Where To Eat BBQ In LA Right Now
THIS STORY IS PART OF HOW TO L.A., OUR ONGOING SERIES OF PRACTICAL GUIDES FOR DAY-TO-DAY LIVING IN LOS ANGELES.
In Austin, barbecue means brisket and sausage. Classic Memphis 'cue is strictly pork with chili and paprika rubs. Kansas City is all that and more but covered in sauce. North Carolina combines the skills of Caribbean pitmasters, Spanish conquistadors and British immigrants' love of vinegar. Whatever their differences, every style of barbecue is the result of cultures rubbing up against each other. But to BBQ snobs, Los Angeles isn't even in the mix. It has long been just another city with a borrowed barbecue tradition.
Barbecue really arrived in L.A. during the Second Great Migration in the 1940s, when more African-Americans came to Southern California -- and brought their Southern barbecue traditions with them. Since then, the norm here has been Texas-style beef ribs covered in sweet, peppery, deep red sauce.
In the last decade, the city's barbecue scene has been reinvigorated. From high-end digs on Hollywood and Vine to pits literally outside of a guy's garage, we're seeing more diversity in the kind of barbecue you can find. Could Los Angeles, with our patchwork of cultures all sampling each others' cuisines, be primed to redefine smoked meat? That's a tad optimistic. But there has never been a better time to be a barbecue fan in the City of Angels.
An amazing brisket is tricky to pull off. You have to achieve that thick, smoke-blackened bark on the outside while keeping the meat as tender and flavorful as possible. It's an hours-long process that even experienced pitmasters have trouble replicating.
Burt Bakman, the self-deprecating culinary whiz who's been selling brisket in front of his garage in the San Fernando Valley (shh, Instagram reservations only) as Trudy's Underground (and soon at his brick-and-mortar spot, Slab on 3rd), is a barbecue obsessive chasing the perfect brisket with the intensity of Roger Bannister trying to break the 4-minute mile. Rhodesian by birth (long story), he didn't taste Texas-style brisket until his mid-20s, but you wouldn't know it from the way he gets the fat to melt into the meat under that peppered crust. Follow him on Instagram and witness the quest for yourself.
Maple Block Meat Co. is an upscale joint that serves beautifully smoke-ringed slices of brisket. You can choose between lean or fatty cuts. The correct answer is fatty but you should take chef Adam Cole's advice and order at least one lean piece so you can take the occasional bite to remind yourself how perfect the fatty ones are.
3973 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. 310-313-6328.
Robert Earl's BBQ in Long Beach is almost as much about the man as it is the meat. Starting in his backyard before expanding to a farmer's market, then his own restaurant almost five years ago, Earl befriends his regulars and responds to compliments from newbies with a smiling, "Welcome to the family!" His brisket has just the right level of moisture. When served on a sesame-seed bun with his sweet but vinegary Kansas City-style sauce, it flakes away into morsels so succulent you might find yourself scraping the paper to make sure you didn't leave anything behind.
703 E. Artesia Blvd., Long Beach. 562-726-1116
Angelenos have had solid rib options for more than half a century, but there's always room for a newcomer.
Perched on a corner lot surrounded by firewood, JNJ Bar-B-Que serves Louisiana-style ribs. Their pork short end ribs (which come from the end of the slab furthest from the pig's shoulder blade) are fall-off-the-bone tender. They're swimming in a tangy, molasses-based sauce that, hot or mild, could hold its own against Kansas City's best.
5754 W. Adams Blvd., West Adams. 323-934-5390.
At Phillip's Barbecue, the meat doesn't fall from the bone, a state that some purists think is overcooked. Instead it's firm, peppery, smoky and comes away from the rib in one piece. After more than two decades, Phillip's has expanded to multiple locations and remains one of L.A.'s barbecue pillars.
2619 Crenshaw Blvd., West Adams, 323-731-4772.
1517 Centinela Ave., Inglewood. 310-412-7135.
Adam Perry Lang, known for his incredible pop-up behind the Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel show and his assistance improving the barbecue capabilities of multiple local restaurants, delighted fans when he announced he'd be opening APL, a brick-and-mortar spot in Hollywood. Alas, it's "only" a steakhouse but the menu features one barbecue item, his signature beef short ribs. At $175, it's the most expensive item on this list by a mile, but it's mouthwatering and it theoretically serves at least three people.
1680 Vine St., Hollywood. 323-416-1280.
Honorable Mention: NorCal BBQ star Matt Horn makes masterful pork ribs if you can catch his next L.A. pop-up.
