Its hard to think of a better location for a barbecue joint than right beside the El Rey theatre on Wilshire. The El Reys hosted Jagger, Dylan, Sonic Youth, the Goo Goo Dolls, Tori Amos, and thats just in this millennium. Imagine the hordes of hungry punters streaming out of the place after a gig, just gagging for an Irn Bru and a brisket sandwich. Thank heaven for the joint next door - Hills Backyard BBQ Diner.
Hills is a tiny place, with just two two-person tables inside and four on the sidewalk. Most of the place is taken up by the large kitchen, which consists of a large hotplate and a range of gas burners. Theres a handful of the usual framed star photos on the walls, and a couple of candid shots of Muhammed Ali by the cash till, pasted up alongside a few celeb-signed knick-knacks. A big fridge inside the door holds a variety of soft drinks. $2 a pop (and no Irn Bru. Sorry).
Dean and I were blown in by the Santa Ana winds on an unseasonably hot November afternoon, and the first thing we noticed was that there was barely a hint of the usual barbeque odors in the air. No smoke, no spice, no hot-sweet bubbling beansn sauce smells. Nothing.
But that may be a testament to the extractors in the kitchen, and the fact that the smokers are in the back. The owners at Hills say they smoke all their meat on the premises using almond and mesquite, but when Dean and I ordered, most of the meat was brought out and heated up on the burners, which made us wonder how long it had been hanging out back there.
We ordered baby back ribs, regular pork ribs, beef links and tri-tip, with fries and beans on the side. Everything comes covered in the Hills secret BBQ sauce, which tasted as though it may have been one of 57 varieties. Its sweet and cloying, and has a tendency to eclipse the taste of all it touches. We scraped it off.
The baby backs were large for their kind, and laden with a generous amount of meat. Dean reckoned they were rather salty, and he speculated unkindly about the amounts of liquid smoke used in their creation. The palate did require generous amounts of refreshment during their consumption, its true, but I found the meat was smoky and tender, and the ribs, unusually for baby-backs were not particularly fatty.
The pork ribs, on the other hand, were very salty, and significantly less tender than the baby-backs. One rib had the consistency of beef jerky, but without the taste: it was so tough I had to chuck it in the trash. A pity, because they looked very meaty, once Id got rid of the lake of sauce in which they came.
Wrapped in a condiment-sodden hamburger bun, the links were mundane and unmemorable, made of grainy, fatty meat, with little or no spice. Any taste they had was effectively wiped out by the sauce, so I tried a little Louisiana hot sauce from the bottle provided, but to no avail the sausage remained stubbornly pedestrian, and I pushed it aside after I found myself chewing on a small hunk of bone that managed to slip through the grinder.
The tri-tip was the diamond in the rough. Mindful that Tom was still laboring in the office, we ordered several pounds to go, and the time that it took to arrive convinced me that the cut was indeed smoked out back, and sliced on-site. Like everything else, it arrived slathered with the noxious red gravy, but the tray was so deep that little of the meat was tainted, and most was salvaged.
It was very good, smoky on the outside and tender inside; not chewy as some tri-tip can be, but just resistant enough to be satisfying. It was apple-juicy and came in very thin slices, so it was clear that someone out back knew what they were doing. Hills serves its que in sandwiches or dinners, and I would say the tri tip sandwich could be the best bet on the menu (hold the sauce).
The fries were good, but the beans arrived congealed and gray and remained that way. We didnt do dessert.
This is Miracle Mile, so be warned and dont be surprised to find eat-in prices at Hills, even though it is a takeout joint. Everything comes in paper boxes or plastic takeout dishes, complete with plastic knives and forks, and two slices of stop-your-heart white bread to mop up your dinner. The place has a website, which says they do soul food and traditional dinners as well, but barbeque was the only thing on the menu when we were there, and several of the sides on the menu werent available that day.
When the El Rey is hosting acts, Hills stays open until midnight. The rest of the time it closes at six every evening, Monday to Saturday. It seemed to us that Hills is harnessed to the El Rey in more ways than just the time schedule: our meal was distinctly average, and it wasnt until afterwards that I discovered itll be another few weeks before the theater is open for business again.
Hills Backyard BBQ Diner
5515 Wilshire Blvd
323 525 1595
Call for opening hours