It smells like smoke in Rampart Village, the amorphous area east of L.A.’s Koreatown best identified by the Public Storage tower. This smoke isn’t from a wildfire, cigarettes or weed; it’s barbecue smoke, and a crowd has formed a lumpy line in the front yard of a small apartment building to bask in it and then, hopefully, to eat. We stand and stare at the smoker on the sidewalk, inhaling fumes and eyeing people ahead with both admiration and jealousy. The waiting becomes part of eating, the buildup of hunger, sweat, the meat — just meat — on a pedestal.
Waiting is expected here at Ragtop Fern’s, but it isn’t just here — Texas-influenced barbecue is all over Los Angeles. Quantities are mostly limited, and served only at lunchtime. And in L.A., there are micheladas instead of Shiner, and we’re in the domain of an Angeleno with a unique perspective on barbecue.
Ragtop Fern’s BBQ
Fernando Carrillo, who earned the nickname Ragtop Fern by rebuilding himself a 1965 Impala convertible, is gregarious and charming, excited to discuss his smoker named Lucifer and his barbecue story. Carrillo slices a brisket as he describes his style — punchier than Texas-style, inspired by kickbacks in his yard with friends and family. He started barbecuing, he says, to put his own spin on his dad’s carne asada cookouts. His barbecue is informed by L.A., incorporating the Mexican cooking of his parents, the nearby Korean restaurants they frequented, and more.
Growing up Mexican American in this diverse neighborhood pointed him toward uncommon meats like green chorizo and whole pork bellies. And his creativity birthed the Chorider, a maximalist sandwich with a chorizo link and pulled pork spread across two Hawaiian rolls. He also experiments with far-out hybrids, sometimes for sale and sometimes for fun. Perhaps he’ll share burnt ends on a concha, or a brisket waffle. Carrillo’s not planning a restaurant, but he’s still toying with new ideas like vegan barbecue — a nod to another strong L.A. community. For now, you can find him most weekends in his yard, hanging out with old friends, new customers and everyone in between.
Ragtop Fern’s BBQ: 120 S. Westmoreland Ave., Los Angeles; @ragtopfernsbbq
He’s a native Angeleno and Huntington Park resident, but for Ray Ramirez, it doesn’t get better than the Central Texas tetralogy of salt, pepper, smoke and meat. Unlike many Texas icons, Ray’s is a restaurant with A/C, , but Ramirez still operates on barbecue time, just 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. The decor is strictly Lone Star: Texas silhouettes, a sign that says Shiner Beer and a pile of wood occupying one wall. Ramirez began smoking pork for fun after getting laid off from his job at a bank. He wasn’t sure barbecue would fly in Huntington Park, but his underground business (a bootstrap marketing effort with free samples) grew quickly, until the health department hit him with a fine. When he went to city hall to pay, someone there took interest; instead of a citation, he got a development grant, and in fall 2014, he opened Ray’s BBQ in a mini-mall on Santa Fe Avenue in Huntington Park.
Within a year, though, Ramirez was restless, so he closed shop and flew to Texas, where he fell headlong for brisket. He came home and started experimenting, developing a rub and a blend of Texas wood. White oak resembles post oak, the preferred wood at Central Texas legends FranklinBarbecue in Austin and Kreuz Market in Lockhart; pecan from North Texas smokes but doesn’t linger; and South Texas’ mesquite yields sharp woody flavor. The precise combination makes Ramirez’s barbecue smokier than most, lashed with scorched wood, a craggy landscape of bark on beef.
Ramirez also brings his Salvadoran heritage and Southeast L.A. upbringing to his menu, most visibly in his burritos — two-fisted torpedoes with brisket, mac and cheese and an entire sausage. They are beautifully extravagant, inspired by the California burrito — a San Diego specialty with carne asada, French fries and cheese — tweaked to fit Ramirez’s exuberance and creativity. You might catch Ramirez flexing that creativity in the restaurant, eating brisket on thick Salvadoran-style tortillas or doing R&D on brisket pupusas. But more often than not, he’ll be behind the counter, serving meat and melting homesick Texan hearts.
Moo’s Craft Barbecue
When you enter Andrew and Michelle Muñoz’s backyard on a quiet street off Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., it’s obvious you’re in for serious barbecue. Their giant rust-and-aqua smoker rests against the fence straight ahead. It’s no accident that the line runs alongside it, coating you in fragrant smoke as you wind 10 yards or so to the table where the Muñozes slice and serve their excellent Texas barbecue. The line crawls, not because they’re inefficient but because they’re hosting, discussing their food and story with anyone curious. At an underground event like this, where you send a stranger a message on Instagram to get in, everyone wants to talk to the pit master.
The Muñozes started barbecuing when they bought a house in East L.A., the neighborhood where they both grew up. Andrew built his own smoker and barbecued for friends who paid in beer, but his passion grew and they started catering, and then decided to stage a pop-up at their house. Andrew’s the pit master, rubbing their meat with salt and pepper and smoking over white oak, and Michelle, who says she learned a lot from her grandmother, is in charge of sauces, sides and aguas frescas.
Instead of traditional sides, Michelle makes tequila-lime slaw and a version of the Mexican chile and cheese corn dish esquites. The aguas frescas are delicate and refreshing, and frijoles puercos may be swapped for baked beans. The brisket is spectacular, sharply peppery, and the pulled pork is equally good, dotted with bits of crackling bark. If you think it sinful to sauce brisket, try hitting the pork — the Muñozes’ spicy sauce hums with scorched pepper flavor. One day, the couple want to open a restaurant. It’s a ways off, but one thing’s certain — they’re staying in East L.A., the neighborhood where they grew up, met, learned to cook, the place that powers their barbecue.