Pulled pork is America's first barbecue style. When Spaniards came to the "New World," they discovered the low and slow cooking techniques of the Taino West Indian natives. It was the perfect way to make the most of the now-lean pigs they'd brought overseas. People on this side of the world have been preparing them that way ever since.
Max City BBQ is a chill, rustic 'cue spot that, despite not being physically close to much aside from car lots, gives off a homey vibe. There's a lot to like on the menu and their pulled pork can be enjoyed on its own, in a sandwich topped with vinegar-based sauce and coleslaw or, if you make it in time for Happy Hour, in the grilled cheese special, which is served on Texas toast and oozing with buttery decadence.
4729 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock. 323-254-4227.
The upscale iteration of Bludso's Bar & Que doesn't achieve the heights of the late, great original location in Compton, but with a diverse list of local beers and a menu featuring every standard American smoked meat, it's still one of the city's best all-around barbecue restaurants. Their pulled pork is outstanding, imbued with melted fat and crisp tips.
609 N. La Brea Ave., Fairfax. 323-931-2583.
Lesser barbecue restaurants will often use pre-made sausages but a good housemade sausage is a great indicator of what a chef really likes.
Aside from their ribs, the other standout at Phillip's Barbecue is their housemade beef and chicken hot links. They're moist, spicy and have the snap of a genuine casing. Get the hot sauce on the side, in case you can't handle it.
After a well-executed refresh a decade ago, Gus's has transformed from a fading '40s throwback to a top-notch sit down barbecue joint that celebrates its past while building on it. The juicy, crispy fried chicken is a scene-stealer, but don't sleep on the smoked beef sausages that bring a sweet, juicy heat.
808 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena. 626-799-3251.
Residents of California's Central Coast have been roasting slabs of beef over red oak flames for more than 150 years, but the signature tri-tip cut (a triangular muscle from the bottom sirloin of a steer) wasn't popularized until a grocer began marketing it by that name in the '50s. The Santa Maria style is so restrictively simple -- the only seasonings are salt, garlic salt and pepper -- that anything less than the best specimens can come off like an average piece of grilled beef.
Finding excellent tri-tip this far south of Santa Maria is challenging. Even fans of the stuff rarely have an L.A. spot they love but rather one they make do with. Saturdays, Handy Market fires up its grills and fans line up for their tri-tip fix, whether they order it plain or drenched in a tangy, sweet sauce. The portions are massive and served a rare pink. If you want to skip the wait, they've got premade tri-tip sandwiches waiting inside.
2514 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. 818-848-2500.
If you're not a strict follower of the Santa Maria doctrine, consider the tri-tip at Boneyard Bistro in Sherman Oaks. Sure, it's cooked inside their kitchen, but it is grilled over an open flame fueled by traditional red oak, so what they put out is still a good example of the form. Not too far removed from a fine, sliced steak, it's peppery on the outside and juicy on the inside. Don't forget the fried mac and cheese.
13539 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 818-906-7427
You may need to follow Santa Maria BBQ on social media to find out when their takeout window is open. When it is, order the melt-in-your-mouth tri-tip. You can get it straight up, in tacos and burritos with rice and beans or on a sandwich topped with Caesar dressing. Some might consider these accompaniments to be too much but when meat prepared this well is used in other dishes it ends up elevating them.
3845 Jasmine Ave., Culver City. 310-559-5709.
The Hungry Pig makes well-executed versions of all the American classics, from brisket to tri-tip. Thanks to owner Eiddy Pennson's background, the baby back ribs have a Thai kick to their dry rub, the pulled pork comes with a kimchi slaw and the sides include curried potatoes and curry chicken sa-te.
2920 W. Temple St., HiFi. 213-387-7787.
Clutch, from Oscar Hermosillo of Cervateca, is a Cali-Mex barbecue "roadhouse" that combines American barbecue with Sonoran grilling culture. The result is a menu divided into the tacos of "Mexi Turf," the U.S. barbece of "Cali Turf" and the straight-up seafood of "Surf". The flavors bleed into each other, so don't expect "authentic" anything, but if serving dry-rubbed ribs alongside guacamole and queso is wrong, then we don't wanna be right.
427 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. 310-396-8749.
The Park's Finest offers a Filipino take on American barbecue. From the hot links and sweet longanisa sausage to the coconut-tinged cornbread bibingka and the soy-and-pineapple infused BBQ sauce, the Pinoy influence is integrated into all the restaurant's dishes. You can taste how they evolved from multiple cultures coming together in the backyard barbecues of Echo Park. You won't find anyplace like this anywhere but here.
1267 W. Temple St., HiFi. 213-481-2800.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the meat at Boneyard Bistro was not cooked over an open flame.
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