Hop on the bus at Gus’ — Lake Tahoe’s newest barbecue joint
Who: John Cheney
What: Gus’ Open Pit BBQ
Address: 930 Tahoe Blvd. (in Raley’ Shopping Center)
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — John Cheney knew opening his second restaurant would be hard work, especially considering the vast differences in each — not to mention the fact that Cheney did not seek out another restaurant.
Rather, it sought him.
“In the back of mind, I always thought ‘maybe someday down the road,’” said Cheney, gesturing around the upstairs bar and seating area at Gus’ Open Pit BBQ in Incline Village. “But this is the stuff I grew up on, and I couldn’t pass the opportunity up.”
The Lompoc, Calif., native, who also owns Big Water Grille near Diamond Peak, has been grilling over a fire of California coastal red oak in true Santa Maria barbecue style since he was a teenager.
“Every Sunday, I’d grill with my dad using a big oil drum with a crank,” he said. “You control the heat by lowering and raising the grill because you’re using real wood — that’s what Santa Maria barbecue is all about.”
The technique of using red oak is specific to the ranchland valley — a coastal region of rolling hills, sprawling vineyards and cow pastures, nestled between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
“If you’re not grilling with red oak, it’s not Santa Maria style,” Cheney said, the distinct smell drifting in a sweet and spicy thickness from the iron pit below. “It doesn’t matter what you’re cooking, you’ve got to be using red oak.”
A BARBECUE TRADITION
Light on barbecue sauce and known for its dry rub, it’s a barbecue tradition seasoned with decades of pride and history, Cheney said, adding, “even at home I’ll use red oak chips in a smoke box to make it authentic.”
The central coast-style dates back to the days of the rancheros, when the land still belonged to Mexico, and locals would celebrate most occasions with all-day feasts, barbecuing over fire pits ablaze with the local lumber.
“Pinquito beans are another huge part of what makes it unique,” Cheney said. “The recipe we use here is from my wife — even I don’t know exactly how she does it — but she makes a killer pinquito bean.”
Indigenous to the windy valley, pinquito beans are desired for their texture and firmness, and the ones offered at Gus’ come straight from the source.
“We pay as much as the bean costs just to ship them up here, but they really are the best for barbecue because they never get mushy and they hold the flavor really well,” Cheney said.
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
Cheney is no stranger to an iron grill, but his focus for the last 17 years has been on his other restaurant endeavor, Big Water Grille, where he started as the beverage manager until 2004, when he became managing partner.
Then, about one year ago, the space in Raley’s shopping center opened up, and the landlord called John with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Ready to hit the ground running last summer, the opening of Gus’ was delayed for a few months on account of suspected arson, but the setback didn’t put out Cheney’s fire.
“When we finally opened in December, we were able to hit the ground running because we have such a good following at Big Water, and people — the locals mostly — want to come out and support us, and that feels good,” Cheney said.
A FUTURE FRANCHISE?
While the fine dining atmosphere has fed his soul — and his family — barbecue has always defined his palette; in fact, a few years ago, Cheney invested in a mobile grill ( a fire pit on wheels) that he’s been towing around to events from Red, White and Tahoe Blue, to the Bottle Rock festival in Napa.
With Big Water running like a well-oiled machine, Cheney’s been logging most of his time at Gus’ — a brand he hopes to franchise some day, giving outsiders a taste of California’s best-kept barbecue secret.
“My dad came up to visit and that was the ultimate test,” Cheney said. “Having people who really know Santa Maria barbecue sign off on this makes me proud, especially my dad, because he’s really where I got it from.”
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Have an idea for a merchant to feature? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.