Some of the valley’s best barbecue is being served at … the Red Barn in Palm Desert?
Yep, the Red Barn in Palm Desert.
The only food I’d remembered there was a stale bag of chips that I once bought from a vending machine on the outdoor patio—until I found myself there one night after Stagecoach in late April. I was hungry, and I heard there was barbecue for sale.
After Reggie Martinez, the owner of the California Barbecue Company, gave me my food, the flavors that hit my taste buds were out of this world: The barbecue was sweet, yet spicy, and smoked to perfection.
I recently had the chance to enjoy more of Martinez’s cooking while we chatted at the Red Barn: He typically runs out of his macaroni and cheese rather quickly, but I was able to try some—and it was unlike any macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had.
Martinez, who received his training from a culinary institute in Monterey Bay, has not been doing barbecue for very long.
“I’ve been cooking for over 20 years,” Martinez said. “I was working at Circle K, and I was out of the food industry. … Then I was in management at Del Taco.
“My friend ran the barbecue inside of Neil’s Lounge in Indio. He called me and told me that he had a position for me. I went in there, and I learned how to smoke a little bit from him, but I took it to another level; I was watching YouTube videos at home and filling notebooks full of notes. I did as much research as I could to perfect my craft. I realized there wasn’t much competition (locally) as far as barbecue, so I knew that I had a legitimate chance in succeeding: I learned I could not only compete with what was out here, but surpass what was out here.”
Martinez eventually took over the kitchen at Neil’s Lounge when his friend left for another job. However, he left earlier this year.
“Back in December or January, the contract was offered to me, and I had a helper in the kitchen. He became my partner, and we named it Harley’s,” Martinez said. “We opened up Harley’s, and from the very beginning, we had miscommunication. He was hell-bent on doing Texas barbecue, but I had already developed my own style, my own rubs and my own sauces. I wanted it to be what I call California barbecue, because there’s not a market for it, besides Santa Maria tri-tip. I wanted to create my own style with flavors that represent California—sweet, spicy, and dry chili flavors from Mexico. … I’m Filipino, but I grew up in Mexican culture. Those are the flavors I grew up with, and they represent California to me, so I incorporate them.”
After leaving Neil’s Lounge, he started the California Barbecue Company and began serving at the Red Barn.
“I opened the California Barbecue Company with $45 to my name and my own smoker. That’s where I’m at,” he said. “My strength in the beginning was my tri-tip—and then I started doing ribs, and the popularity took off on the ribs.”
How did he create his famous macaroni and cheese?
“One day, I was outside in the front doing tacos, and my fire went out, and I didn’t have a side dish for my food,” he explained. “I had made my daughter a huge tray of macaroni and cheese, and I called the house and asked (them) to bring me the macaroni and cheese. All of a sudden, the most popular item I sell is macaroni and cheese. People come back just for macaroni and cheese. It never fails, and I hear, ‘This is the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had.’ It’s really taking off, and everything is happening so fast.”
How did Martinez end up at the Red Barn, of all places?
“I build a rapport with my customers. One of the guys I met, and his wife, they introduced me to John Labrano, the owner of the Red Barn,” Martinez said. “This customer came to me during a time when I was down, because I didn’t have a light at the end of the tunnel or know what I really wanted to do. I was thinking about going back to Del Taco. He was telling me I had something to offer, and he was going to help me. Three days later, I got a phone call from John, and we met the same day. John had already tasted my food, and he was pretty confident that I would succeed here, so he brought me here to the Red Barn.”
Palm Springs Life recently included California Barbecue Company among eight places to taste great barbecue in the Coachella Valley.
“I think that between social media and … word of mouth, people are learning who I am and what I do. I think that I’ve got a really good opportunity to move forward,” Martinez said. “That article ranked me among the top eight places in Palm Springs to get barbecue. I’m not going to say any of those names, but one of the top establishments on that list has been in the valley for more than 15 years. Harley’s was also on the list, which isn’t bad for being open since January, and I’ve only been open since March. It wasn’t a blind taste test. The lady and her husband who wrote the article went to all these places over a span of two weeks and tried them all.
“It built up quick. I did have a lot of bar food on the menu in the beginning, but I learned that people couldn’t get consistently solid good barbecue, so I wiped that menu clean and went to straight barbecue and sides that went with barbecue.”
Martinez plans on opening his own restaurant in Rancho Mirage later this year, but he said he’ll keep cooking at the Red Barn as well.
“Excited isn’t even a word,” he said about his future. “It’s like Christmas Eve. There are all these gifts under the tree, and you just cannot wait. I know there are going to be hurdles, and I know there are going to be trials and tribulations, and I’m going to go through it all, but I’m ready for it. I feel I have so much to offer, and I feel like I’m going to be able to give the valley something that they can’t get anywhere else.”
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/thecaliforniabarbecueco.