The Tri-Tip Sandwich @ Buster’s Southern BBQ & Bakery, Calistoga

Buster’s tri-tip sandwich with macaroni salad and the best cornbread muffin.

Although the Napa Valley certainly offers plenty of great restaurants, many of these same places aren’t really great options for lunch. At least not for those who have a true wine-tasting agenda. For the wine enthusiast who only gets to Napa once or twice a year (or maybe only once every couple years), time can be precious, especially during tasting room hours. On average, Napa tasting rooms begin to shut down at about 4:30pm, which gives visitors about a six- or seven-hour window of wine tasting each day. Granted, proper planning will ensure that one can swirl plenty of wine in that time, but a quick, yet filling lunch can also help to restore order along the way.

Fancy, crowded, sit-down restaurants tend to chew up a lot of clock, although I do concede that this scenario may not be the worst thing in the world for most people. As someone who has spent a few years standing behind a tasting bar, the deluge of Napa Cabernet is more than many people can handle, whether they realize it or not. It’s always the couple who skips lunch that ends up making out by the check-out register. After all, three o’clock and beyond tends to be amateur hour in most Napa Valley tasting rooms. Folks get loud, slightly unruly, friendly but sloppy. Fortunately, I’ve never been to a tasting room that actually requires a bouncer, although I wish I could’ve played that role on a few occasions.

In order to avoid these types of crowds, I’ve been rediscovering Calistoga lately. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, and in need of some good quick sustenance, Buster’s Southern BBQ & Bakery is a great choice for a pit-stop. Buster’s may be the antithesis of Napa Valley chic, but it blends in to Calistoga perfectly. In fact, it’s is the type of place that you’re most likely to smell before you see, which is a beautiful thing.

I usually suggest Buster’s tri-tip sandwich, pictured above, which is sliced to order and piled onto a warm, garlic-toasted French roll. After they assemble your (paper) plate, the good folks at the window will ask you if you want hot or mild barbecue sauce. Although there is a sign that clearly states “Yes, hot means hot,” please do not fall for this trick question. I can handle a good bit of heat, and I enjoy a good bit of heat. But having been forewarned about Buster’s hot sauce, I’ve requested “half hot-half mild” in the past, and this combination was still pushing the upper limits of too damn spicy.

Of course, if you want to taste capsaicin and nothing else, go right ahead and order the hot barbecue sauce. And good luck with wine tasting after your taste buds have tapped out. I’m not exactly sure who orders the unadulterated hot sauce, but someone out there must. However, everyone I know steers clear of the stuff. At Buster’s, if you play with fire, you will get burned. Having learned to swallow my macho pride in this situation, I’ve now resigned to order the mild barbecue sauce, which is perfectly delicious on tri-tip. I can live with that.

Buster’s side items embody exactly what you might expect from such a place; I usually choose the potato salad or the macaroni salad. But you should also order the cornbread muffin, if you feel hungry enough. These muffins are sublime in their simplicity, plenty moist without the addition of any butter (but always better with). Buster’s also makes their own lemonade, which is just barely sweet and completely refreshing. If you think you need a beer instead, I can’t really argue against that, either.

For the first 40 years it was open, Buster’s used to feature a semi-enclosed patio, so the place never really provided total relief from the oppressive Calistoga heat. Upgrades have been made in the last couple years, however, and the patio is now enclosed, with air conditioning. Sure, on most summer days, a little air conditioning might be pleasant, but you still shouldn’t be trying to lounge around for too long — there’s too much wine to taste.

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