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2 BARBECUES WITH REAL PERSONALITY

No matter how good the food is in big-money restaurants, they’re always doing a sales job on us, because the average diner is unfamiliar with what they’re serving. But there are styles of cooking so American that we’re all on familiar ground, and a restaurant can just slap the food on the table and we’re happy. I’m thinking of barbecue.

Fortunately in Orange County, there are barbecue places all over, and real ones, with personality.

Smoke n’ Pitt is just about the epitome of the independent, shoestring budget barbecue place. It could scarcely be clearer that this is not a franchise of a big-money chain. In fact, when the sign over the door is lit up at night you can see it’s just the sign of a former tenant of the building reversed and lettered over. The decor is strictly Formica, there are exactly three tables, and even if you’re eating on the premises, everything is served on take-out plates.

So far, so good. If one thing’s certain about barbecue, it’s that it’s ordinary folks’ food, and a lot of the pleasure in it is coming across some fellow citizen’s unapologetically personal idea of what barbecue is supposed to be like.

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Distinctive Sauce

This you certainly get at Smoke n’ Pitt. The barbecue sauce is definitely somebody’s home recipe: a rich, slightly hot, sweet and sour model (more on the sweet side) with a strong tomato sauce flavor and, I guess, onions, smoke flavor and Worcestershire sauce in it. It’s really pretty good and you can buy it by the pint to take home.

The chili--sold only with a side order of cornbread--is also a very personal model. Yellowish orange, almost impossibly thick with meat and beans (getting a fork to stand up in it is no problem), it has a mildly hot, very rich flavor that almost makes you think there’s cheese mixed in it.

The beef ribs are meaty and definitely more tender than you get in a lot of places. Pork is by nature a tender meat and I was expecting extremely tender pork. Oddly, though, at this place the pork spareribs, and also the pork rib tips and sliced pork, are less tender than the beef. In fact, they’re downright chewy. On the evidence of the uncompromising chili and barbecue sauce, I have to conclude the owners of this place must just like their pork with this texture.

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As for the rest, the chicken, ham and links are pretty good, and everything comes with buttered, toasted buns and the usual choice of beans (non-sweet), potato salad and coleslaw. The coleslaw is remarkably fresh-tasting. The only dessert is a cinnamony peach cobbler, which comes hot in a foam cup. Sandwiches are $2.30-$3.00, plates $4-$6.49, side orders of meat $3.95 (half chicken) to $12.75 (13-rib pork slab). Peach cobbler is $1.50.

Texas Roots

Norm Calvin’s Rib Factory serves its food on real plates, and technically it’s a chain barbecue place because there’s another Rib Factory in Hawaiian Gardens. It emphasizes its Texas roots by putting Western nostalgia on the walls and serving beer and soft drinks in Ball jars.

The centerpiece of the barbecue here is the sauce: aromatic, medium-hot, with scarcely any sweetness and indeed a certain grainy bitterness from the spices. It’s a meditative sauce, the sauce of a man who thinks long and deep on the meaning of life. If it’s not hot enough for you, they’ll bring a bottle of savage Caribbean Delight sauce, which should be used cautiously (it’s based on papaya, but don’t let that make you think you’re in gentle Polynesia).

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The barbecue sauce goes well with the tender beef or pork ribs and the beef brisket (which comes chopped, Sloppy Joe-fashion, or sliced, meaning the sauce is on the side). This is distinctly smoky barbecue. The chicken and ham are also pretty good, though the links are not discernibly hot. The hamburger is described as the best in town, but I’m not convinced. Everything tends to come with good cowboy beans and toasted eggbread.

There’s another attraction besides barbecue here, something possibly even better than barbecue: sweet, fresh, deep-fried catfish filets in crunchy cornmeal breading, served with the cornbread odds and ends known as hushpuppies. There are lemon slices and tartar sauce on the side, but this is a real American delicacy that absolutely doesn’t need a sauce.

The main dessert is peach cobbler, a very luscious version with whipped cream (available a la mode). You can also order sweet potato pie, closely akin to pumpkin pie, or ice cream if you have no Southern soul at all. Lunches are $1.95-$5.95 and dinners $3.50-$9.95 with massive combo platters up to $18.95. There’s a $6.95 early dinner served 3-5 p.m. Desserts 95c-$3.50.

SMOKE N’ PITT

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6570 Westminster Ave., Westminster

(714) 894-7413

Open lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, dinner Sunday and Monday. No credit cards accepted.

NORM CALVIN’S RIB FACTORY

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500 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 104, Seal Beach

(213) 430-0175

Open for lunch and dinner daily. MasterCard, Diners Club and Visa accepted.


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