Just west of Chinatown, a paltry couple of blocks up Figueroa from the towers of downtown, hickory smoke coils in the air. A double-length oil drum barbecue that shows years of heavy use is doing up rib racks, chickens and briskets by the pile at the Original Texas Barbecue King.
I can't speak for Chinatown, but downtown needs the Original Texas Barbecue King. It needs a Southern barbecue with a fax number so that smoky barbecue dinners can be delivered to those high-rise office buildings. You have to work down here to appreciate how desperately necessary that can be.
Mostly, of course, the Texas King does sit-down and takeout business on the premises, a plain building surrounded by a low red and white cinder-block wall at the corner of Figueroa Street and Sunset Boulevard. The place has a respectable-sized parking lot for this part of town, but you may have to drive around a bit if its 14 spots are taken. (Note: At drive time, this stretch of Figueroa is a Pasadena Freeway on-ramp.) You dine at outdoor tables with umbrellas or in a garage-like room decorated with exercise equipment, sports posters, photos of musicians such as MC Eiht and a big-screen TV, usually tuned to a sports channel.
In the kitchen you can see people flipping things around on grill burners. This might make you think the smoke-blackened oil drum barbecue, which sits just outside the door of the dining room, is mostly for show. Actually, every piece of meat is cooked on the drum barbecue. The grills inside are just for warming up or finishing off what's already been smoked.
There are pork ribs, of course, tender and meaty, with the high hickory smokiness of everything at this place, but the first item I ever had here, the one that made me decide to come back and try everything on the menu, was the beef brisket. It hasn't always been as good as it was that first day, but at its best it's supernal, beefy and juicy, an apotheosis of sweet hickory smoke. The meat has been smoked so long it's reddish for almost a quarter of an inch from the surface.
The barbecued chicken (called "smoked chicken" on the menu) is always wonderfully moist, and you can get it by the whole or half bird, as a two-piece order or in a sandwich. There are also drummettes, well-smoked and particularly messy to eat. (The menu says you can ask for a bib.) A sampler basket of chicken, ribs, brisket and grainy, medium-hot beef or chicken links is $10.95.
The baby back ribs are lean but less juicy than the regular ribs. The smoked turkey breast, like the back ribs, seems to be here for people who are avoiding fat, so it's a little dry, though very good smoked turkey. Sometimes a rib tip special is written on a board by the ordering window. It's a bargain, but it does mean chewing on a whole lot of bones and possibly some intensive toothpick work when you're done.
All the barbecue items come in a mild, tangy sauce that tastes as if one of the secret ingredients is peach preserves. If you want your food hotter, splash on some bottled pepper sauce.
You also get a fresh roll and a choice of two sides. The best is the French fries, generally cooked good and brown, rich with sizzling potato fragrance. The rather liquid barbecue beans come with plenty of the fruity, sweet-sour barbecue sauce. Collard greens, with a plush texture and an earthy collard flavor, are cooked with odds and ends of barbecued ham. There are sizable nuggets of melted cheese in the macaroni and cheese.
The potato salad and garden salad are standard issue; the only boring side is the scarcely dressed coleslaw. Maybe it's intended for weight watchers.
All barbecued meats except the ribs and the drummettes are also available as sandwiches. But when you talk sandwich here, the first thing you'd better talk about is the hamburger. This is a one-third-pound burger with a patty that overlaps the bun about a quarter of an inch all around. It's a major burger and one of the smokiest in town. The double burger, two-thirds of a pound of meat, must be for very serious eaters.
A pork tenderloin sandwich is constructed along the same lines as the burger (but doubtless lower in calories), as is a ham sandwich of even more impressive smokiness, often appealingly browned from the grill. The link sausage has some barbecue sauce on it. The hot dog has only the usual mustard and relish, but how often do you get a hickory-smoked hot dog?
The menu also lists chili and tamales, but I've never found them available. Maybe there was just no way to smoke them.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
WHERE TO GO
The Original Texas Barbecue King, 867 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 617-2550; fax (213) 617-1599. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. All major credit cards. No alcohol. Takeout; local area delivery. Parking lot. Lunch for two, food only, $6-$22.
WHAT TO GET
Hamburger, Texas-style ribs, brisket, ham sandwich, smoked chicken, French fries, greens.