BARBECUE : A GUIDE TO BARBECUE--L.A. STYLE
In the alphabet of American eating, barbecue ranks right behind apple pie. It may just be our national dish. And yet nobody is quite certain where it came from. Some say the the word is a rough translation of a Haitian term, barbacoa , meaning “a framework of posts set upon sticks.” Others insist it comes from the French expression barbe a queue , literally “from beard to tail.”
No matter where it came from, it proved to be remarkably adaptable. Wherever barbecue landed, it took on a regional character. So while all American barbecue begins with sauce, the sauce itself differs from place to place. Most have a base of catsup, vinegar or dry mustard; many combine all three. North Carolina sauce uses vinegar, red pepper and black pepper, while in Georgia the sauce becomes inexorably sweeter, with plenty of brown sugar and dry mustard. Texans prefer a spicier sauce, spiked with cumin and other exotic ingredients.
There are regional meat differences--and even regional differences in the woods over which they are cooked. In Texas, beef brisket is king. The best place to eat it, according to Jane and Michael Stern, authors of American gastronomic bibles like “Roadfood” and “Goodfood,” is a Dallas parking lot shack called Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse, where you can get a sandwich so tender that “it falls apart if you look at it hard.”
The Atlantic states like Georgia and South Carolina favor pork shoulder, slow-cooked outside in a giant pit filled with the smoke of oak and hickory. The meat is chopped up and eaten on sesame seed buns drenched in sauce. Any other form is considered a vulgar imitation.
Kansas City, another center of the barbecue (and the home of the legendary Arthur Bryant’s), uses only hickory in its cooking. The meats here have a powerful, smoky taste. You won’t find that in Los Angeles, where the price of hickory is prohibitive and elegant pretenders such as oak and mesquite are favored.
In fact, although Los Angeles barbecue joints often borrow the name of some other state, most barbecue here defies real regional authenticity. Most Los Angeles barbecue crosses state lines so often that it has turned into something entirely regional. Call it California barbecue.
These are my favorite places to eat it (they are not listed in order of preference):
Carl’s, 5953 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 934-0637.
I asked owner Carl Adams how hot the sauce was, and he replied, “If you have hair on your chest, it’ll take it off. If you don’t have hair on your chest, it’ll put it on.” The comment is better than the sauce, which is really only medium hot. Carl’s meats, however, are tremendous.
Carl slow-cooks everything in a giant oak pit and his meats are trim, high quality and full-flavored. Side dishes are also first-rate. Regular dinners are served with smoky baked beans, creamy potato salad or cole slaw. Soul dinners offer collard greens, black-eyed peas and dirty rice. The price is reasonable. He sells his fabulous chopped pork sandwich for only 99 cents before 7 p.m. He even smokes his own duck.
It’s a small place, really, with just a few tables put in as an afterthought. But the traffic never stops. Neither does Carl, who will keep you entertained with profound patter. “Mesquite?” “A town in Arizona or somewhere.”
Bryan County’s Saloon, a.k.a. The Texas Rib Joint, 10916 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 474-4263.
I enjoyed the taste of the foods here as well as in any barbecue house in Los Angeles. The food here is Texan, and served in cast-iron skillets. Befitting Texas is the best sliced beef in town, thick cut, lean, burnt-edged and flavored with smoke. The spicy sauce served
on the side is also excellent. It is not overly hot, but complex and sophisticated, with a stinging bite.
As soon as you are seated in the all-wood dining room with its Western paintings and Navajo wall rugs, you catch a whiff of wonderful hot links of beef, served as an appetizer and seemingly on every table. Beans taste like cumin and hickory, and the corn bread and peach cobbler are without equal in this area. Drinks are served in mason jars, and the atmosphere, like Texas itself, positively reeks of excess. Seconds, please.
Ribs U.S.A., 2711 W. Olive Ave., Burbank, (818) 841-8872.
This unassuming place has walls decorated with American patriotic paraphernalia. Owner Mike Pikkel inherited a brick oven from Robbie’s Rib Cage, the former occupant of the building, and in it he uses assorted hard woods like plum, pecan, and maple. Pikkel doesn’t use timers or set recipes but relies rather on his own sense of taste, often cooking meats for up to 24 hours. Sauce is “mopped on” in the barbecue and the meats tend to be on the sweet side. Ribs are smoked and barbecued on the premises, while chicken, porterhouse steak and ham are simply barbecued.
There are interesting dishes like Cajun barbecued garlic shrimp, and they’ve just added smoked prime rib. They also have 25 imported beers to go with a moderate wine list. The only flaws are frozen corn cobettes and lackluster baked beans. Seek refuge in a platter of the onion rings. They’d bring anybody back. (Prices are a bit upscale here, but compared with most of these places, so is the neighborhood.)
Mr. Jim’s, 10303 S. Avalon Blvd., 3809 and 5403 S. Vermont Ave., 1958 W. Florence Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 731-5453.
The famous slogan, “You need no teeth to eat Mr. Jim’s beef,” is true, I’m happy to report. Beef is the best thing to eat here, tender, juicy and smothered in a sauce spiked through and through with cumin seed. Hot links are salt and peppery, and side dishes are wonderful, with a creamy cole slaw, unctuous potato salad and stewed baked beans that glisten with smoky drippings from the meats. The ribs here are a bit tough, especially the beef ribs; I’d stick with Jim’s sliced beef and hot links.
