The LAist BBQpedia: An In-Depth Guide To LA's Many Varieties of Barbecue And Where To Find Them — Vol. 1
About halfway through the episode of Chef's Table: BBQ about Tootsie Tomanetz of the legendary Snow's BBQ, Daniel Vaughn, Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly, says, "In Texas barbecue, the pitmasters are willing to tell you everything that they do to the meat, and then they'll sit back and be like, 'Well, good luck.'" It's not the recipe that makes one brisket superior to another - it's technique. Timing, skill, intuition, repetition. All of that originates with the pitmaster and doing barbecue well is hard.
It's labor intensive. The hours are long and weird, full of late nights that melt into early mornings. Standards are high and competition is tough. Consistency is difficult. You'll probably tint your lungs and clog your arteries. So it's thrilling to see a preponderance of Los Angeles pitmasters pushing killer 'cue.
Central Texas is the most barbecue common style you'll find in these here parts (sorry, couldn't resist) but Southern California now has as many interesting, personal takes on the genre as we have joints that serve it.
We've scoured the city and put together a list, loosely organized by the style of barbecue each spot claims to make, with a note about origins. Welcome to the LAist BBQpedia, Volume 1. Does this suggest future volumes devoted to smoked meat? We hope so...
Los Angeles style
Somewhere in the mid-to-late 2010s, L.A.'s barbecue scene began popping in a new way. Woody's and Phillips and Bludso's and JR's were established local classics. Now, a new generation discovered smoked meat. Instead of opening restaurants, they were cooking low and slow in their yards, selling over Instagram and putting an Angeleno spin on their spices. This hybrid style is especially prominent in East L.A., where Alan Cruz from A's BBQ dishes out his "Chicano Soul BBQ," stirring chilis into mac and cheese, glazing baby back ribs with tamarindo and rubbing cubes of pork belly with his personal al pastor spice blend. Cruz is not alone — compatriots Ragtop Fern's, Beatdown BBQ and East LA BBQ Company are painting with a similar palette — but his creative versions of everything from smoked cochinita pibil to chipotle barbecued beans are among the most intriguing and best-executed versions around.
Undisclosed Location, City Terrace; Instagram @As_BBQ
California's other homegrown barbecue style originated a few hours north, on the Central Coast. Born of the Santa Maria Valley's cowboy culture, it's all about ranchers and vaqueros throwing down for big parties. Like Central Texas and brisket, Santa Maria barbecue is defined by a single cut of meat — beef sirloin tri-tip — smoked over a big fire of coastal Red Oak and served with a bowl of local pinquito beans.
It's all cooked on a massive iron grill with a hand crank so the grate can be raised or lowered to ensure the proper heat level. Nowadays, it typically comes with fresh tomato salsa and buttery garlic bread. Great examples can be found up and down the California coast. In L.A., your best bet is Culver City's Santa Maria BBQ, a 32-year-old shop just off Venice Boulevard. Owned by Santa Maria native Jim Rodrigues, it has a few picnic tables in front, a massive grill in back and it churns out some fantastic tri-tip, which you can order on its own or in a sandwich, bowl or burrito. Joe's Specia l— a sandwich with onion, tomato, jalapeno, and cheese — is a hulking mix of smoky-salty-spicy-rich flavors. It's a total gut bomb and a menu highlight.
3845 Jasmine Ave., Culver City; 310-559-5709; santamariabbq.com
When L.A.'s recent barbecue renaissance began, almost everyone claimed the ultra-specific Central Texas style as inspiration. There's good reason for that. Few things are as delicious as well-executed Texas barbecue. The style is practically ascetic in its tenets, based almost entirely around beef with a simple rub of salt and pepper. The meat is smoked in an offset smoker over Post Oak for hours, then sliced to order and served on butcher paper. In its purest form, it's served without utensils or sauce. It's funny, then, that the end result is about as indulgent as it gets. A good brisket will shimmy like Shaq with a ribbon of gelatinous fat. L.A. County has been reluctant to permit Texas-style offset smokers — although that may be changing — but local pitmasters have made do. Moo's Craft BBQ is at the head of the class... for now. The inventive house-made sausages and sides could land them in the L.A.-style category but the jaw-dropping brisket, so tender you could eat it without dentures, keeps their Texas roots front and center.
Where Texas barbecue is laser-focused on beef, Carolina-style 'cue is all about pork — specifically, pulled pork. Which cuts are used depends on the region. Some places in the Carolinas use the whole hog. Others stick to just the shoulder or butt. Sauces vary too. South Carolina prizes its mustard-based Carolina Gold sauce while North Carolina slings a spicy, vinegar-based sauce. Edna Jane's BBQ, a pandemic-born pop-up in Beachwood Canyon, specializes in North Carolina-style barbecue. Pitmaster Clay Blair makes his own vinegar-based sauce, which zings across the palate and slices through the rich, gently sweet and smoky pulled pork studded with bits of crisp bark. There are other meats at Edna Jane's but it's hard to argue against a massive tub of pulled pork, a jar of sauce and a fork.
Undisclosed Location, Beachwood Canyon; ednajanesbbq.com
Memphis barbecue also revolves around the pig but ribs are as or more important than pulled pork. Although sauces tend to be tomato-based and balanced between sweet and tangy, the most iconic Memphis barbecue dish is dry ribs. Instead of being marinated and mopped with sauce, they're rubbed with a complex spice blend then smoked and served with sauce on the side. In North Hollywood, the year-old Memphis Grill is cranking out pristine regional staples along with all of the usual meats, sides and some outstanding housemade desserts. But it's those dry-rubbed ribs that draw us in. They're punchy, bold and messy as hell but worth every smear of spice blend on your cheek, shirt or newborn daughter's head.
