RESTAURANTS : Papa's Is Right-On 'Cue, Santa Maria-Style

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Ask 10 Americans to define barbecue and chances are you'll get 10 different answers. In South Carolina, barbecue means pale yellow pork shoulder marinated in mustard and honey. Texans get misty-eyed talking about beef brisket spiked with cumin. Even Hawaii has a smart answer, thanks to an exotically smoky wood called kiawe .

Around here barbecue can be anything--chicken, ahi, vegetables, pizza--as long as it's grilled over a desert shrub called mesquite. But up on the Central Coast, the natives prefer Santa Maria-style barbecue, eaten with a chunky, peppery tomato salsa.

The concept is beautifully simple. To qualify for the pit in this style, meats have to be slowly marinated in salt, pepper and garlic before being roasted, without basting, over a bed of red oak embers. Try it at home, if you don't mind getting smoke on your apron. The flavors are terrific.

Or better yet, come to Long Beach, the local capital of Santa Maria barbecue, and drop in on Louis Leppo, alias Papa. Leppo has just relocated and expanded his restaurant, Papa's Western Barbecue. He prepares the best Santa Maria-style 'cue I've ever tasted.

Leppo is a Santa Maria native and former truck driver who started a catering business during the '70s. Eventually he found himself cooking for the Rams, the Raiders and the Dodgers, and the athletes couldn't get enough of his prime rib, tri-tip sirloin and darkly stained chicken. Leppo's barbecue buddy Tom Lasorda helped convince him to move down here. (Lasorda, himself a restaurateur, is something of a fixture at Papa's, dropping by at least once a week.)

Papa's recently moved about one mile up PCH from its original location to the cavernous A-frame that once housed Jay's Deli. The rooms have been completely remodeled. The front, now a replica of a Western saloon, is the best vantage point for watching meats as they dry-smoke over an open fire. Peek in at the pit man through a tiny glass window, if you like. But don't stand there too long. You'll be tempted to order everything you see.

The main dining area is a huge room with comfy, Leatherette booths. Decor pays homage to the set of "Hee-Haw." Look up and you'll see bales of hay hooked to the ceiling and farm equipment such as sickles and yokes suspended from the walls. Look down and there's a shiny parquet floor, the kind you'd square dance on. Expect to hear the music of Merle Travis, Tanya Tucker and other country artists.

Before you order, you should know about poquito beans. These small, round beans--a cross between pinto and red beans--are essential to a real Santa Maria-style feast. Leppo has them trucked down from his native turf especially for his restaurant, where he stews them with chunked beef and spices. They are even better when eaten with the chunky house salsa.

On Friday and Saturday, Leppo cooks up smoky, tender prime rib. The meat is tender and surprisingly juicy, given the way oak tends to dry out meat. Papa's cut, a full 22 ounces, is big enough for a growing linebacker. I'm less taken with the menu's mainstay, the tri-tip sirloin, but only because I'm not fond of the way the kitchen serves it cut up into crusty little chunks.

Chicken is really wonderful here. The meat is so soft it falls off the bone, the skin is the color of stained walnut and there's an almost herbal aftertaste from red oak coals. One more delicious item is linguica, a sweet, salty Portuguese sausage that's usually pretty greasy. Not here--the dry cooking allows much of the fat to drip out. Wrapped in a flour tortilla with salsa, this sausage becomes a world-class snack.

Naturally, there are ribs--pork ribs, beef ribs and the centerpiece, baby backs. You can try all three for $13.95 by ordering a dish called combo ribs, a trencherman's portion. The meats are tasty, but perhaps because this style of barbecue doesn't involve basting with a sauce, they are somewhat dry and chewy. Personally, I'd like these ribs more if they were more tender.

Salads--served in big flat pie tins--are also a kick here, thanks to the restaurant's fresh croutons and dressings. You get a Lazy Susan of the blue, Italian and Thousand Island dressings. I like to mix the blue cheese (secret ingredient: goat cheese) with the near-perfect Italian, made with just the right amount of vinegar; I'm told true aficionados of Santa Maria barbecue like to mix all three. The chicken salad is one of the few light items here, loaded with smoky chicken meat.

The new Papa's is open daily for breakfast, and that's a stroke of luck. These are hearty, country-style breakfasts, worth the drive from anywhere in Orange County. My choice is pork chops and eggs, served with salsa, a fluffy homemade biscuit and thick sausage gravy. But order any of the meats (bacon, thick ham steak, tri-tip or sausage) and you also get a wonderfully heavy side of country spuds, diced potatoes fried up with crisped bits of onion, red pepper and crumbled linguica) .

Add in the giveaway 25-cent cup of coffee and the good, homemade flapjacks, and you've got reasons to come here for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You don't have to smell like smoke when you leave, either.

Papa's Western Barbecue is moderately priced. Appetizers are $1.95 to $12.95. Lunches are $6.95 to $7.45. Dinners are $10.95 to $22.95.


* 5305 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach.

* (310) 597-4212.

* Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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