Los Angeles BBQ history lives on through Kevin Bludso’s incredible brisket, ribs, oxtail
Oxtail birria tacos, vegan gombo, soothing tofu, political crudités and vegetable trays. I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, in for Bill Addison with this week’s Tasting Notes.
Respect for L.A. barbecue
Kevin Bludso sits at the back of his Bludso’s Bar & Cue between the lunch and dinner rushes on a weekday afternoon, talking about the rich history of Los Angeles’ barbecue traditions, from the places that fed early jazz musicians and aficionados drawn to the scene on Central Avenue to legacy places: Woody’s, Phillips, Leo’s, Gadberry’s, Mr. Jim’s and so many more. Bludso insists that Los Angeles doesn’t get enough credit for how influential it’s been. “We had barbecue people who go back 30, 60 years from everywhere, Memphis, Arkansas, Kansas City,” says the master pitmaster and TV cooking show host and judge (“Fire Masters,” “The American Barbecue Showdown”). “Woody Phillips just passed away, but his restaurants are still here and I’m trying to get him into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Every show I do, I fight for L.A. barbecue.”
These days, Bludso, Compton born and raised, spends more time at his lakeside home in Texas, where he used to spend summers as a kid with the great aunt he called Granny and learned the barbecue way of life. But on this day, he is back in L.A., checking in on his La Brea Avenue restaurant and prepping for a special Saturday-night oxtail dinner.
As we talk, Bludso’s executive chef, Jimmy Weathersbee, presents a gorgeous tray of brisket, pork-spiked collard greens and mac ’n’ cheese with a magnificent crust. With him is Stanley Hernandez, a 22-year-old pitmaster in training who rose to his position from dishwasher. Hernandez was able to spend some quality time with Bludso earlier, and wants to thank him before his shift ends. “He’s got the touch,” Bludso says. “And he wants to learn.”
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When it comes to barbecue, Bludso looks back and ahead, trying to keep the tradition going into the next generation.
A few days later, I’m back at Bludso’s for the dinner event where oxtail is served four ways — traditional Southern, Jamaican jerk, smoked curry and even birria-style in a taco. “I love oxtails. I love birria. So this is my twist, which puts them all together but also smokes the oxtails,” he says in the introduction to his oxtail birria recipe in his “Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook,” which came out this year. “Come on, it’s a no-brainer.”
The place is packed with Bludso’s family, friends and regular customers, who all have different answers when he comes around to their tables and asks which oxtail style they like best. In addition to the oxtail, I’m drawn to his spicy Creole cabbage, which I’m happy to discover later is in the new cookbook along with stories of his childhood as the son of a police officer and “Black Panther-supporting mother.” The book also includes a defense of his hometown (and site of his first barbecue restaurant) called “What Everybody Has Wrong About Compton.”
Weathersbee, who is the chef who ensures the food meets and exceeds Bludso’s high standards, hears the raves for the Creole cabbage, pauses a moment and says, “I think we’re going to have to put that on the menu.”
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Does vegan gombo go with fried chicken?
Here at the L.A. Times, most of us are still working from home, getting together with colleagues when we can over lunch, coffee and occasionally having meetings at one another’s homes — as we did earlier this week at Food Editor Daniel Hernandez’s place. Waiting for the staff’s return is the beautiful new Times Test Kitchen, which we are slowly starting to inhabit. Ben Mims and Julie Giuffrida have begun testing recipes and doing photo shoots in the kitchen, and we’ve started to invite chefs into the kitchen to demonstrate recipes.
Among the first to bring his restaurant cooking into the kitchen was Alta Adams chef Keith Corbin, who will be the featured author at Tuesday’s L.A. Times Book Club, in conversation about his new memoir, “California Soul,” with Hernandez. Jervey Tervalon talked with Corbin about growing up surrounded by tragedy and violence, and finding cooking as a way out. And, in The Times Test Kitchen as he made a vividly flavored “vegan gombo” — red miso paste takes the place of roux — I talked with Corbin about what “California Soul” cooking means to him.
“California soul food?” he said. “We took a cuisine that has been around for a long time and reframed it. That means a lot because when I think back about my enslaved ancestors, before they were brought here, they cooked what they grew, they cooked what was around them, they cooked what they caught, they cooked what was in season. So we focus on what California produces while following the diaspora from West Africa through the Caribbean, through the South.”
This week’s must-try restaurant: n/soto
Bill Addison’s review this week focuses on n/soto, the more affordable izakaya-inspired sequel to Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama’s Michelin two-star n/naka. I like that Addison discusses why “fewer restaurants bill themselves these days as izakayas,” eating and drinking establishments that in some people’s minds “can belie the finesse of cooking.” But he points out that n/soto, like Echo Park’s Tsubaki, “zeroes in on a truer essence of izakaya.” I had the chance to eat at the restaurant last week and agree with Addison that “meeting n/soto on its own terms can lead to a series of engaging, intricate delights.”
One of the best dishes: n/naka’s tofu. “No warm batch,” Addison writes, “is quite the same as the next — some arrive set to the edges of the small ceramic pot, some more pleasantly milky — but the dish’s effect always soothes.”
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Food Bowl ready to launch
The nearly complete schedule for this year’s L.A. Times Food Bowl, a month of cool events for food-obsessed Angelenos, came out this week. Among the highlights is the Night Market at Paramount Pictures Studios, taking place over three days, with one night devoted to barbecue, including a BBQ Burger Block Party, as well as a Saturday-night dumpling crawl with Jenn Harris previewing Season 2 of “The Bucket List.” I’m also excited about the dinner inside artist Glenn Kaino’s “A Forest for the Trees” exhibit from Minh Phan’s Phenakite (winner of last year’s Restaurant of the Year).
‘Dirty’ chicken and caramelized duck
Stephanie Breijo has details of new restaurant openings, including Josiah Citrin’s Augie’s on Main, in which the Mélisse chef gets casual with “dirty chicken” — baked Jidori chicken coated in panko, preserved lemon and confit garlic. Also opening is Mr. T’s, from Paris chef Tsuyoshi Miyazaki and featuring uni rice with confit egg yolk as well as caramelized duck.
Of crudités, veggie trays and grocery store scanners
No matter who you are inclined to support in the Pennsylvania Senate race between Dr. Mehmet Oz and the state’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, it seems clear that in the battle between team crudité and team veggie tray, most are going with veggie tray. Oz first posted his rant against the high cost of crudités in April and was mocked for his odd vegetable shopping and beverage pairing. “Guys, that’s $20 for crudité and this doesn’t include the tequila,” he said. Earlier this week Fetterman revived crudité fever when he tweeted, “In PA we call this a ... veggie tray” and later offered to make “let them eat crudité” stickers. On Wednesday, Oz addressed the issue by saying he was “exhausted.”
It all brought to mind other political food gaffes, such as Cynthia Nixon ordering a cinnamon-raisin bagel with lox and capers when she was running for governor of New York, and George H.W. Bush’s amazement at a grocery store scanner, leading many to believe that the elder Bush had not recently entered a supermarket. But as it turns out, Bush may have been unfairly criticized. According to a 2018 AP story, “Reporters later learned that it was a special scanner with advanced features, including a scale to weigh produce — uncommon then — and the ability to read barcodes even if they were torn up and jumbled. ... Marlin Fitzwater, Bush’s press secretary, devoted four angry pages to the incident in his memoir [and] called the AP story knocking down the [original] version ‘the single most courageous story of my White House years.’”
It's a date
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