The East Bay’s BBQ Hall of Fame

A Long Simmering Barbecue Tradition Comes to a Boil

Oakland Magazine, September/October 2012, by Kathryn Jessup.

bbq_hall_of_fameTina Ferguson-Riffe, the chef-owner of one of Berkeley’s newest barbecue joints, may have studied cooking at the California Culinary Academy and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but her first inspiration was the pie made by her Aunt Audye. With her aunt’s tutelage, Ferguson-Riffe would go on to win a blue ribbon for the Best Apple Pie at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas and a blue ribbon for the Best Chocolate Pecan Pie at the Blanco County Fair and Rodeo in Johnson City.

“I was raised on Texas barbecue,” she says, and after tasting her melt-in-your-mouth, hickory-smoked beef brisket, you’re bound to believe her.Ferguson-Riffe counts among her influences her father, a hunter who hot- and cold-smoked meats in a barbecue pit outside her family’s Grand Prairie, Texas, home. She also credits the exposure to Southern traditions she has gained since moving to the Bay Area in 1987. “So many African-Americans migrated here from the South and the Carolinas and brought with them those ‘send-you-to-heaven-and-back-without-dying’ recipes,” she says.

What makes Smoke Berkeley stand out, however, is not its allegiance to Texas style but Ferguson-Riffe’s freewheeling California-inflected inventions. On her menu, her signature dish, tea-smoked salmon, appears side-by-side with pulled pork, and sides are just as likely to be brown rice or zucchini fritters as potato salad or coleslaw.

The food is well seasoned. Fresh garlic makes its presence known in the baked beans and fresh chiles play a role in the “Mexican” mac ’n’ cheese casserole. “I am bringing all the cooking skills I learned in Texas, California and France together at Smoke Berkeley,” says Ferguson-Riffe, whose staff includes graduates of The Bread Project of Emeryville and Richmond-based Rubicon, where she worked when she first moved to the area. The combination of her skills and the spirit of her team is magical, and after you’ve experienced her barbecue, you must try the chocolate pecan pie.

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