Smoked rib tips? South L.A.'s RibTown BBQ stands apart for Southern-style pit barbecue
It’s a little before noon on a balmy summer Friday when Lonnie Edwards, eyeglasses perched on his nose, lifts the heavy metal lid on Sarah, the 500-gallon black offset smoker he named after his grandmother.
As a plume of white smoke curls into the air, the pitmaster behind RibTown BBQ inspects his handiwork one last time: a few dozen racks of spareribs, soon-to-be pulled pork, chickens, spicy beef hot links and 150 pounds of rib tips.
“This will all be gone in four hours,” he said, nodding to the small mountain of meat. “Every weekend I’m cooking more, every weekend we’re selling out. It’s a good problem to have.”
Thursday through Saturday afternoons, RibTown — made up of Sarah the smoker, a small food trailer spray-painted with a mural of the L.A. skyline, and a handful of patio tables and chairs — sets up in the parking lot of Westside Loan Office, the popular pawnshop and jewelry store in Jefferson Park where Edwards used to work as a security guard.
Edwards, 60, is something of a rising star on the L.A. barbecue scene, even if he doesn’t buy into the idea of a scene in the first place. While other nascent pitmasters like Andrew Muñoz of Moo’s Barbecue and Burt Bakman of Slab have staked their reputation on Texas-style smoked brisket, Edwards has stood out by expressing himself through a different medium.
“The rib tips, I can’t buy enough,” he said, pulling a few of the matchbox-sized morsels from the smoker and tossing them into a foil tray. “People are going crazy for them.”
The knobby, gristle-rich ends of the pork sparerib have long been one of the more underappreciated cuts in the American barbecue canon. They require more effort to pick clean, but they’re also half the cost of ribs and, when prepared right, twice as delicious.
Imagine a chicken wing made out of pork belly and you’ll come close to the visceral pleasure that gnawing on a rib tip provides: fat-marbled meat layered between knuckles of cartilage, broken down by hot smoke until the whole package becomes melting and succulent and quite literally finger-licking-good.
“You’ve got to know what you’re doing with rib tips. Ain’t no room for error. If you don’t move them around, the heat will dry them out like nothing. Cook them too long and they get tough instead of tender,” Edwards said.
RibTown sells its rib tips in 1-pound increments, which might seem like plenty right up to the moment you find yourself mopping the sweet-tangy sauce clean from the foil wrapper.
Edwards, one of the city’s handful of Black pitmasters, was born and raised in Jefferson Park, just around the corner where he now parks his trailer. He credits his devout love of barbecue to his “Auntie Punkin,” an indomitable Texas transplant — and Sarah’s sister-in-law — who lived until she was 98 and was known to cook six racks of ribs crowded onto a tiny charcoal grill at family gatherings.
“She is really the inspiration,” he said. “Just the way she approached cooking, uncomplicated Southern food, no fancy contraptions. She could barbecue on a little piece of nothing, and it would be delicious.”
In Edwards’ neck of the woods, Woody’s Bar-B-Que and Phillip’s Bar-B-Que (founded by Woody’s cousin) have been the standard-bearers for South L.A. barbecue since they debuted in the 1970s. But after decades of hegemony, Edwards saw an opportunity for a newcomer to make a run at the crown.
“Those places are the measuring stick, and I feel we got them beat,” he said. “There’s a real need for barbecue like this around here. We’re showing our passion to the community.”
Despite his family’s Texas roots, Edwards said there’s no regional allegiance to his barbecue, though you could probably parse out a few geographic influences if you tried: a little Memphis here, some St. Louis and Carolina there, a dose of Chicago.
“I tell people it’s Southern pit barbecue, but that’s about it,” he said. “It’s really my own style. I’m a mutt.”
Edwards tends to cook his meats a little hotter (around 250 degrees) and shorter (about five hours) than most, as a way to “break the meat down” and soften its connective tissue, powering the smoker with a mix of oak and applewood to imbue a balanced, sweet smokiness. He makes his own dry seasoning and rubs the meat a full day before smoking.
The sauce? He doctors up supermarket favorite Sweet Baby Ray’s to his taste — adding black coffee, apple cider vinegar and a few secret spices — and serves it warm. Most noticeably, his meat emerges from the smoker purposefully tender in texture, a contrast to the firmer texture often sought in the competitive barbecue circuit.
“When you can pull the bones from the meat, that’s traditional Black barbecue,” he said. “It’s not competition-style, because I’m not trying to win competitions. I’m feeding people.”
