Back ribs basted in L.A. sensibility

Special to The Times

OUR first week in Los Angeles, a neighbor invited us over for barbecue. For a couple of 'cue junkies fresh from Texas by way of North Carolina, this was a sure sign we had landed in the right place. We didn't care whether barbecue in L.A. meant dry-rubbed beef brisket (this Southwestern gal's favorite), pulled pork with vinegar sauce (my Southern husband's true love) or a mix of beef and pork with sweet tomato sauce (those Midwestern folks care more about the sauce than the type of meat). When it came to barbecue, we loved it all.

The excitement for our first taste in L.A. was building. We arrived at our neighbor's house, noses ready to sniff out uncharted territory. Would it be beef brisket or pork butt? Sauced or dry? Mopped, marinated, or rubbed?

It was none of the above. Barbecue means something else entirely on the West Coast. Here, it means something grilled -- burgers, steaks, fish -- anything cooked outdoors.

In our world, barbecue is smoked for hours over low, slow heat. It's all about the crust, charred just this side of black, with that telltale pink smoke ring just beneath the surface. Inside awaits a juicy, chin-dribbling mess of meat that invariably winds up smeared on your face, in your fingernails, and if it's really good, all over your clothes. When napkins become futile, you've found the real deal.

With nothing but grilled burgers in sight and serious withdrawals, we had to do something. So we decided to cook up a mess of barbecue ourselves.

One problem: We'd never made barbecue, or smoked anything for that matter. So we read a few books. And we talked to friends back home (none of whom had ever smoked meat, but they still had plenty of advice). It didn't sound so hard.

We assembled our smoking arsenal: a kettle grill, charcoal, several bags of wood chunks and baby back ribs. Crammed between the grill and the clutter on our small apartment balcony, we built a charcoal fire and loaded it with soaked wood chunks (for a longer, consistent smoke). Once we got the wood smoking, we threw on the baby backs, closed the lid and waited.

A couple hours later, the ribs were done -- very well done. Imagine a marshmallow thrown onto a campfire, engulfed in flame until it turns into blackened, inedible ash.

But this was a quest, so we pressed on. We learned to regulate the grill's heat by changing the quantity of wood. Just the right amount promised constant smoke at a low enough temperature for several hours of slow cooking. By summer's end, we'd mastered baby backs, graduating to pork butt and beef brisket.

But something was missing. Our barbecue was tender, juicy even, but not toe-curling good. We needed a longer, slower smoke, but we'd hit a wall.

Deep down, we knew a smoker was the answer. But they tend to be big, meant for backyards, not balconies. And they can run more than $1,000. We didn't want that kind of commitment.

Then we found the Silver Smoker. It was a real beauty -- a single-barrel model with a roomy side firebox big enough to hold small logs. The offset smokestack pulled smoke through the metal cooking chamber for even, slow cooking. Best of all, it wasn't much bigger than a 10-speed bike, so it fit on our balcony. But would a smoker really make that much difference in our barbecue?

At only $160, we could afford to give it a test run.

My husband assembled the smoker in one hour flat, incredible speed for a man who once threw away a brand-new grill, claiming a screw was missing. Take note: Barbecue is a powerful motivator.

Once assembled, we needed fuel, and lots of it. The hickory and mesquite chunks we'd been using on the grill worked just fine, but the smoker was a wood guzzler. Feeding a smoker expensive wood chunks seemed counter to the whole idea of smoking cheap cuts of meat. Surely we could find firewood in L.A. suitable for smoking.

Hickory, the Southern favorite, and mesquite, a Texas cattleman's preference, are difficult to find in Southern California. For a while we carted wood home from cross-country family visits, but for some reason airport security didn't always take kindly to our boxes of firewood.

We hunted around L.A., but hickory and mesquite logs, when you can find them, are mostly sold with the bark. Bark is fine on a grill, but after hours of smoking it gives meat a bitter flavor. The thought of chopping bark from logs sounded a little too Grizzly Adams, so we kept looking.

Then we met Fred Vanacore, owner of Hollywood Firewood. We'd heard he supplies wood for Campanile's grills, so we had to check out his outfit.

Pull up in front of his place on a quiet North Hollywood side street, and you're greeted by a chain link fence and a mailbox, no sign or driveway even. But you can't miss the stacks and stacks of wood piled 12 feet high and half a block long. Give a holler and a salesperson will appear from the shack out back. You can buy as little as a wheelbarrow full of wood here. In the wood world, that's nothing. For us, it would barely fit on our balcony.

