Post Oak Barbecue is an American classic. Faced with the pandemic, it's barely hanging on.

By Illyanna Maisonet
September 03, 2020
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Post Oak Barbecue's brisket banh mi
Illyanna Maisonet

Pulling up into Post Oak Barbecue’s shadeless parking lot is something I’ve done many times. Tucked between car dealerships and set against black asphalt, the gray building is difficult to distinguish. For what the joint lacks in ambiance, it makes up for a thousand-fold in the complexity of its barbecue.

Like every other restaurant, things look a little different these days at Post Oak. How many times have you heard that sentence by now?

The way you interact with owners Tony Nguyen and Ryan Metzger is vastly different than before Sacramento’s shelter-in-place was ordered in March 2020. You have to pre-order your food online for curbside pickup during your designated time slot, and either Nguyen or Metzger will put your order into your trunk. Post Oak’s small squad is still going strong, consisting of three loyal employees. The truth is, things have always looked a little different at Post Oak Barbecue.

Nguyen, born in Vietnam, was on the path of becoming a biologist at the University of California, Davis. After several life detours, he and Metzger—best friends since middle school—started a barbecue food truck in 2017 with an investment from Metzger’s family. From the beginning, the difference between Post Oak’s barbecue and the city's other barbecue spots has been obvious. It’s unpretentious. They don’t serve tater tots or beer. When it opened, their regular brisket sandwiches came on a bánh mì baguette. Just meat and bun. That airy crumb with the brittle exterior was the perfect vehicle for brisket’s brawn; it served as a delivery service that could collect all of the meat’s juices while not interfering with unnecessary heftiness. But, some customers didn’t see it that way.

Nguyen said, “I think people were confused by the baguette. We decided to use a more shelf stable bun.” For some of us, it was that bánh mì baguette that imprinted on our minds forever.

Throughout Post Oak’s three-year existence, they’ve woven the flavors of Vietnam into daily specials, but never on the regular menu. It seems like a no-brainer that Nguyen would attempt to introduce some minor influences from his own culture. After all, he is the cook. The menu includes items like fish sauce ribs that turn sweet and sticky. Smoked pork chops come with lemongrass chimichurri and in-house made pickled mustard greens. The juxtaposition of that cracklin’ exterior of the pork against the soft interior with the floral acidity of the lemongrass sauce is nothing less than indelible.

Post Oak Barbecue's pork chop platter with lemongrass "chimichurri" and Mama-made Pickled Mustard Greens (Dua Cai Chua)
Illyanna Maisonet

Then there's their brisket bánh mì (a separate item from their regular brisket sandwiches). That rich and dank beef comes in hot on a baguette that soaks up the meat syrup, garnished with crunchy fresh cucumbers, pickled daikon and carrots (do chua), lemony cilantro, and bracing jalapeño. The endless textural and flavor components are out to ruin you—pack-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night, leave-your-family-behind-and-freight-hop ruin you.

“The bánh mì is a lot of work and we maybe only sell ten on a good weekend,” Nguyen said. That may seem surprising to anyone who has lived in a major city and appreciates good food and drink.

Sacramento has several barbecue restaurants, but few are doing it like Nguyen. While Post Oak offers most of the barbecue basics, including pulled pork, brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, housemade sausages, and burnt ends, they don’t offer any beer or wine that can often help make up operating costs. They also don’t do popular novelty items, like pulled pork nachos or tater tots.

Much like Matt Horn of Horn Barbecue, Post Oak does barbecue the slow way. Also like Matt Horn, Post Oak has had to educate folks on barbecue. (Horn remembers all of the side eyes he received when he tried to serve his barbecue solely on parchment paper, like you’d commonly find in Texas.)

The Post Oak team is tending to the fire and the meats at ungodly hours. During the day, Nguyen can often be seen throwing chunks of wood into the smoker; his long arms and quick movements seem to make every step a blur. His laughter is wild and infectious. He uses meat from Niman Ranch, a company that started out in Marin County. Post Oak isn’t only producing some of Sacramento’s best barbecue with absolutely no fanfare, but they’re also competing with mother nature’s elements and the repeated shenanigans of burglars breaking into their restaurant and truck to steal equipment.

While they’ve had the food truck since 2017, they’ve only had the brick-and-mortar location since June 2019. As business has slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re going back to basics and becoming more reliant on the food truck once again because it can cast a wider net. But the truck can only do so much in a plunging economy.

Nguyen and Metzger are panicked. One of their employees quit in March, customers stopped coming in, and they decided to close for a few months after shelter-in-place was ordered. Rent has been a struggle. And still, they chug along.

On a sweltering day in August, Nguyen's face is partially hidden by a mask as he discusses employment alternatives that will keep the restaurant afloat, or prevent him from losing everything he owns. The crinkles by the corner of his eyes normally appear when he laughs; now, they’re appearing with worry. They’ve dwindled their operating hours to weekends only, and have started offering more economical proteins, like chicken.

Like most restaurant owners in Sacramento—hell, in the country—he’s not sure if he can make it out alive.