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RESTAURANT REVIEW : The Confessions of a Dedicated Grill Watcher

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Because this summer has been so cool I haven’t done much cooking outdoors. I’m not complaining about the weather, mind you, but with a hint of fall in the morning air lately, I’ve felt a slight restlessness, a sense of having missed out. Summer’s nearly over and I haven’t had my seasonal quota of barbecue.

I can’t say I’m an expert on barbecue, mostly because I’m continuously surprised at what barbecue turns out to be. I grew up in the ‘50s on barbecued spare ribs--in what was essentially smoke-flavored ketchup. After college, when I lived in North Carolina, I was astounded to find that barbecue was hickory-cooked pork roast, chopped up and served unsauced on a bun with a wad of coleslaw.

Back in Altadena, I found barbecue was wood-cooked meat smothered under a candy-sweet, fiery-hot tomato paste. In a Cajun restaurant, I’ve had dry-cooked ribs with a crust of pepper and spices with about a tablespoon of sauce on the side as a concession to those who insist on sauce with barbecue.

In the central part of this state, barbecue often means tri-tip roasts cooked in portable barbecues made from oil drums. Sauce, no sauce; bones, no bones; hickory, oak--I’ve never decided where I stand in the barbecue debates, although the best barbecue I remember was a heap of beef ribs I bought at a Baptist church.

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The ribs, cooked out on the sidewalk one Sunday for charity, were crisp, juicy and spicy; the sauce was moderate in quantity and blistering hot.

To remedy this summer’s deficiency, I took a friend to Harry’s Open Pit Barbecue, which is celebrating its grand opening on the corner of Sunset and Formosa. Over the years, there have been Harry’s Open Pit Barbecues in Chicago, Los Angeles, Hollywood, Westwood and Studio City, but this new one on Sunset is the only one presently in operation.

We parked in the rear of the funky little A-frame take-out structure, and as we walked around to the front, we looked into a small fenced area and saw a good supply of sizable logs, cut and split. All the meat at Harry’s is cooked with wood.

There is one huge enclosed grill and one smaller one; both are filled with racks of ribs, whole chickens, brisket, hot links, turkey legs. You can see the wood fires, about the size of a respectable campfire, burning away inside the stainless-steel ovens under the grills.

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Harry’s has a rustic look and smell. There are river rock walls and the floor looks like flat slices of shimmery granite. Although the barbecue is done in an enclosed grill under an enormous hood, I found if I stood between the front and rear dining areas, the place smelled like a fall day camping in the woods; that lovely smell of wood smoke and sputtering meat. This is not what one normally expects to smell in downtown Hollywood, especially not on an unsavory stretch of Sunset Boulevard right across from a strip joint advertising “Total Nude” and “Girls Girls Girls.”

We put in our order, which is easier said than done. There are sandwiches, two lunch menus ($3.95 and $5.95), dinners (available at lunchtime), and a la carte selections. Lunches and sandwiches include a choice of two side dishes; dinners include corn and potatoes and a choice of two side dishes. With all the side dishes and distinctions between lunches, dinner, sandwiches and a la carte, we invariably became confused and never did get exactly what we ordered, or thought we ordered.

As we waited for our food, we observed the steady stream of Harry’s customers. Most carried the food out, but some sat and ate their ribs and juicy sandwiches, going through many napkins, licking their fingers, refilling their big plastic tumblers at the drink machine. As we sat, we ate good garlicky pickles, which sit out on the counter in a big plastic jar marked “FREE.” Boisterous jazz played at a comfortable volume, punctuated by the occasional whack-whack-whack of ribs being cut.

I wouldn’t say that Harry’s is the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten, but it’s pretty darn basic and good. The ancient process of slow-wood-cooking makes meat juicy and tender and hauntingly flavorful. Harry’s sauce, however, tends to dominate; it is on the sweet side, with a good broad hint of cayenne, but only a hint. Huge-sized bottles of Tabasco and free green chiles are available as heat supplements.

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I loved the sliced barbecued beef sandwich; the meat was tender and smoky and easy to eat on a French roll. Ribs, both pork and beef, were rich and fatty and required more hands-on involvement and many napkins. The chicken is juicy. The hot links are spicy and especially good with Harry’s sauce.

The green salad is made with good leaf lettuce, the white bread is a length of baguette, the lemonade has real lemons in it and is neither too strong nor too sweet. We found ourselves full long before our plates were emptied.

For the next few days, at odd and various hours, I found myself standing at the refrigerator gnawing on a cold rib, happy to have an emergency supply of barbecue to satisfy my restlessness.

Harry’s Open Pit Barbecue, 7181 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 969-9186. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., Friday and Saturday until 4 a.m., Sunday until midnight. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$46.

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