Don't expect hickory or mesquite here. Vanacore specializes in fruitier woods, such as almond and plum, as well as oak and walnut, all sold with their bark. We left with a carload of almond wood, even though it's not a traditional choice for a smoker. But it's readily available in California, so we figured it was worth a shot. And almond bark is very thin, so we hoped bitterness wouldn't be a problem.

On the way home we picked up a couple of baby backs and a pork butt. We rubbed the meat, soaked the logs, and built a charcoal fire to get the firebox going.

The almond wood was bigger than anything we'd ever used (funny how things look small until you get them home). We put the wood in the firebox on top of hot coals, and the smoker started puffing clouds of smoke. With the meat cooking, we popped open a few cold beers and waited.

When a smoky haze settled over our apartment complex, we knew the moment of reckoning was here. Smoky and tender, the ribs fell apart before they hit our plates. The pork butt shredded in our fingers, juicy nuggets of meat beneath charred, crispy skin. This was the real deal.

We put on our sauce-stained paper hats, saved from a favorite rib restaurant in Memphis. Then we raised our beers, toasting the smoker (and the pit masters). But as we ate in silence, licking our fingers, we couldn't help but think that maybe the almond wood was the secret. Or maybe we just liked the idea that a little bit of California had rubbed off on two down-home 'cue fans.

Silver Smoker by Char-Broil is available at select Home Depot stores and at www.homedepot.com. $159.

Almond wood is available at Hollywood Firewood, 12915 Raymer St., North Hollywood; (818) 503-6223. About $27 for a wheelbarrow full. Call in advance and leave a message -- hours in summer vary, but they do return calls.

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Barbecue baby back ribs

Total time: 1 hour, plus 4 to 5 hours smoking time, plus soaking time for wood

Servings: 6

Note: From Kevin Garbee. Almond wood logs are available at Hollywood Firewood. Hickory and mesquite chunks are available at many barbecue and gardening stores such as Home Depot and California Charcoal & Firewood.

Dry rub

1/3 cup kosher salt

1 1/2 tablespoons freshly cracked pepper

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon mustard powder

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

In a bowl, combine the salt, pepper, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne pepper, mustard powder and coriander, reserving 1 tablespoon for the mop.

Mop

1 tablespoon dry rub

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon ketchup

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup homemade or your favorite commercial barbecue sauce

In a jar with a lid, combine the dry rub, vinegar, ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce and shake well until combined. Makes one-half cup.

Ribs

3 (2 to 2 1/2 pound) racks of baby back pork ribs

1 recipe dry rub

1 recipe mop

1. Soak 5 to 6 almond logs (with bark) or hickory or mesquite logs (without bark) in a bucket filled with water. Choose the largest logs that will fit in your smoker firebox (about 12 to 14 inches long for the Silver Smoker). If you do not have logs, you can use hickory or mesquite chunks. You will need 15 to 20 chunks, depending on the size of the chunks. Soak for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours.

2. On the underside of the ribs, remove the silverskin (whitish membrane) covering the ribs. Using a sharp knife, wriggle the knife beneath the silverskin, starting next to a bone. Pull off the silverskin from entire rack (if it breaks, start pulling it off from next rib bone, working your way through the entire rack).

3. Sprinkle the remaining dry rub evenly onto all 3 racks, front and back; rub thoroughly into the meat.

4. In the smoker's offset firebox, build a charcoal pyramid with about 20 briquettes. Light the charcoal. When all the charcoal has caught on fire, use long tongs to spread the briquettes in a single layer on the bottom of the firebox. Place 3 soaked logs (2 if they are large) on top of the charcoal. When the wood has caught, close the firebox, leaving the firebox vent halfway to oxygenate fire.

5. Let smoke for 10 minutes, then put the ribs on the cooking chamber grates. Close the cooking chamber lid and the open smokestack halfway. Smoke for 4 to 5 hours, basting with the mop hourly. Add a soaked log as needed, checking hourly, to maintain constant smoke at about 200 to 250 degrees. (Check the temperature with a grill thermometer the first few times you smoke. Eventually you will be able to gauge doneness by the quantity of smoke.)

6. The ribs are ready when they are blackened and the meat shrinks from the bone slightly. (The ribs should be so tender that they will bend in half between the bones when lifted from the grill with tongs.)

7. Break the racks in half between the bones and serve with your favorite barbecue sauce on the side, if desired.

Each serving: 845 calories; 55 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 67 grams fat; 25 grams saturated fat; 265 mg. cholesterol; 1,806 mg. sodium.

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