This article first appeared in The Bloom on November 15, 2019. However, during the Coronavirus lockdown, Danny’s Roadside Kitchen is still open and Carl is still serving his spectacular barbecue. Give it a try if you haven’t yet.
Carl White, owner of Danny’s Roadside Kitchen, opens the heavy doors to his smoker. A white cloud envelops him, obscuring his red t-shirt and fogging his glasses. He pours a little water in the bottom, creating a billowing thunderhead. “Hang on just a second,” he says. You gotta wait for the steam to clear.”
Inside the smoker, large chunks of meat, red-edged, appear out of the fog. The smell of the dry rub overpowers the smokiness, permeating the air.
“I start every day at 4 am,” he says, poking a tri-tip. “It’s all fresh daily. I worked at French Laundry in Yountville for a while, so I can give Napa credit for that. I do my shopping every morning and get everything locally, not from Cisco. I keep all my money in Lake County.”
It’s all part of Carl’s philosophy. He’s committed to quality food and understands what it means to run a business in Lower Lake.
He swings the heavy doors shut on the smoker and turns away. “No food goes to waste,” he says. “With the power outages, I didn’t lose anything. Now that the power’s going off tomorrow, I’m going to have a free pancake feed in the morning. People got it hard enough as it is.” That’s how Carl works. People don’t have as much, so he sees a need and works to meet it.
He walks back through the door into the small kitchen. Nizhoni Goldtooth, her shining black hair stretching down her back, stands behind the register, waiting to take an order.
“So, what do you recommend?”
Carl, already in front of his grill, immediately responds, his bright blue eyes flashing. “I don’t recommend any food. I learned that from my grandfather. He was a chef at Konocti and all over the region.” He takes a second to pour some au jus on sliced mushrooms heating on the grill, then covers them with a pan lid. “Nope, I won’t do it. People like what they like. If it’s something people don’t like, I take it off the menu.”
Nizhoni looks at Carl, looks at us, then kindly suggests the combo plate.
Carl scurries around the kitchen, chatting. “I only do a dry rub on my ribs. It’s Texas-style.” He pokes at some ribs, hard-working veins popping out of his weathered skin. “Now, the potato salad and mac and cheese are from my wife.” He scoops a side of each, sets them on the counter, and turns back to the grill.
While Nizhoni begins slicing whole potatoes for the fries, Carl keeps cooking. “I called the place Danny’s after my grandfather, brother and daughter, Dan, Danny, and Danielle.” He grabs a pair of tongs hanging from the oven and flips a half-rack of ribs. “Back when I was a kid, this used to be Castle Donuts. I came in here with my grandpa, and always thought it would make a good taco stand. But there’s tacos all over the county. I also thought about making it a pasta place, but ended up doing barbecue.”
He pulls the ribs off the grill and plates them next to sides of tri-tip and pulled pork. It’s an armload and takes several hands to carry outside. There, behind the kitchen, a small oasis sits. A fountain splashes into a small pond, hushing the noise of Highway 53 beside it. Plants reach around the corners. (“The gardening I got from my mom,” Carl said earlier.)
Food stretches out along the table: potato salad, baked mac and cheese, pasta salad, beans, coleslaw, pulled port, tri-tip, ribs, and a cup of barbecue sauce all beg to be eaten.
The potato salad’s a good place to start. It’s creamy, with flavors of dill, paprika, olive, and onion. That leads to the baked mac and cheese, firm, with a crunch to it, and deeply flavored with garlic and pepper. A few bites, but not too much, because there’s still the slaw, creamy and garlicky.
But that’s all silverware food. It takes fingers to enjoy the rest. The pulled pork overwhelms with richness of flavor—full of juice and not dry, like some pulled pork. It dissolves in the mouth, leaving the sweet tang of barbecue sauce on the tongue.
By now, it’s a war zone. Half-empty cups scatter across the table; fingers covered in sauce stick together. Only the ribs remain. Dry rubbed and crusted over from the smoking; they shine a dark, rich red.
One bite: They’re not dry like other dry-rubbed ribs, but filled with flavor.
A second bite: the meat pulls off the bone. It’s not mushy and overcooked, but just the right firmness. The rub is subtle but persistent.
A third bite: the smoke line leaves the rib meat pink. With each taste, the flavor deepens.
A fourth bite: with a dip in Carl’s barbecue sauce, the ribs take a new note. The slight tang and sweet spiciness of the sauce dance around the dry rub, creating an entirely different flavor. There’s no wrong way to eat them. That’s why Carl won’t recommend any particular item. It’s because no matter how you eat it, he knows it will be good.
Too soon and too full, we bring the emptied plates and bowls back into the kitchen. We’re overwhelmed with the quantity and quality of the food. Carl turns from the grill,
“That was spectacular,” we tell him. “Thank you.”
A customer edges through the door as we walk out. Carl turns to face the counter, chatting with her.
“You wanna eat?” he asks her as the door swings closed. “I’ll feed ya.”
Danny’s Roadside Kitchen is located at 9800 Hwy 53 in Lower Lake, across from the Tower Mart and next to Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s easy to find; you’ll smell the smoke as you pass by.
Hours of operation: 10:30 am to 8:00 pm Tuesday through Saturday