Better barbecue

A tasty hobby turns into a full time job for John Capelo

John Capelo, a Texas native, started Capelo's Barbecue as a catering business on the side of his full-time job. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Barbecue was part of the fabric of life in Harlingen, Texas, where John Capelo grew up.

"Everyone in Texas does a little barbecue on the side," he said. This included his father, who would wrap brisket in foil and leave it on the Weber kettle overnight until the coals burned down and the meat was impossibly tender.

Quality barbecue, by contrast, is notoriously hard to find in the Bay Area. Capelo is working to change that, one slow-smoked piece of meat at a time.

Capelo didn't start his career in the food world and has never worked in restaurants. After high school, he went to the Air Force Academy in Colorado for a year, then got a business degree from the University of Denver and worked in finance, accounting and later, insurance.

But cooking and entertaining were always present. After Capelo left Texas for college, he started peppering his mother with questions about her home cooking. His family is Mexican and Italian, so fresh tortillas and "rich, homemade comfort food" were staples growing up, he said. He dabbled in both cuisines and experimented with barbecue at home. He's the guy who always ends up at the grill at other peoples' dinner parties.

After moving to the Bay Area with his wife, who is from here, he started an eponymous catering company on the side. keeping his full-time job. Seven years ago he got his first food truck and decided to go all in for barbecue. He now runs two food trucks (one primarily for catering), a to-go counter at a commercial kitchen in Redwood City and is planning to build a restaurant there.

Capelo describes his barbecue style as regional, a blend of his own flavor preferences, trips back to the South and endless hours spent on the smoker and grill. Instead of a basic salt and pepper brisket rub typical in Texas, for example, he adds in coffee and sweet elements reminiscent of Kansas City- and Oklahoma-style barbecue, he said.

"It's not like everything that I learned from Texas or anything I learned from one area. It's just a culmination of the years of trial and error and sampling," he said.

Capelo is the proud owner of not one but three smokers -- nicknamed "Big Red," "Black Angus" and "Little Smokey" -- that churn out pounds of brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork shoulder and smoked chicken at the commercial kitchen. Inside "Big Red," a massive 18-rack rotisserie smoker that can handle up to 1,800 pounds of meat, brisket and pork smoke for 12 hours. Chicken, hot links and and spare ribs cook on another rotisserie smoker.

They use large, custom-cut apple and oak wood from a company in Richmond. The meat, all natural and organic, comes from Golden Gate Meat Company in San Francisco.

"Ultimately, quality and process are the most important thing to me," Capelo said, "to be authentic to the true style and how it's prepared in the South."

The Capelo's truck roams the Bay Area throughout the week, serving up Texas-style portions of rich, tender barbecue. (The schedule is posted at capelosbarbecue.com/food-truck.) Barbecue plates come with heaps of meats and a choice of two sides, including slaws, corn muffins or seasonal corn salad. Pulled pork, brisket and chicken are added to tortillas and buns to become tacos and towering sandwiches. For the rare vegetarian dining at a barbecue food truck, there is a veggie burger.

Capelo's sauce line-up is also regional. The most popular is the "Capeliente," a Texas-style tomato-based sauce with vinegar that stands up to the fatty brisket. "Porkalicious," a South Carolina mustard sauce, goes with everything but pairs best with pork, Capelo said. The "Diablo XX," made with smoked habanero and jalapeƱo peppers and ghost pepper extract, brings manageable heat without overwhelming the flavors of the smoked meats.

In March, Capelo's started serving lunch from a bare-bones to-go counter at the front of the Redwood City commercial kitchen at 2655 Middlefield Road. It's quick service with a limited menu that's only available Monday through Friday, but the plan is to eventually stay open for dinner.

Longer term, Capelo said he has submitted plans to renovate the commercial kitchen and demolish a next-door property to build a restaurant with a full bar, rooftop, outdoor patio and live music. Capelo also has ideas for spinoff concepts, such as chicken or pizza, that could turn it into a food market like San Jose's San Pedro Square Market.

The project is set for a public hearing in July; Capelo said he is hoping to be open in a year.

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