Edwards’ wife, Regina, and their son Lorenzo, 29, run the trailer and package takeout orders while he tends the smoker. It’s a family operation. Combo plates packed in heat-warped foam containers are loaded with sides: peppery potato salad flecked with pickle relish, smoky pork-enriched collard greens, vinegary coleslaw, custardy mac and cheese and, of course, the perfunctory slice of white bread.
If you’re lucky you might even snag an order of Regina’s banana pudding or peach cobbler, head-turning desserts that warrant a bakery of their own.
And though those rib tips steal the spotlight, RibTown’s other meats don’t slouch. The smoked chicken is juicy, the beef hot links (sourced from Pete’s Louisiana Foods down the street) blackened and plump, and the spareribs — thick, smoke-reddened things with thin, peppery bark and pull-apart tenderness — exceptionally flavorful.
Edwards has had ample time to hone his craft. Though he acquired his food trailer and offset smoker just two years ago, he’s been selling homemade barbecue to neighbors in one form or another for over a decade, usually as a side gig. He previously ran a process server firm and coached the offensive line for Hamilton High’s football team, winning two Division II city championships, before starting his job at the loan office in 2014. It was there that he found a new outlet for his favorite pastime.
“There’s a real need for barbecue like this around here. We’re showing the community our passion.”
One Saturday a month, Edwards would wheel out a small double barrel smoker to the spacious parking lot and hawk ribs and links. Locals took notice and so did Lauren Mendelsohn-Bass, the third-generation owner of Westside Loan Office.
“He had this passion for barbecue that was so apparent,” Mendelsohn-Bass recalled. “At some point I told him, Lonnie, what are you doing here? This is what you’re meant to be doing.”
Edwards didn’t have money for a down payment on a restaurant space, so eventually he struck a deal to rent out half of the parking lot at Westside Loan. Edwards loves to tell the story that Mendelsohn-Bass — whom he still affectionately calls “Boss Lady” — fired him from his security guard job in order to jump-start his business.
“I was trying to get him to take his foot off the brake and go for it,” she said with a laugh. “He was ready.”
But that first year in business proved brutal. The family had “sunk every nickel” of its savings into equipment for the trailer. Edwards blew out his shoulder lifting the metal lid on the smoker. The record-setting rainfall in spring of 2019 complicated things further. He wasn’t able to open RibTown consistently until April, and by that point he found himself slipping into debt.
“I’m a tough character, but I’ll tell you that year tested every ounce in me. It tested my faith in that man, everything,” he said. “There was one day I went to Boss Lady and said I’m done. I’m behind on rent. I’m gonna sell my equipment and pay you the money. I’m moving on, I’m tired.”
Mendelsohn-Bass convinced him to take a couple weeks off to regroup and told him to forget about the rent. Soon he booked a few catering gigs that helped bring business back into the black. Lorenzo and Jake Moran, a USC grad who had played football for Edwards at Hamilton High, helped promote RibTown on social media to attract new customers.
Edwards even employed the old pitmaster’s trick of keeping a log burning in the smoker after the meat has been pulled. “The smell of smoke is the best advertisement,” he said.
Slowly but surely, weekend pre-orders began to tick upward. Edwards put in an order for a larger second smoker just to keep up with demand. Things were looking up, he said, at least until the pandemic arrived.
“Right when we were getting some momentum, this thing smacks us in the face,” he said.
Edwards decided to close RibTown for most of March and April but has since reopened. He’s thankful there’s plenty of room in the parking lot for physical distancing and that most of his customers are used to ordering takeout ahead.
Plans to expand into a brick-and-mortar space were on the table but seem unlikely now. It might be better that way, Edwards said. “We have a good niche, and my overhead isn’t killing me, so I feel fortunate. It’s the product that is going to make the name, not anything extra.”
He expects RibTown’s second rig to arrive by August, a custom 1,000-gallon offset smoker built by Drew Brahs of Harper Barbecue in Costa Mesa. It cost $10,000, but it will more than double RibTown’s current capacity. He plans to name it “El Jefe” in honor of Joel Mendelsohn, Lauren’s father and one of Edwards’ unofficial business advisors.
It’s hard to know what comes next, Edwards said, but he considers what he has now — a self-sufficient family business and a network of neighborhood regulars, old friends and former co-workers — to be “a beautiful blessing.”
“Boss Lady said to me, if you can make it through this, you’re gonna be a millionaire,” he said, shoveling ashes out of Sarah’s firebox. “I thought COVID was going to put me out of business, but now I’m looking to come out of it stronger than ever.”
RibTown BBQ, 2125 W. Jefferson Blvd., Los Angeles, ribtownbbq.com; pre-order for Friday and Saturday pickup by texting (323) 360-7499
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