one of our staffers who plan to keep his/her identity the best-kept secret in San Diego, and guest foodie Umami.

* 441 Washington St., Hillcrest, San Diego, CA 92103
* (619) 816-1990
* Website: BrazenBBQ.com
* Open 11 am to 9 pm Sunday through Thursday, 11 am to 10 pm Friday and Saturday. Happy Hour is 3:30 to 6:30 pm Monday through Saturday with $3 well drinks and $2 off draft beers, and all day on Sunday with $1 off drafts, well drinks and appetizers, $3 Mimosas and $5 Bloody Marys.

If you are dead serious about barbecue – and the Taste Buds are – then you must check out Brazen BBQ Smokehouse & Bar in Hillcrest.

John Bracamonte and Brad Thomas, friends for about seven years and now business partners who operate Brazen BBQ, are heart-attack serious about their barbecue and they put their reputation on the line in barbecue competitions around the country.

In 2009, Brazen BBQ was named California Rookie of the Year. In 2010, Brazen was grand champion of the Golden Acorn BBQ Fest, ranked sixth in California, and placed in the Top 100 in the U.S. This year, Brazen was grand champion of HAVA BBQ (Arizona’s largest competition) and Pala’s Buffalo Ranch, reserve grand champion of USA Barbecue Championship, and has ranked as high as third in the nation as well as in California.

The award-winning pitmasters proudly display their trophies in an alcove above the corner bar, which features a handful of large-screen televisions for sports fans.

Like its name, Brazen BBQ is full of bold tastes and exquisite rubs that are matched up nicely with hearty beers and wines. Located at the southwest corner of Washington Street and Fifth, the spacious and open restaurant and bar has an eclectic mix of industrial-warehouse chic with concrete floors and stainless steel as well as whimsical references to southern-style barbecue palaces utilizing picnic tables, plastic lawn chairs, wood barrels, lattice, saddles and a roll of paper towels on every table.

Another quaint twist is a public sink in the middle of the restaurant to wash those sticky hands, provided that you don’t resort to licking your fingers! Guest foodie Umami thought the stainless steel sink was the coolest convenience, and Sweet even used it between courses.

An outdoor patio wraps around two sides of the restaurant, fronting both Washington and Fifth. Like many other restaurants and bars in San Diego, Brazen BBQ sports roll-up garage doors so patrons can enjoy America’s finest weather.

Seating at the bar can be enjoyed from inside and outside, and the owners are hoping to build up their bar business for sports fans as well as for gays and lesbians who need a snack before heading off to the local clubs to dance off the calories.

Pitmaster/Executive Chef Brad Thomas crafted a special meal to provide the Taste Buds a sampling of his favorite items on the menu. Thomas, a Cleveland native who graduated in 1998 from the prestigious Johnson & Wales culinary university in Rhode Island, said he and Escondido native Bracamonte created their recipes, rubs and sauces from scratch, tweaking them until they were just right. They fire up their smoker using hickory and apple wood.

Each table is provided two bottles of their house specialty sauces: a sweet, fruit-based Smokey Lace and another called B.R.A.G. that was spicier. Both were excellent when used sparingly with the proper smoked meats, most of which stood on their own merits of flavor and taste.

Thomas noted that the Brazen BBQ likes to support local craft beers, and he ordered us two glasses of Orange Ave Wit, a lovely golden beer brewed with wheat, coriander and a hint of orange peel and orange-blossom honey that is produced by the Coronado Brewing Co.

The appetizers

For the first course, Thomas brought out three appetizers that started the evening on a high note.

The Extreme Crawfish Mac & Cheese Balls ($8.99) were innovative and exquisite, more than worthy of their designation as a signature dish. The macaroni and cheese are delicately mixed with crawfish and diced, roasted red bell peppers, rolled into a ball, breaded, and then deep fried. The outside crust is crispy and crunchy, while the yummy goodness inside is moist, flavorful and carries modest heat.

