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The Bay Area isn’t exactly known as a barbecue destination; we’re more of a sushi-and-arugula kind of place. But in their less cholesterol-conscious moments, Northern Californians do love their ribs—particularly from Palo Alto native Harold Willis, a lifelong barbecue master stationed outside Lozano Car Wash in Mountain View.

Seven days a week, the 63-year-old Willis sets up shop in front of the highly-trafficked car wash on El Camino Real. He smokes the ribs in his truck around the corner before finishing them on the grill—cutting the soapy car wash air with a rich, meaty smell. While any customer can score half-racks ($11), full racks ($20) or drinks—and their dogs can snag a doggie treat from the bowl always kept on-hand—Willis also accepts advance orders for chicken or whole smoked fish.

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Why ribs at a car wash? Even before enrolling at Palo Alto High School, the young Harold worked for the Lozano family, later running the car wash for sixteen years. The Korean War vet left the Bay Area only for his tour in the Army, and learned to barbecue when stationed in the South; in the 1980s and '90s, he worked in the meat departments of three Palo Alto supermarkets while catering for notables including 49ers football players and Secretary Condoleezza Rice in her pre-Washington days at Stanford. After retiring as the meat manager at the local Safeway, Willis drove his smoker back over to his beloved Lozano Car Wash, where he and the grill mark eight years and counting.

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And the meat? Willis won’t divulge the exact rub, but it includes brown sugar, paprika, apple juice and a touch of balsamic. No sauce. The resulting ribs are very mildly spiced, letting the juicy, dripping meat take center-stage. Sauce fiends might find these ribs lacking, but I found them so tender and tasty I needed nothing else but napkins.

Barbecue is a highly ritualized, highly regarded art in many parts of the country, and I might not try Harold’s ribs on a Memphis or Lexington native. But if barbecue is all about tradition, Harold’s ribs, whether from Safeway or at the car wash, date back about as far as any Northern Californian tradition I know.

Harold's Ribs at Lozano Brushless Car Wash

2690 West El Camino Real, Mountain View CA 94040 (map)

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