Smoldering fire, meat cooked low and slow — barbecuing is cooking at its most elemental. The trifecta of smokiness, juiciness and tenderness is the hallmark of Texas barbecue.
Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more. For this special Barbecue Week edition, we sat down with the charismatic Brad "Coop" Cooper of Coop’s West Texas BBQ.
A registered nurse by trade, Texas transplant Cooper worked at Kaiser for eleven years, selling his "BBQ in a Bag" plates at beauty parlors and barbershops around San Diego on weekends. Now, ‘cue lovers from Orange County, Irvine, and LA flock to his 26-seat barbecue joint in Lemon Grove for melt in your mouth brisket, sinfully delicious pulled pork and a dash of his welcoming tableside manner.
YELP: "Coops is a small, hole in the wall, family owned joint but, trust me, there’s nothing small about the flavor of this BBQ."
Opened in October 2010, Coop's has since become one of the top-ranked barbecue spots in the nation by Yelp and Trip Advisor, and something of a destination restaurant in San Diego. Here, it's a family affair — he owns the business with wife Yolanda, while sister Cassondra runs operations and daughter Tara works newly-opened fried chicken joint, Da Chicken Coop — but when it comes to his barbecue roots, Cooper says his father is the one who showed him the way.
"He had a little barbecue joint called Mount Zion’s Kitchen back in Texas selling brisket and ribs. He told me once: if you ever learn how to do this you’ll never be a broke man! When I moved back to Texas in 1996 I spent two years helping him and learning the arts — he taught me the basics but I evolved my own style with rubs and everything else."
Returning to San Diego in late 1998, Cooper kept practicing his technique until he felt ready to share. "I met my wife in San Diego in 2006 and won her over with my barbecue, but after eating at Phil’s one time I just thought, I can do this. I’ve been blessed to be able to retire from nursing and for us to start this business together."
The response in the last two years has been impressive. He says, "In 2013 we rated No. 3 on Yelp for barbecue in San Diego, so that helped me to see what we can do with the business. Now on weekends we get crazy lines out the door. We just had a guy on Facebook write he was looking forward to coming from Fresno!" He notes that making this year’s Yelp Top 100 Places To Eat In The Nation list was "pretty cool" but that "we haven't seen the best of Coop's yet."
Walk us through a regular day at Coop’s:
We get started at 5:30 a.m., six days a week. All our meat is smoked on the premises — there’s a brick oven and smokers for the sausages, so we’ll cook until 4 or 5 p.m. We cook briskets a day ahead of time and usually cook ribs and rib tips for the day. Sometimes we’ll do a Louisiana-style chicken Boudin sausage for a change of pace. We’re actually moving into doing more sausages and hot links, and have homemade Texas andouille sausages every weekend.
What do you enjoy most about barbecue?
For me it’s the fact not everyone can do it well, a lot of people know how to barbecue and everyone has their own style or their own ideas about good barbecue. I’ve been able to come up with a recipe and a style that caters to everybody. Whether you like sauce all over (we do it on the side) it makes me feel good when people come in and say how much they love the food.
How has the San Diego barbecue scene evolved since you started out?
It’s changed a lot. Several spots have opened up and there are a couple of real good ones, so it’s coming along. I’d say San Diego is well represented but I still think there’s room for more.
What exactly is Texas style barbecue and how does it vary across the State?
Most of Texas uses a dry rub so it’s all about the meat. In Texas the sauce is not the boss. We believe it’s meat first and the sauce compliments, not the other way around.
What kind of wood do you smoke with?
We use mesquite, which is commonly found in West Texas barbecue and gives the meat a sweet, light taste. We also use red oak (which gives the meat a heavy smoky flavor), and pecan (lighter than hickory) when I can get hold of it.
YELP: "Coops is always trying new stuff, everything is made in house, you see the smoker when you walk in (Phil, where's your smoker?).
What are some of the most popular items on the menu?
I’d say our top three are the brisket, pulled pork, and rib tips.
Your favorite cut to barbecue at home?
Brisket – the Texas standard!
When not tending to the coals personally, where do you go for good barbecue?
I like Iron Pig for wings and Grand Ole BBQ y Asado for the smoked turkey.
Single piece of advice you can give to amateurs about the sport of barbecue?
It’s an art form. You’ve got to love what you’re doing. You’ve got to find out what works for you — not all Texas barbecue is good barbecue. Figure out what you like, what your style is.
Barbecue legends you look up to?
The only person I think makes barbecue better than me is my father. From a business standpoint I look at Phil, I look at the way he's turned a small local joint into an almost nationwide chain. And Dave Anderson, I love him because he’s a really humble down to earth guy. He told me once "keep doing what you’re doing", which was a great compliment.
Any plans for a second location?
We’d love to do something in North County in the next couple of years, but we’re trying not to move too fast. Maybe Rancho Peñasquitos, it'd be cool to find an old warehouse, put some picnic benches in and create a real community setting.
Located at 2625 Lemon Grove Ave, Lemon Grove, CA 91945, Coops West Texas BBQ is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and closed on Mondays.