“Where you from? Do you like barbecue?” I approached a tight parking lot with five cars positioned next to a deck leading up to an Indian restaurant that doubles as an Irish pub. 
Beneath the overhang was a large black barbecue smoker, with a white haze slowly billowing from its chimney. As I approached to order from the man behind the rig, the smells of applewood, cherry and hickory-infused meats pierced my senses, and my taste buds began to tingle. 
Even without much signage, I knew I’d made it to my journey’s end: Adams Smoked Meats & BBQ, at 2351 Taylor St., the newest (and only) barbecue destination in San Francisco’s North Beach district, popping up every Thursday through Sunday.
“I call [my barbecue] California barbecue with 70 years of experience,” said James Adams, co-owner and chef of Adams Smoked Meats. It’s an attempt to lure a potential customer who appears interested, but hasn’t quite committed to buying a plate just yet. “Come here, let me give you a sample. What do you like chicken? Brisket? Ribs?”
A barbecue rib being cut for a customer at Adams Smoked Meats & BBQ in North Beach, San Francisco, on Friday, July 29, 2022.
The customer, a tourist who just got off the iconic cable car at the corner of Taylor and Francisco streets, grinned as she tasted a piece of rib that Adams offered, and immediately got in line for a full plate.
This is how things are run at San Francisco’s freshest barbecue joint. “My food speaks for itself,” Adams said, with a smile. “I’ll give you a sample. And if you like, I know you’ll buy it.”
The man wearing a round chef’s hat and black-rimmed glasses standing slightly hunched over the hot smoker is James Adams. His barbecue stand is one he’s wanted for 70 years but never had, until now. 
Adams, now 77, was born at San Francisco General Hospital but grew up in Stockton. He remembers growing up in the kitchen of his aunt and uncle’s soul food restaurant, which also doubled as a nightclub called Night Out Cafe. 
He comes from a large family, and said his dad married three times and has 19 children. Almost everyone in the family is “food oriented” and he described all of the women as great cooks, but none had the perks that Adams did, with ready access to his aunt’s professional kitchen. 
James Adams and Janice Adams of Adams Smoked Meats & BBQ in North Beach, San Francisco, on Friday, July 29, 2022.
“I started cooking barbecue when I was seven years old,” he said. “I started by emptying the ashes out of their barbecue pit. When I got a little bigger, I put the meat in the smoker. When I got a little bigger than that, she took me in the kitchen. So it was step one, two and three for me.”
Adams knew barbecue would become his vocation. It’s the one skill he’s always had a passion for. 
“From a young age, it was all I wanted to do,” he recounted on a Thursday afternoon next to the smoker. “Everyone kept telling me, ‘Your food is good.’ And eventually, I started to believe it.”
Those encouraging words motivated him to wake up even earlier than his aunt so he could practice and create his own recipes after finishing the prep work he did for her. And if you know barbecue, you know it takes a long time to properly smoke the meat to get it just right — tender, yet not grainy. 
“If you don’t know your temperatures, you’re just cooking a piece of meat,” he explained. “But if you know how meat cooks with different temperatures, then you’ve got something.”
For most of his professional life, Adams cooked while others made money off of his food. He worked many years as a caterer, cooking for an all-night supermarket owned by his childhood friend Marvin Robinson. Robinson also happens to be the program director for KSOL, a radio station based in the Bayview-Hunters Point district of San Francisco. Adams said he worked sometimes 20-hour days. 
Eventually, he told his friend, “I’m tired. I make everybody else money, but I’m not quite getting what I want.” 
At the time, Adams knew his recipes were delicious, but he didn’t know the right steps to take to start his own business. He went on to work as a journeyman butcher for Shenson’s Corned Beef, then for Gallo Salame, and as a chef at a children’s hospital. He even worked at Just Desserts for a stint, where he learned how to bake pastries such as croissants.
But he was always dissatisfied with the corporate structure of those positions. 
“Those jobs, you aren’t cooking, you’re racing,” he said in regards to the speed he had to pump out orders. “I like flavor. I like to cook food and give it as much flavor as possible.”
When I sampled some of Adams’ barbecue, I ordered the all-meat combo for $42. The immediate standout was the ribs. They were generously seasoned and didn’t slide off the bone, but were cooked with such precision that the fat still melted in my mouth. The brisket was moist in the middle but had some terrific bark that I would pick up with my fingers and dunk into the homemade barbecue sauce. The chicken, not usually a highlight in the world of barbecue, was a contender for best bite. It had the most smoke flavor profile and paired very well with Adams’ sauce … which was maybe my favorite part of the entire meal.
