Some people like their barbecue joints rough and ready, with sawdust on the floor and flypaper hanging from the ceiling, their meat served on paper plates by gum-crackin waitresses clad in sauce-stained aprons and brimming with attitude. If thats you, my friend, then Zekes may not be your bag.
Saturday, I dragged myself along four freeways in the blazing midday sun, all four windows down and an uncomfortable feeling nagging at me that I was hopelessly lost and headed deep into the desert.
So imagine my relief when I stumbled into Montrose; my surprise at how pleasant the ville is; and my delight at the sight of Zekes; a beautifully appointed, well-furnished, and deliciously air-conditioned oasis that beckoned this overheated traveler inside.
Zekes is clean and new and shining, staffed with bright young Montrosians who know little about barbecue, but who are clearly anxious to please. Ushered into one of three diner-style booths, I relaxed in the stream of cool air and watched the sidewalk melting for a moment through the plate glass windows before taking stock of the restaurant.
And Zekes is a restaurant, not a joint. There are booths and tables, and a counter with stools, black and white pictures of barbecue joints on the walls and a shining new diner-style kitchen in back. The iced tea may come in paper cups, the napkins may be disposable, and the menus might not be laminated, but the cutlery is made of metal, and the dishes are clean white china.
The dishes could be one of Zekes biggest blunders. Theyre big, for a start, so that the food tends to look a little lost on them. Ive heard that chefs like big white plates because it allows them to play about with presentation, but how many ways can you present a half-rack of ribs or a heal of pulled pork? In most barbecue places, the plates come small and piled high with meat. At Zekes those big white plates just make the portions look small.
Its hard to fault the meat, however. The table favorite was the pulled pork: moist but not wet, dragged into a mound and served with a heap of good ol white bread on the side. Laced with one of Zekes three sauces, the pork folded sweetly into the bread and maintained its integrity throughout, with none of the collapse into a soggy mess that so often characterizes the pulled-pork sandwich.
Chefs Michael Rosen and Leonard Schwartz use a special rub for all the meats, then smoke them in one for three huge smokers using hickory wood. The process ensures the presence of that mark of quality, the smoke ring, on almost everything they serve.
We sampled two types of rib, the ubiquitous baby-back and a Kansas City spare rib. The Kansas City was firm on the bone, but it gave way easily to display a distinct pink rim edging the meat. The baby-backs were much more tender, but still provided enough exercise for the teeth to make their eating highly satisfactory.
The brisket looked fabulous, sliced thin and laid out in a fan on the plate. The meat was once again tinged with that tell-tale pink rim, and while the slices brimmed with flavor, the brisket did attract some criticism from one or two who though it was a little tough.
The beef and pork hotlinks look almost too good to be true, bursting out of their red skins, charred in streaks from the grill. Theyre packed tight inside, so that you can slice them thin, and they have a slight kick that made them one of the best items on our table.
Theres sauce, of course, but its all served on the side. A Carolina mustard sauce is perhaps the most distinctive, and the Texas sauce is the spiciest. The Kansas City sauce is a milder, subtler version, which seemed to work best as an all-rounder for our table.
Sides included a basket of sweet potato fries, and dishes of potato salad and beans. The latter were quite sweet, but a little mushy and undistinguished. The potato salad was laced with what looked like green onion and celery, but while the potatoes were quite firm, the taste of the salad was a bit bland. The fries saved the day, however, their floury innards complemented nicely by their crisp dark skins. They looked a bit like dark brown In N Out fries, and they were every bit as popular.
Theres plenty to choose for dessert, but the fruit cobbler a la mode was the must-see. It did well, spiced chunks of apple and berries topped with crumble and swimming in vanilla ice cream. A good finish.
Hounds whove posted in the past on Zekes reckon its a bit expensive, and its certainly pricier that the takeout joints on Crenshaw. But the quality of the food is generally very good, unlike some hit-or-miss places in the Valley, and theres none of that boil-then-grill shenanigans going on there, either. There arent many barbecue places in L.A. where you can eat good smoked cue in the kind of comfort that Zekes offer. And on a hot Saturday afternoon in Montrose, good air-conditioning is a must.