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Why are people so passionate about barbecue? Why does barbecue take hold of the imagination so strongly? What about barbecue gives it an almost spiritual dimension? And … where’s the best barbecue in Los Angeles? (with links)
1. JAY BEE'S BAR-B-Q
Let’s start somewhere random. A shack in the middle of an industrial strip in Gardena. The woman who owns the joint is not the friendliest but, hey, she’s bombarded with crowds of people clamoring for her barbecue starting at 11:30 AM every single day of her life. It’s really, really good barbecue, and people know it and come for it -- white collar, blue collar, no collar, cops, criminals -- all walks of life descend on the joint. I order two meats – pork ribs and pork shoulder. I taste the rib first, I've had it before, it's a solidly excellent rib, and the sauce is nice and round, with a heat that touches every part of the mouth. First rate. Cole slaw's just okay, baked beans excellent and filled with pork. Then I try the pork shoulder -- whoa! hello! holy sh-t! I don’t think I really understood "pulled pork" before today -- who would want random bits of meat on a plate when you could be eating ribs? -- but I leave the very good ribs in the dust and can’t stop pounding this pork shoulder, each bite different, some fattier, some crispier, some meatier -- I start taking larger bites, so each bite has the full combo of textures, and the heat comes through strong, and boom, it’s all gone. I’m in love.
2. PORKY’S –
I'm not a big fan of Porky's, so why is it on my list? Because a big part of loving barbecue is being opinionated about it, and when a place gets a lot of praise, and you think it’s overrated, you gotta say so. The ribs are served on a skillet, atop onions and peppers, loudly sizzling when delivered – which might be a tradition somewhere, but I’ve never seen it before. I've had the ribs twice now, six months apart, and both times I had exactly the same notes. (Yes, believe it or not, I've been writing this article for months) There's a caramelization about the rib I really like, and some bites are incredibly delicious in a kind of Chinese sparerib way. But the meat is not suffused with barbecue-ness. It's bland. There's no flavor in the middle of the meat. It's like neither the cooking process nor the spice reached the center of the rib, and that's just death. As they say so haughtily in the Wine Spectator: “tasted twice with consistent notes”.
3. BABY BLUES -
I’ve eaten here a million times and that says way more than any words or opinions I may have on the subject. I’ve had almost all their food at one time or another, Memphis ribs, baby-back ribs, pulled pork, brisket, shrimp, catfish. All good. (Those are the Memphis above, my go to order, very good.) Recently I went in alone, sat at the bar by the grill, and ordered the beef ribs, never had 'em here before. The waitress explains, "The order of beef ribs comes with a single beef rib . Think of it like a steak on a bone." I choose two sides, cole slaw and collard greens. The rib, smoked for five and a half hours and then finished on the grill to order, is insanely delicious. It’s so tender. But tender doesn’t really describe it, and the waitress uses a much better word – "soft". Yes, soft. Lush. Incredibly fatty, but the fat is like totally marbled in. Unreal. Cost me 22 bucks, but hey, it's one of the best steaks I've had in the city, and it came with 2 sides.
4. BONEYARD BISTRO –
Probably my favorite restaurant in the Valley, Boneyard Bistro is a comepletely inspired joint. Half bistro, half barbecue. The chef’s background is in bistro, so it's the barbecue that is his thrill, his excitement, his challenge. My wife and daughter and I went there to celebrate when we sold our house. We brought a bottle of Billecart Salmon Rose with us, one of the truly great non-vintage champagnes in the universe (and they make you pay for it, too.) The chef was at our table almost immediately, hovering over the wine, telling us how much he loves that wine, telling us how great champagne goes with barbecue, and how no one really gets that. (He's got a great wine list here, filled with huge zins and petite sirahs; and a great beer selection; and Monday is Fried Chicken Night; and Thursdays no corkage; and Saturdays and Sundays football on the TV and housemade chili dogs and nachos ... and on and on). Anyway, we open the champagne and we insist the chef have a glass. And even though this particular bottle has been in my fridge for almost a year, and I'm a bit nervous about it, we all toast and taste it together and it's brilliant. Chef goes, "mmmmm." And the barbecue is delicious. These are some of the best spareribs I've had anywhere. They are as good as they look and awesome with champagne.
5. DR. HOGLEY WOGLEY’S –
Oh, yeah, baby. Best beef ribs in the Southland. Ignore the pork, ignore the brisket. Beef ribs, baby. All others pale. I’ve been here probably 30 times and on only one occasion, an anomaly I must assume, did I not have STELLAR beef ribs. When my wife and I went to Magic Mountain and went on “X” and I screamed so loud and thought I’d be lucky if I EVER regained my equilibrium, my wife drove us to Dr. Hogley Wogley’s, and I GROUNDED myself with a plate of these beef ribs. The sauce is perfect, it’s silky and light, rather than thick and gloppy, and it gets inside the ribs. Part of the greatness is that each rib is different – different shape, different size, different proportion of meat to bone, even different texture. Some of the meat is so tender it falls off the bone, some of it you need to tug at with your teeth. Some of the ribs are more lean, some have a great layer of fat as you suck at the sides of them. Gnaw on each bone after you’re done. Then gnaw on each bone again. Now a third time. There's a lot of goodness there.
