I’m a BBQ freak. I’ll drive miles for good Q. Maybe it’s genetic, or maybe it’s the recollections of childhood days in the back yard with the family, and Ida Mae grilling BBQ in the back yard. Whatever the reason, I was excited about going to a BBQ festival in Santa Monica last month.
I got sidetracked. On the left side of the Santa Monica Pier was “Taste of Santa Monica” with about 30 or more local fooderies serving samples to hundreds (thousands?) of local foodies.
By noon the place was standing room only, and the lines were snaking into one another. The booth managers were woefully unprepared for the crowds, and signs began to appear asking for 15 minutes to get new food ready.
But strangely enough, people didn’t seem to mind the crowding and the long lines. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and all were busy talking and comparing food notes, and since you were rubbing up against a lot of people, it was impossible not to meet new friends.
Then I went for the BBQ, which was on the other side of the pier. That is, after 12 or 15 delicious appetizers in the Taste of SM section. While I’m usually not a big fan of these taste events, this experience was better than the last few I’ve been to. I was impressed with both the wide selection from fine local restaurants, and the quality of the food.
The French crepes from Acadie looked great and had a steady line for hours. The corn tamales from El Cholo were a big hit. I saw Stefano’s pizza everywhere, and finally gave in and had a slice. The Wokcano spicy crab rolls can’t be beat. Chez Jay was there with delicious shrimp scampi. And the Whist duck breast was very tasty, but perhaps, since it’s not easy to bite in half, a smaller portion next year might be an improvement.
My goal was to compare local BBQ with those foreigners from St. Louis, Texas and Kansas City. That turned out not to be a workable thesis. First of all, Gus’ from Pasadena only served Chicken — no ribs. The chicken was very good, with an excellent sauce. But how do you compare chicken with ribs? And I passed up the chicken and vegetable kabobs at Whole Foods as way too healthy.
Then I tried some of the local ribs. Mr. Cecil’s (12244 West Pico, L.A., 90064) is probably the best known BBQ joint in West Los Angeles. As Jonathan Burrows, the owner, puts it, “We like to be different.” So while everyone else had pork ribs, they served beef ribs.
Plenty good, and traditional sauce (two of their three sauces were not available to taste), but not as smoked through as other contenders.
“The restaurant business is like show business,” said Burrows, who retired from the entertainment industry when, as he put it, he got too old to sell scripts to the new generation. I guess that’s true, although to me one of the main similarities is the extremely competitive nature of the marketplace.
The second local contender was Baby Blues BBQ (444 Lincoln Blvd. in Venice).
“Seventy percent of our business is takeout and delivery,” said the chef.
These ribs were cooked to perfection, with the meat falling off the bone. This is my personal favorite BBQ in town, particularly because of the southern style side dishes.
Then it was time to take on the foreigners. First came Southside Market and BBQ from Elgin, Texas. They came equipped with a special oven that was the size of a small house.
There were various doors for wood, for smoking, for rotating, for overnight slow cooking, and special areas for briskets, ribs and sausages.
Their specialty is homemade sausage, and they’ve been making it since the 1800s. While the ribs were good, and had some smoke flavor,
I found the sauce less flavorful than some. I preferred the sausages.
Next was Bandana’s BBQ from St. Louis. They operate 26 restaurants and a franchise operation. These ribs were well trimmed, smoked over hickory in a semi-open grill, and served with a traditional sauce. There’s no fault to be found here, and this is serious BBQ.
But the stand out of all, and the favorite (by far) of the two to three dozen people I quizzed, was L.C.’s Barbeque from Kansas City. First of all, if Burrows is right and BBQ is like the entertainment industry, then L.C. himself is a star. He’s sitting right there directing the show — all 300 pounds of him. I thought he was focused pretty well on talking to me, when, in the middle of a sentence, he said “excuse me a moment” and turned to the young man trimming the ribs next to him and said “you didn’t trim the end of that one properly,” then turned his attention back to me.
L.C.’s beans were mentioned by a number of people I talked to. But they’re not like most beans because there’s a lot of BBQ meat mixed into them. The ribs too are quite different.
They are trimmed with the top left on. The result is a rib with two kinds of meat texture: the crispy meat along the bone, and the flavorful pork meat portions at the top end of the rib that absorb more of the smoke.
The result is a more intense smoky flavor in the rib. The sauce, also a stand out, was slightly sweeter than some, but with plenty of kick and a subtle taste of cumin.
And so my day in heaven came to an end. I can’t say that foreign ribs are necessarily better than local ribs, just different. Like other things in life, all of it is good, some is just a bit better than others.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org