Review: Is this the best barbecue brisket in Los Angeles?
A staffer behind the counter at Slab Barbecue plunks down a mass wrapped in thick, crinkled butcher paper. He unwraps the package, his gloves now slick with grease, and lifts out a blackened lobe of brisket. Then, knife in hand, he poses a universal question of brisket — certainly one spoken by barbecue practitioners all over the country who’ve been gripped by the wonders of Texas-style meats. He asks: “Do you want fatty or lean?”
A little of each, please. From the brisket’s point (also known as the deckle) he carves a couple of slices downright glistening with rendered fat; from the leaner flat he saws off slivers with tighter crosshatch grains, though the brisket’s fat cap has been kept intact so the edges stay glossy. Coarse black pepper coats the smirched bark; a thin garnet ring loops just underneath the surface. There’s a trace of vinegar that comes from prepared yellow mustard slathered on before cooking. The textures, particularly on the fatty pieces, jump from creamy to nubbly, crunchy to melting.
This is very good smoked brisket.
Burt Bakman, the pit master behind Slab, spent nearly 10 years perfecting his smoking technique on a Big Green Egg in his Studio City backyard. His primary career had been in real estate; during a conference in Austin he found himself far more consumed with Central Texas barbecue than property sales strategies. In 2016 Bakman began posting about the brisket and ribs he was covertly offering under the Instagram handle Trudy’s Underground Barbecue. His DMs filled; the hordes descended, over and over again. John Terzian, whose Hwood Group runs a dozen bars and restaurants around Los Angeles, would swing by Bakman’s pop-ups for brisket sandwiches; they partnered on Bakman’s small West 3rd Street restaurant, which opened in November 2018.
Slab sits wedged between Vanderpump Dogs, with its unmissable pink exterior, and El Carmen tequila bar. What the restaurant lacks in street presence it makes up for in olfactory magnetism: You can inhale the campfire meat aromas and the distinct twang of simmering collard greens from at least a block away. A few coveted tables outside flank the entrance; the dining room fits a cozy 21 seats. The tiny space manages to squeeze in some natty design elements: handsomely worn leather along the banquette; black hexagonal floor tiles; wallpaper in a diagonal pattern that matches the slanting grain of Douglas fir paneling that lines a perpendicular wall; a curving metal counter painted a vintage shade of turquoise.
Customers order meat by the pound and most sides in one of three sizes. Bakman and his crew fan out brisket slices on paper-lined trays, alongside options of ribs, pulled pork or chicken and brimming containers of sides: collard greens, mac and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw.
Meaty mosaics like the ones Slab composes are irresistibly photogenic. They’ve become fixtures in our social media feeds, part of America’s new era of barbecue, spurred by the opening of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue a decade ago, that emerged in the 2010s: urban, devoted to higher-quality (and thus pricy) meats, experimental and usually hewing to no one strict regional style but with an eye cast on the Lone Star State’s profound, occult beef traditions.
Next to his signature brisket, Bakman’s forte is pork spare ribs: crackly, ruddy, the meat appealingly taut and direct in its smokiness. He also sells consummate baby back ribs sticky with sauce, the pork barely clinging to the bone as is the fashion with this cut. I prefer ribs that involve more tug.
On weekends Bakman sells hulking beef short ribs. I’ve had versions of this Central Texas rite of passage — especially at Franklin and at Louie Mueller in Taylor, Texas — that ate like crème brûlée: the shattering, scorched shell gave way to animal flesh with the trembling texture of pudding. The beef rib I’ve had at Slab was a solid effort, certainly no mind scrambler, but a fun bone-in club of rich, pepper-riddled meat.
Pulled pork, soft and ropy, tends to be under-seasoned. It calls for a squirt of South Carolina-style mustard sauce (tomatoey variations that veer sweet or spicy are also available), but barbecue shouldn’t ever have to lean on sauce for flavor.
Smoked chicken emerges as the underdog of the pack, juicy and fragrant with the mix of California red and white oak that Bakman favors for smoking. It has its place on the pic-ready tray, as does the mac and cheese. In a nod to Texas, Bakman builds his take from a base of queso; it toggles between creamy and custardy. Eat it quickly, before it congeals.
Queso reappears as the first layer of Frito pie. I love the dish out of primal nostalgia; on my stronger days I resist its excesses in favor of collards, brothy and flavored with pork but not overrun by it. Or maybe I stop by solely for a brisket sandwich, dappled with sauce and dressed with cilantro and onions like a taco. Brisket is the restaurant’s center of gravity, the reason Slab exists.
In Los Angeles a recent cadre of barbecue virtuosos — among them Bakman, Andrew Muñoz of Moo’s Craft Barbecue, Adam Perry Lang of APL and Rene “Ray” Ramirez of Ray’s in Huntington Park — have developed their skills and their audience through transient setups: pop-ups, weekly events, under-the-radar gatherings. The excitement when their masterworks are available only in ephemeral settings has drawn curious, voracious crowds.
I note this because during my meals at Slab — lunches and dinners, weekdays and weekends — business has been generally steady, though sometimes quiet. In some towns, I’m certain, there’d be daily lines for Bakman’s brisket trailing down the block. Are the illicit and the fleeting more imperative than the sure thing? That’s a life-size question. Regardless, Slab is worthy of steady love.
Eat your way across L.A.
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