6. KANSAS CITY BBQ -
Kisses! Revelation! Brilliant! Winner! Best baby backs around. You have to taste. The texture of them is the immediate giveaway that something extraordinary is going on -- smooth, almost creamy but still there’s a lot of firmness. It’s ridiculous. The sauce is unnoticeable -- its flavor serves the meat flawlessly. The beef rib is also gorgeous, fatty, flavory, tender, huge, tons of delectable meat on different parts of it. One of the best in town. But wait, there’s more, what is possibly the best item on the menu is the brisket, cooked 24 hours and so tender and rich with just the right amount of smokiness. And the whole vibe here is solid: Palestinian owner who moved to Kansas City, lived there for 15 years, fell in love with barbecue, moved to LA and couldn’t find the bbq he was looking for. He called LC (owner of one of Kansas City's best bbq joints) many times to ask questions and LC become his mentor for this North Hollywood joint. He's clearly a perfectionist and extremely proud of his business. It’s 5 star.
7 & 8. JR’s and J & J
I know, it’s ridiculous to pit these two against each other just because they happen to share some of the same letters and be about a half mile apart from one another. But, on my latest barbecue hunt, I ate at both within a single hour. First JR’s. I dunno, I think something’s getting a little old about this place, sorry. I love it, I have loved it, but the last couple of meals I’ve had here were just okay. The pork is too bland, the flavor is not there. Something's missing. Then, I go up Washington Blvd to Fairfax, make a right, make a left on Adams, and there it is: J&J’s. Dude from Louisiana gets here at 4:30 every morning to start cooking, doesn’t leave till 9 at night. Every time I’ve been I’ve asked him the same question, what should I order? Every time he gives me the same answer, with no pause, the spareribs. Every time I order the spareribs and every time I’m not only happy, I’m blown away by how good they are. Astoundingly good. Mind bendingly good on the right day. His sauce so distinctive, hints of Asia as well as Lousiana, just an amazing elixer. Wow, I literally am tripping on how good these ribs are. You know what I mean? -- bite after bite, the complexity, the depth, I’m looking around like, hello? But no one else is here, I'm sitting alone on the patio at 3 PM on a Tuesday, lovin' some barbecue.
9. ZEKE'S -
Love the beef ribs. Everything else is just okay. But the beef ribs are really good. Most of the wait staff, even the owners, will tout the baby backs. The baby backs are boring. The spare ribs are boring. I mean, they’re fine, but they’re the kind of ribs you expect to find in a yuppy-looking place like this, where at lunch the place is filled with six tops and eight tops of groups coming from “the office”. Normally, I find these kinds of places insufferable. Like Friday’s or something. But when there’s a saving grqce, there’s a saving grace. And in this case it’s that large, meaty, tender, flavory, well-seasoned, well-smoked (10-12 hours), beef rib. IMG_1979.JPG It’s just undeniable.
10. PHILLIPS BBQ -
I’m including Phillips in the negative. Why is Phillips still so lauded when it actually, in real life, now, October 2008, sucks? Fine, shoot me! Kill me! Whatever, I’ve had about 7 crappy meals -- at all the frickin locations -- over the past few years. I had maybe a couple of good meals here about 7 or 8 years ago and that, combined with Jonathan Gold’s stunning poetry about Phillips (which I love, BTW) kept me coming back, at least occasionally, for a long time. But it sucks. On my last visit – which was for this article -- my note was “tastes like my mother’s pot roast, and that’s not a compliment”. Dry and stringy with a bland flavor and a very depressing texture.
11. NY BBQ –
Look at this place, look at this location, on La Brea around Pico, in this mini mall, with the name “New York BBQ” – total recipe for disaster. But I’ve had their brisket five or six times and it’s consistently superb. That gorgeous layer of fat, perfect sauce, Texas with a splash of soy, yummy. Deep. Good. I’m always served by the stunningly attractive woman who I assume is the owner. She gives the place some serious dignity and her brisket reflects her beauty. (And she would not let me take her picture.) I brought a whole bunch of brisket back to the office the other day and everyone was into it -- eating with their hands, oohing and ahing, just standing around the brisket tray, feeding. Reco-mmmm-end.
12. BENNY’S BBQ
It’s actually not called Benny’s anymore, it’s called the Barbecue Company, but it’s in exactly the same spot as Benny’s, it looks exactly the same as Benny’s, and I still call it Benny’s. A shack, basically, with four tables. My roommate and I ate here all the time when we lived in Venice (10 years ago) and we couldn't get enough of the joint. Been back a few times recently for the lunch special: 6.99 for a beef rib, a pork rib, 6 slices of spicy sausage, greens and cole slaw. The pork rib is surprisingly good (recently I had one that got me so excited and I had to call a few people, especially since this place doesn't get a ton of love). Smoky, tender but firm on the bone, a great spice from the dry rub, and most of all, great flavor from the meat, which is not overpowered by smokiness or spice. The sausage is nice too -- spicy, and even better with some sauce and cole slaw all in the same bite. And with tax this feast set me back $7.50.
13. SPRING STREET SMOKE HOUSE —
If I spent more time downtown I’d probably come here a lot. Good, fun vibe. Friendly people. Sports on TV. Beer. Wine. You can hang out here and eat leisurely. Real barbecue cookin’. I order the combo plate. The ribs are awfully good. The spare rib just beautifully done, and the baby back caramelized and delicious. Damn tasty. I don’t love the sauce -- which doesn’t really hurt the ribs, it rolls off their backs. It more hurts the meats on the bottom of the plate, the chicken and brisket, just sitting in the sauce. Too sweet or something. Oh, but wait, when I mix the meat with the collards to dampen the sauce a little, these are pretty fine bites, too. Nice collards. I like it here. And I see a sign for, of all things, comedy on Monday nights. Cool, maybe I'll come check it out.
14. That's it! I'm tired! What am I missing!?