Big Papi's stands in the site of the former Atlas Sausage and Meats on the south side of Burbank Blvd. at the corner of Willow Crest. The giant neon wurst left over from the days when it was Atlas is still on the roof, only now it helps to think of it as a hot link. When they're open (and for several hours before), the barbecue pit that sits at the side of the building perfumes the neighborhood (if the wind is right, we can smell it from our house). They opened up July 4th weekend and, without a sign but only the aroma of smoke and meat, did a booming business. As you're driving down Burbank, if you've got any outside air coming into your car at all, you'll know when you're getting close.
Despite being in the increasingly trendy NoHo Arts District, Big Papi's is a classic 'joint'. It's run by a family, and various cousins, uncles, other family, and friends are always hanging out. The only furnishings are 4 picnic tables, lending themselves to family style eating, and a giant cooler that, when it was Atlas, was kept full of German beer, herring, and cheese, but now houses Pepsi products and an assortment of Mexican sodas, the beverage assortment being the only weak point of the place.
In the classic way of good 'Q' joints everywhere, when they run out of meat, they close down for the day. We got bit by that the second time we went. We'd taken a friend and wanted to order a sampler of everything - some ribs, some tri-tip, some hot links, some chicken and one each of their sides, but it was 6:30 on a Thursday evening and they were out of tri-tip, links, and a couple of the sides. The pit master/owner came out and told us he'd throw together an assortment of what he had left and give us a break on the price, then returned with a small catering tray full of pork ribs, beef ribs, and chicken. We had ordered sauce on the side, both their regular and spicy, as we wanted to taste the meat dry (always the acid test for any barbecue joint, as far as I'm concerned). We weren't disappointed. Their rub was superb - a hint of sweet, a hint of spice, a hint of salt all nicely balanced by the kind of smoky flavor that only comes from the proper "low and slow" cooking over a well-banked fire. The pork ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and the beef ribs were appropriately chewy, but not overly so. The chicken was beautifully permeated with smoke, tender, and still juicy.
The sauces didn't disappoint, either. I've been to way too many 'Q' places where the sauce was overly sweet and thick, masking the taste and texture of the meat. These sauces were more vinegar based - more Memphis than KC - setting off the natural sweetness of the meat perfectly, with the spicy version having that wonderful quality of sneaking up on you, rather than overwhelming your mouth with a blast of heat on first bite.
The sides we got - beans, greens, cole slaw, and potato salad - were all up to the standards of the meat. The potato salad was nice and mustardy, flecked with herbs and not overloaded with mayonnaise. The cole slaw was creamy and rich, greens just perfectly done, and beans slightly smoky and not overly sweet. My big discovery was that adding just a few drops of the spicy sauce to the beans brought a new layer of complexity and depth.
When the owner said "Just wait for the cornbread.", intimating that they were still working on expanding the menu, our companion asked him to set up a cot in the corner, as he was contemplating moving in.
The menu offers plates that come with choice of two sides - small ($4.99 and $5.99 depending on which meat), large ($7.99 and $8.99), and "The Hookup", which we assumed was a sampler plate for $11.99, as well as the various meats by the pound. As I mentioned, it helps to get there early.
The owner mentioned that he was working on getting a larger pit, so he could not only do more meat, but do whole hogs, as well. When that happens, we may just ask him to set up a couple of extra cots in that corner.