The California barbecue scene doesn’t quite have a distinguishing factor that stands up against other regional barbecue standards; we sort of take a bit of every region and put it into our ‘cue. But one thing that our barbecue should highlight is the sauce — and Adams’ sauce would be a prime example of that. It was not too thick, but not too runny, either. It had a tang that puckered my lips and it was great on all of Adams’ meats.
Even though Adams wasn’t ready for his own restaurant throughout the ’90s, he has a friend, Danny Knight, who was able to help him get set up in the backside parking lot of Kennedy’s Indian Curry House & Irish Pub on Columbus. Now, Adams along with his wife, Janice, and Knight, run the business together.
Knight, 71, was also born in San Francisco and raised in the Bayview-Hunters Point when it was still Navy housing for the base that used to be there. He attended Aptos Middle School and Balboa High School, but said he grew up in the historic Fillmore District, what used to be a thriving Black community, dubbed the “Harlem of the West,” until gentrification and “urban renewal” started to push people out of their houses. He also worked at San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni, for 28 years. 
For some of that time, Knight was a cable car operator and dropped off tourists at the corner of Taylor and Francisco streets. During that stint, he met Brahma Swami, another cable car operator, who eventually bought the building and parking lot where Adams Smoked Meats & BBQ sets up shop every Thursday through Sunday. It was Knight’s friendship with Swami that led Swami to take a chance on Adams and incorporate the barbecue pop-up into his business license. 
“He’s a real kind-hearted person,” Knight said of Swami. “His bar is a real community base. It’s not just about money in his pocket. He’s just one of those special type of people where it ain’t always about money.”
After his tenure at Muni, Knight started his own catering business, which is how he met Adams. The two became instant friends. One day, Adams told Knight that he was going to marry a woman named Janice, and he wanted Knight to meet her. When she walked in the door of her house and saw Knight standing there, they started crying because they realized they had known each other as children. They grew up three houses away from each other in San Francisco. 
Janice Adams helps a customer at Adams Smoked Meats & BBQ in North Beach, San Francisco, on Friday, July 29, 2022. Co-owner Danny Knight is in the background.
To make the world seem even smaller, Adams and Janice came to realize early on in their relationship that their parents were from the same small town — Marshall, Texas.
“We don’t know if they knew each other because everybody has moved away,” she said. “But my parents came from Marshall and his mother came from Marshall. It’s unbelievable.”
Now, they’re all partners in the barbecue business. Adams does the barbecue. Janice bakes her sweet treats such as lemon-7 Up pound cake and pecan and sweet potato pies, while Knight brings over the customers with his charming personality.
“It’s like fate,” Knight said of the three of them teaming up together. “You do the right things for people and the right things happen for you.”
Even back in the ’90s, when Knight and Adams were both in the catering business, Knight saw the potential Adams had with his food that everyone seemed to love. So when the right time came, they all decided to set up shop in the most unlikely places in San Francisco for barbecue — North Beach, a historically Italian neighborhood.
Still, Adams and team couldn’t be happier with the location. 
“In a business, there’s two things you want,” Adams said. “You want good customers and good location.”
A cable car passes by Adams Smoked Meats & BBQ in North Beach, San Francisco, on Friday, July 29, 2022. Co-owner Danny Knight is seen in the light blue shirt.
He estimates that he is the only barbecue spot in the area. From Pier 39 to the beach and north of Market Street, he’s “the only game in town.”
“I got people from Spain, Germany, Russia, Africa and all over,” he continued. “When they get off the cable car, they walk over, try a sample and say, ‘Hey man, your food is on hit.’”
Adams is proud of his 70 years experience of cooking barbecue and that he is finally making money from his food. And he should be. It’s never too late to realize your dreams, and Adams is a shining example of that. 
“All my life. I’ve been cooking for people,” he said. “No boss realizes that the workers that cook your food and bring you the customers are the ones you should try to appreciate. I’m not asking nobody to suck up to me or anything. I just like to be appreciated.”
Adams Smoked Meats & BBQ, 2351 Taylor St., San Francisco. Open Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Nico Madrigal-Yankowski is a food reporter for SFGATE. He is a born and bred San Franciscan. Email him tips at nico.madrigal-yankowski@sfgate.com 


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