Theres been an awful lot talked about the wonders of Texas barbeque, and all the Texans Ive spoken to say that you simply cant get decent Texas-style cue outside of the big square state. But because I work for a big American company, I dont get enough vacation to go gallivanting down South at the drop of a Stetson. Instead, I have to stay in L.A., and settle for what one Texan friend calls second-rate purveyors of Lone Star cuisine.
Christine, whose family owns the Western Smoke House in West L.A., would be very upset to hear herself described that way, even by a fellow Texan. She was born in Franklin, Texas, and raised in Dallas (Ive been here long enough to know how important this born and raised quotient is), and shes as proud of her home state as Larry Hagman or Red Adair.
To prove it, shes plastered the walls of the Western with so many flags, longhorn skulls and other Texas-themed knick-knacks and baubles that its almost impossible to see the wallpaper. Even the window gets the treatment - an enormous pistol-wielding cowgirl greets customers with a garish neon smile, and the effect looks thoroughly out of place in the somewhat down-at-heel strip mall on Woodbine Street.
The small restaurant could fit perhaps twenty at a squeeze, but Tom and I were about the only people in there Saturday lunchtime. On arrival, I was concerned that the place was closed, even though it was about one oclock. The doors were shut, and there wasnt a hint of woodsmoke in the air, which was a little disconcerting, as Id read that the smoker are usually set up in the car park.
One of the cooks saw us, and let us in, and Christine appeared. She dumped a mound of peanuts on the table, dispensed home-made iced tea and lemonade in mason jars, and regaled us with tales of Texas. Truth to tell, it took her a while to warm up, but once her motor was running, she was very nice, and walked us through the menu in slow time, to make sure we greenhorns got it right.
Christine does all things Texan, so along with pork ribs, beef ribs, brisket and links, you can get shrimp, catfish, fried chicken, burgers, meatloaf, turkey, tamales, steak and salmon at the Western and salad, of course; its West L.A., after all.
As for the meat, its all Texan style, Christine insisted. Im a dippin kind of girl, she told us, emphasizing that in her world, sauce goes on the side, and not slathered all over the meat. Its smoking only at the Western, she said, and that means no basting, no dry rubs, just smoke.
Thats a recipe that certainly worked for the brisket. There wasnt much of it per portion, but what there was disappeared very quickly. It must have been smoked for more than five hours, and it was moist and tender, with a warm taste that was perfectly balanced by the earthy overtones of the slightly charred outside edge of the meat. Tom hogged it, waxing lyrical, and I dived on the beef ribs.
This being Texas barbecue, an all, youd expect the beef to be the best item on the menu. But the beef ribs were resoundingly disappointing, especially when compared to the sublime brisket. The ribs were absurdly large, perhaps nine inches long, yet they were very fatty, and extremely tough. The pork ribs were dried out, and the rib tips required considerable mastication. Once wed chewed them into submission, however, they tasted very good, not too fatty and with a strong undertone of what appeared to be hickory smoke.
Christine has dozens of sauces for the aficionado, but she makes her own as well. It comes in two strengths, both of which were excellent. The stronger of the two was very peppery, but it complemented the pork well, while the normal strength offering worked well with the delicate brisket.
None of the sides missed the mark: the collard greens and spinach were both very tasty and cooked just right, while the cornbread with jalapenos was hot and tickled the tongue just right. Despite enthusiastic recommendations we didnt plump for the sweet potato fries, the baked yam or the mash there simply wasnt any room at the inn, Im afraid.
And that precluded dessert, too, although we were tempted by a number of rave reviews for the sweet potato pie, the peach cobbler and the chocolate pudding.
Tom and I were mystified by the length of Westerns menu, which was considerable, given the size of the place. A chef pal of mine says hes always suspicious when a restaurant gives him too much choice, and I can see why. The Western has all the right parts in place, but it just doesnt seem to be able to string it all together. Looking at the menu, it appears to be doing too much, and spreading itself too thin. Judging by the quality of some of the food, it can do some things very well indeed. But its way too hit and miss for anyone looking for a sure thing.
The Western Smoke House
10640 Woodbine St.,
#104 (at Overland Blvd.),
Mon~Thurs: 11:30 am~3 pm, 5 pm~9pm,
Fri/Sat: 11:30 am~3 pm, 5 pm~10pm
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