Follow the Smoke
Barbecue and beer joint shines in quiet corner of East Sacramento
By Greg Sabin
James Lee’s friends call him “Panda.” As far as I can tell, everyone is his friend.
But if you forget Lee’s nickname, reminders are everywhere: on his panda-themed shirts and the panda mural painted on the side of the barbecue joint he owns with Julio Peix.
You’ll find Lee at the smoker most days. He smokes brisket, ribs or pork belly. He throws a little smoke onto his signature meatloaf or even tofu. If the smoker is going, he’s there.
“I’m usually onsite by 1,” he says.
“Just after lunch?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “1 a.m.”
The work of the pit-master, you see, starts long before you take a bite. When Lee rolls up to Lefty’s Taproom on Elvas Avenue, his first task is to start his “coal bed.” He says it takes about one hour to get a good coal bed started. Then he can put on his meats.
It’s another eight to 10 hours as he slowly feeds in small pieces of wood to get the right amount of smoke without affecting the overall temperature.
“I’ve lost all my arm hair,” Lee says. “Feeding wood in that smoker totally does it to you.”
He holds out his left arm, of course. The name of the joint, Lefty’s Taproom, comes from the fact that both he and Peix are left-handed.
This is Lee’s first run at restaurant ownership. He’s a civil engineer by trade, but got the barbecue bug a few years ago. Starting with just a Webber kettle in the backyard, then a pellet smoker, he quickly gained the skill and confidence to offer some of the best barbecue in the area.
I ask if he has any local mentors or teachers. I picture Lee sitting at the foot of a grizzled, whiskered old-timer wreathed in smoke, skin permanently smudged from decades at the smoker.
“Mostly trial and error,” he says. “And YouTube. There are a lot of good videos out there.”
Partnering with Peix, who previously co-owned Dad’s Kitchen, seems like it’s working.
Peix’s influence has made Lefty’s a homey, festive outpost. You’ll find old beer advertising signs and a Skee-Ball machine. Same as Dad’s Kitchen, you’ll find an incredible beer selection.
Both Lee and Peix are heavy into the beer scene. With some unofficial consultation from Sacramento Beer Week founder Dan Scott, they put together an impressive beer list.
Brews come from up and down the West Coast (including Reno). The list goes from easy drinking favorites such as North Coast Brewing’s Red Seal Ale and Dust Bowl Brewing’s Taco Truck Lager to adventuresome concoctions like Sour in the Rye from Orange County’s Bruery Terreux and a meaty Russian imperial stout from Massachusetts brewery Clown Shoes.
The restaurant and taproom are located at Elvas Avenue and F Street. It’s a little sleepy over there and you might miss it if you’re using Elvas as a high-speed thoroughfare. However, if you roll down your windows, you’ll catch the smell of meaty smoke in the air and know where to stop.
The menu features barbecue, of course, with the big guns such as ribs and brisket served Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Other days feature a decent menu of goodies, including some of the best chili in town, the best potato salad I’ve had in years and surprising (for a barbecue place) vegan and vegetarian options, plus a house salad that has no business being as good as it is.
Lefty’s is still a new enterprise. Lee and Peix opened in March 2020, days before the first shutdowns. Since then, they’ve tweaked the menu and physical space. Now Lee says, “I think we’ve got everything where we want it. I have a feeling it’s gonna start getting crazy busy in here when everything is open and I can’t wait.”