East Bay Bite of the Week: Mama T's Tea-Smoked Salmon

Categories: Berkeley

Tea-Smoked Salmon at Smoke Berkeley
Smoking meat runs in Tina Ferguson-Riffe's blood. She's a Dallas native, and grew up next to her father tending a smoker in the backyard. These days, she's gone all the way back to her roots as the woman behind Smoke Berkeley, a tiny spot adjacent to an oil change stop on San Pablo Avenue. Her name is Tina, but you can call her "Mama T." And Mama T makes a mean brisket.

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Ferguson-Riffe is trained and polished by Le Cordon Bleu, but she's more apt to tell you about the apple pie that won her a blue ribbon at the Texas State Fare. The first time I met Tina, I'd come too early and asked a cook out back if the joint was open. "Nope," he says, "but we'll feed you." I lingered outside. Moments later, and Mama T is at the door.

"My son says you're hungry?"

"I am," I say.

"Then why you standing there? Get in," she says, waving me inside.

I ask about the meats, and I'm answered with a sprawling plate of almost everything on the menu, in generous servings. I feel like I've stumbled into my best friend's mom's house, and I want to stay all day.

Smoke Berkeley is by all means a barbecue joint, but Ferguson-Riffe is known for her Tea-Smoked Salmon. She riffed the recipe off one for Chinese tea-smoked chicken, racking the fish over her smoking concoction in a wok -- a process she calls "haunting" the salmon with tea. And, cross my heart, it feels that way. Ferguson-Riffe talks about growing up on catfish and fishsticks, nothing as strong in flavor as salmon. It makes sense then, that she'd rather temper than accentuate the salmon's character, taming with fish with a subtle smoking. What we get is an approachable salmon that, gently nudged, falls away from itself like preciously stacked meat. It comes served with a sharp Asian cilantro ginger sauce, a recipe she also keeps closely guarded.

"You know, we smokers don't talk a lot about what we do," says Ferguson-Riffe. When I ask about how she cooks brisket, all I hear is: "until it gives up." She demonstrates by flexing and relaxing her forearms. "Until it's heated through, to 185 degrees, it holds on all tense and tight. And then, it just gives up. That's when it's done." Sometimes, that means a dozen or more hours in the smoker.

Molly Gore
Tina Ferguson-Riffe and her bootlegging ancestors

The only cooks you'll find in Mama T's kitchen are either her children or hires out of empowerment programs like The Bread Project. "My best employees are ex-cons," she says. "Like my sons from another mother." Her cooks double as back-up whenever there's trouble. And sometimes, there is.

"A guy wandered into the kitchen, drunk, late one night and tried to start something. Next thing I know, all the stations are quiet and I've got my guys behind me. No one's going to mess with me," she says.

Ferguson-Riffe is gunning for a beer garden in the future, and thinks vegetables have a righteous place in barbecue.

"People think barbecue joints only have coleslaw and cornbread, but we've got beautiful vegetables. I think they ought to highlight the meat, and I make sure they do."

Mama T is out to make a difference in the community, as well as the way people think about meat smokers. "People are finding out that old white ladies can barbecue too," she says.

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Thanks for the article.  Will you please email a hard copy for my the restaurant?  Thanks Michael and Tina

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