Mr. Jim’s also has sumptuous sweet potato pie, mushy, rich and swimming with butter. This is food to be eaten in the car, with the radio blaring away on a hot summer day. Bring lots of napkins.
Dr. Hogly Wogly’s Tyler, Texas Bar-B-Cue, 8136 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys; (818) 780-6701.
With a name like this, it has to be good. It is. This place resembles a roadhouse filled with men and women who look like they’re auditioning for “The Dukes of Hazzard.” There are lines out the door and service is snappy, so be prepared to recite your order crisply. If you don’t, the waitress may disappear until you get it right. Mine did.
Food here is authentic Texas, and that means beef brisket, sliced, soft and ready to soak up giant quantities of the Dr.'s excellent sauces: a hot sauce with real snap and a sweet one with a vinegary tang. Hot links here are made from pork, which any Texan would brand as heresy, but they taste homemade and are hard to resist. Beans get a blue ribbon. Good cole slaw too.
Rosie’s, 16346 Ventura Blvd., Encino, and 9012 Tampa, Northridge; (818) 995-6500.
Not a barbecue joint, exactly, but a full-scale restaurant that happens to serve grilled meats. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I had a great time.
The dining room is cavernous, with a new Southwestern decor and a large outdoor patio for those who fancy Ventura Boulevard. The meal is dominated by an international salad bar: Moroccan carrots, Indian rice, Swedish dilled pasta and even Greek salad. Waiters are young, cute and unflinchingly pleasant.
Meats are slow-cooked over mesquite, or so it says on the menu. They are not the real drawing card. Beef ribs are difficult to prepare, but the one I ate was tough and greasy. Pork fares much better, especially the spicy Southern spareribs that burn from assorted peppers. Don’t miss a wonderful combination called “homemade potato chips and shredded onions.”
Hungry Al’s, 7409 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 750-0956.
Hungry Al’s, located deep in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles, has sawdust-covered floors and long, wooden tables. Owner Al Carline is from Louisiana, and he likes it hot. Al’s hot sauce gives no quarter: It’s thick, rich and full of tomato and cayenne pepper, just like you’d find on the bayou. Even Al’s mild sauce has a peppery punch to it. Nothing here is for sissies.
Carline uses oak exclusively in the smoking and cooking process, and his meats taste distinctively of it. His dinners are huge, and all his meats are meaty and tender. Small ends (pork ribs from the end of the rack, where it comes to a point) are sublime, cooked until the meat falls off the bone. Beef ribs are soft and lean. Accompaniments like mushy cole slaw, saucy baked beans and a tangy potato salad are better than average. Desserts are made on the premises, and include a moist, fluffy lemon cake. Obey the sign that reads “Your mother doesn’t work here, so please pick up after yourself,” but don’t fall for it. Somebody’s mom is hiding in this kitchen.
Benny’s Bar-B-Que, 4077 Lincoln Blvd., Marina del Rey; (213) 821-6939.
Mom isn’t even hiding at this tiny take-out, which has the delicious luxury of being located directly across the street from a firewood dealer. Mom is Milissa Jones, a.k.a. Benny, and her food, cooked and smoked in a brick pit without a whisper of modern technology, is terrific. Finally, you can experience a real homemade hot link, crumbly, and toothsome, not the processed, lifeless product of an industrial press. Benny even serves burnt ends swimming in a pool of her lively sauce. These little bits of heaven are the ends of the brisket.
Benny’s sauce, incidentally, has a nose of cumin seed and mustard, with a burnt, sugary finish.
The biggest bargain here are turkey legs, sold by the piece and richly filling, but the side dishes are also a bargain. Sweet, tiny, baked beans hide little bits of meat in every forkful. Cole slaw has just the right balance. Their potato pie is flavorful and the help is friendly and patient. They even deliver.
Village Bar-B-Que, 11334 Moorpark St., Studio City, (818) 980-RIBS.
Village Bar-B-Que uses an electric oven with hickory chips that throw off smoke, thereby flavoring the meats. Technically, this is not barbecue, but I would never have known the difference had co-owner Bob Levey not shown me the oven. The restaurant is bright and airy, with a railroad-depot motif. Chicken is the real standout here, perhaps the best in the area, with a fine hickory flavor. Pork ribs are also quite tasty, although a bit on the fatty side. Teeth are required for the beef ribs.
The popular hot links come from the same purveyor used by many restaurants; they are good in a generic sort of way. The standard sauce here is not of great depth, and rather on the sweet side. The house hot sauce isn’t. Caution is unnecessary.
Leo’s, 2619 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 733-1186.
This modest take-out has enjoyed a top-flight reputation for more than 20 years, thanks to the good cooking of Oklahoman Leo Carter and his wife, Dorothy. There are no tables at all, just a walk-up window, so plan to eat in a park or a favorite location.
Leo’s meats come bathed in large quantities of his excellent sauce, which alone is reason to make the trip. Leo’s medium sauce would be called hot by many people, and his hot sauce may be the hottest in Los Angeles. Lean, juicy sliced pork and agonizingly tender chicken are a good complement to the sauces, but also superlative are the meaty, zesty rib dinners, which come accompanied by a rather nondescript cup of baked beans and a cole slaw that’s on the tart side. Also worth a try are Leo’s desserts, especially a warmed pecan pie.