Brazen’s Smoked Wings ($7.99) were done in the smoker with a dry rub. They were moist, meaty and rich in flavor, and the spices provided a nice after-kick. Sweet called the wings “fabulous” and Umami said they were good enough to make a meal out of them.

Atomic Buffalo Poppers ($7.99) tried to live up to their name, bringing the heat. Roasted sweet corn and a blend of cheeses are stuffed into a bacon-wrapped jalapeno and smoked. Sweet gave the poppers a thumbs-up, because they were hot enough to make your nose run! Sweet wished for more corn in the cheese mix for taste and flavor. Umani noted that the heat stayed on the palate long after eating the poppers.

We must add that the Orange Ave Wit was in perfect harmony with the appetizers.

The main courses

To go with the main courses, Thomas ordered two glasses of a 2009 California Pinot Noir from Vinum Cellars, a small winery in Monterey County. This lovely pinot was rich and full-bodied, flavored with hints of cherry, strawberry rhubarb and cloves. This pinot held its own with the smoked meats of the main course.

Thomas suggested a Double-Bolt Platter For Two ($22.99) that comes with three meats and three sides. As special guests, he decided to throw on a few more items for us to sample.

The platter contained both pork and beef ribs, brisket and pulled pork. It is very important to note that the meats do not come with any sauce on them, allowing the diner to use the house sauces according to taste choice. The sides included collard greens, ancho-spiced baked beans, dill pickles and cornbread.

Both of the Taste Buds loved the pork ribs, calling them succulent, juicy and flavorful. The pulled pork was good, but needed the house sauces to enjoy. The brisket was served both with and without the fatty topping; some barbecue fans fancy the whole enchilada, while others prefer the leaner cuts. Who needs sauce when the brisket is oozing with flavor and sumptuous taste? The only miss was the beef ribs, which were too salty and even the sauce could not counterbalance it. The problem probably stems from too much salt in the rub mixture.

The sides were memorable. The collard greens were the best that Sweet has ever tasted, and that includes dining out at some of the best soul food restaurants in the South. The cornbread was really special because of the honey-crusted sweetness that sparred nicely with the pablano peppers. And the baked beans were a step above by getting a kick from the ancho chili pepper, which provides a distinctive flavoring.

The second main course was Louisiana-Style Catfish ($12.99), which can be fixed with Cajun spices or a cornmeal crust. We chose the Cajun version, which was topped with smoked pablano peppers and sat on a Creole mustard sauce. The catfish was perfect, delicately flavored from the smoker and moist. The smoked pablanos added a mild amount of heat, not what you would expect at a barbecue joint, but highly recommended nonetheless.

The sides with the catfish included another mac and cheese dish, this one using jack and aged cheddar cheeses with fresh thyme. Sweet loves mac and cheese, but felt this one had a tad too much thyme. The smoked potato salad was heads and shoulders above your typical potato salad served at barbecue joints, as the chef used apple-smoked bacon and mustard sauce to fresh up the traditional recipe. The smoked kernel corn medley was a tad overcooked.

To accompany the catfish, Thomas sent out a 2009 Zinfandel from Four Vines Winery in Paso Robles, Calif. Again, this Zin with its spicy hints and berry flavors, was another great choice to bring out the best in the seafood dish.

The dessert

For dessert, Thomas scored yet another winner with his recipe for Bread Pudding with pecans, English toffee and a bourbon glaze. Brazen BBQ bartender David Rivera created a special Kris Kringle drink to go with the dessert, using Amaretto liqueur, Hibiscus liqueur, baked apple bitters and lemonade. Yum!

Wrapping up

Our server Jacob “J.D.” Clements, who is also the manager, was a fountain of information, cheerful and attentive. He told us that Brazen BBQ is a friend of the LGBT community and most recently hosted a fundraiser for Mama’s Kitchen. Brazen BBQ also participated in the first-ever Hillcrest Hoedown. Brazen BBQ is also listed in SDGLN’s Equality Directory, which means that the owners affirm that they support full equality for all people and will treat all customers with respect and dignity. And to succeed in Hillcrest, that’s a wise business decision for any restaurant or business.