5759 Lankershim, North Hollywood; 818-738-9993; thememphisgrill.com
Yes, you're right. This is a catch-all category for a brand of barbecue unbeholden to the tenets of any specific region. It's the label that gets slapped on places that do everything well — snappy hot links, juicy smoked chicken, rib meat falling off the bone and more than one kind of sauce. The only real requirement is that you can smell that wood smoke from down the street. It's the kind of scent that makes you whip a hard U-turn as you drive past with the window down. Not coincidentally, it's also how pitmaster Lonnie Edwards refers to his style at RibTown BBQ. He sets up on Jefferson Boulevard, close enough to legendary Phillips Bar-B-Que that if you stand around Mont Clair Street and 7th Avenue, you can smell them both at the same time. Edwards is undaunted, as he should be. At RibTown BBQ, the chicken is juicy, the hot links snap, the rib meat falls off the bone and the rib tips are a gnarly, primal pleasure.
2125 W. Jefferson Blvd., Jefferson Park; 323-360-7499; ribtownbbq.com
One of the best and most exciting things about barbecue is the way its principles translate across cultures. Although there are rigid regional rules, there's also room for personality, perspective and innovation. You can do a lot with smoked meat and few people are doing more than husband-and-wife team Logan Sandoval and Anna Lindsey of ZEF BBQ. Every week, the Simi Valley crew unveils a fresh menu with a new inspiration and its own title, like char siu ribs for their "Lunar New Year" menu, barbacoa-style beef cheek for their "ZEF Familia" edition or pit-smoked Peking duck for the "CyberDuck" menu. Wherever their focus turns, they keep the fundamentals — brisket and ribs — on the menu, and their Pacific Island inspiration shows up more often than not. Whenever it shows up, don't miss the housemade smoked "spam" musubi, an inspired patty of pork, brisket and spices smoked over oak.
Undisclosed Location, Simi Valley; zefbbq.com
The Armenian tradition of meat cooked over open fire is long and lovely but it trends toward hot and fast rather than low and slow. In Northridge, Arthur Grigoryan's is turning that on its head at iii mas. Before the pandemic, he was hosting multi-course, sit-down dinners with mezze and dishes such as smoked lamb. During the last year, he has turned to a more practical approach for takeaway, tucking his smoked meats into fluffy pita sandwiches with ttu (Armenian pickles) and his own tahini aioli or chaman mustard for weekend pickups. The pulled pork is perfect with the sharp, curry-inflected mustard, and Grigoryan's version of aboukht, the dried and cured beef also known as basturma, is a smoky stunner.
Undisclosed Location, Northridge; Instagram @iii_mas_bbq
Although the techniques differ, the phonetic similarity between barbecue and barbacoa is no accident. In a way, barbacoa is responsible for the whole damn genre. There are competing accounts but the story says that when the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean, they discovered the indigenous Taíno people cooking fish over indirect heat on a raised grill, which they called something that sounded, to Spanish ears, like "barbacoa." The conquistadores, as was their wont, laid claim to the cooking method, applied it to the pork they had brought from Europe and carried it with them to the North American mainland. Over centuries, the practice spread and morphed, merging with local traditions and evolving into today's barbecue and barbacoa. In Mexico, barbacoa typically refers to meat wrapped in agave leaves and cooked in an underground oven. Lamb and beef are the preferred proteins (it depends on the region) and, as with American barbecue, it's often party food. L.A. has a lot of barbacoa but not every spot has a traditional agave-lined pit. BarbaKush, a Sunday-only pop-up in Baldwin Park, does — and it shows. The meat is tender and wild, with a gentle streak of smoked agave. You can order by the pound or by the taco, and their fresh tortillas, sharp salsa, and menudo are almost as thrilling as the lamb itself.
3909 Merced Ave., Baldwin Park; Instagram @barbakush
One of the other low-and-slow traditions in Mexican cooking comes from the Yucatan peninsula. Cochinita pibil is another hybrid indigenous and colonial technique, the imported suckling pork (cochinita) marinated in native achiote paste then wrapped in banana leaf and cooked in an underground oven powered by heated rocks (a piib) for at least eight hours. We're blessed to have several legendary Yucatecan restaurants, from the meticulously crafted dishes at Chichen Itza to the rustic takes at La Flor De Yucatan and the elevated versions at Chaak in Tustin. But none is more exciting right now than a pop-up in Montebello, Ek'Balam, brought to our attention thanks to a recentL.A. Tacostory by Memo Torres. Chef Juan Chan's cochinita pibil is a revelation, complex and elemental, tangy and rich, counterbalanced by pickled red onion and a salsa dotted with charred skins of the floral, fiery as hell habanero chilis.
Undisclosed Location, Montebello; Instagram @ekbalamyucatancuisine
The L.A. barbecue scene has spawned one other notable permutation — pastrami. Made from a cut of beef similar to brisket, pastrami is coated in a black, peppery spice rub and partially smoked. Is going full pit-smoke unorthodox? Maybe. But it works. The smoke plays with the brine and the rub, and the process yields something rich and unique, a new take on an old favorite. The first person to make their name doing pit-smoked pastrami around here was Erik Black of Ugly Drum. Lately, it has caught on all over, including at Moo's, A's, AGL and Flatpoint. At The Bad Jew pop-up, Rebecca King is pushing "porkstrami," a profane pork shoulder, brined and rubbed with pastrami spices then pit-smoked and pulled. She stacks it onto bread for a sacrilicious sandwich. Los Angeles has a long and storied love affair with pastrami, and these pitmasters are writing a thrilling new chapter.