I read Jonathan Gold’s list of the top 101 restaurants in the L.A. Times. Sorry, but I think he is out to lunch. First of all, I don’t need him to tell me Mélisse is a top restaurant. The Michelin Guide already did that. And I plan to go there as soon as I win the lottery, or my editor let’s me charge it to the paper. Nor is it helpful to me for him to highly recommend that I go to Din Tai Fung in Arcadia for their dumplings in soup. I’m not going to Arcadia any time soon.
When I was in high school we used to rate girls with numbers. “I’ve got a date with Susie, but she’s only a 5.” As we matured we realized there was more to girls than just our subjective opinion of looks. Some were intelligent, some were fun, some were good tennis players, or had other worthwhile qualities.
And so it is with restaurants. It’s not helpful to just give them a number. The main thing I want a critic to tell me is what is the dish the restaurant has that’s worth the trip. No reducing to numbers please.
There is no restaurant in which every dish is a star. There are a lot that have one or two dishes that are wonderful. So I’m starting a series called Merv’s top 49. Maybe my editor will put the articles in a nice take-home package like the Times did. These restaurants will have the following characteristics:
1) They will be geographically close so that the readers can get to them. Our readers are west of the 405, from Marina del Rey to Malibu.
2) The list will be organized by food, not numbers. If I don’t eat Mexican food at least once a week I start to twitch. So that’s one category. Other categories are BBQ (and I don’t mean Korean BBQ or phony BBQ), Thai, Indian, steaks, seafood, French, and other. At least for now.
3) The emphasis will be on dishes that are particularly good at the restaurant, and not suggest that all of that restaurant’s dishes are worth the trip.
And so we start today with my favorite (most of the time) food — BBQ.
My taste in BBQ is for wood smoked, slow-cooked meat; ribs that retain enough texture in the meat that you have to chew it off the bone, not pick it up from the plate when it falls off, and at least a couple of sauces to give it variety. I like the sauce baked into the meat, not slathered on after it is cooked.
We have good Q nearby. Maybe the best known is Baby Blues BBQ. The closest location is at 444 Lincoln Blvd. in Venice. Here you get real smoked meat and a nice variety of sauces. There’s a full menu of all the popular BBQ meats. For me the stars here are the pulled pork sandwich and the Southern side dishes, such as collard greens. The mac and cheese is good too.
The best beef rib I’ve had around town is at Morfia’s Ribs & Pies, further south at 4077 Lincoln Blvd. in Marina del Rey. While the Q is excellent, there’s no beer (big defect) and little inside seating, so it’s best for takeout. But this is probably the best BBQ near Santa Monica.
Nearby is the big Whole Foods store, which has its own smoke house inside. The chicken wings are well smoked, but seem a bit undercooked, and the pork is not always up to par. But if you order something smoked, like a duck, turkey or pork shoulder, and pick it up to take home to eat with your own trimmings, sauces and a few beers, it can be a real treat.
A new takeout place, Pork Belly’s, just opened at 1146 Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice. The meat falls off the ribs, but is pretty good. The shredded brisket in sauce makes a nice sandwich. I don’t care for the pork belly dish itself because it has a row of fat left in it. But the star here is the bag of fried pickles. I don’t know anywhere else that has it, but I like it a lot.
I rarely go east of the 405 to eat or shop, but for BBQ I make an exception. I even drive down to Vermont Avenue and go south for a BBQ lunch at some of the famous places there. But this month I was invited to Wood Ranch BBQ at The Grove on Fairfax and Beverly. And this is my new BBQ heaven. First of all, it’s big and comfortable, with inside and outdoor space. Parking is easy. There’s a bar with TVs in case a game is on. There’s a full menu. All the BBQ is smoked, using different woods for different meats. There are four sauces of different intensity and flavors, including one that was so good, and so hot, that I had to take a pint home.
The pulled pork sandwich with a bit of coleslaw on top was perfect, and not pre-sauced as is too often the case. The beef brisket was thick sliced like my grandmother use to make it, but fork tender, unlike my grandmother’s. The BBQ is pretty typical. The baby back ribs were OK. But the star for me was the St. Louis rib. It was smoky and chewy like I like it. There’s a nice selection of beer and a full bar. There were wonderful side dishes like sweet potato and baked beans. Everything was good. It’s a ways away, but worth the trip.
Next time: Mexican food
The Z Garden on Pico Boulevard has been getting good reviews, but it’s a ways away. Also, it’s so busy that nobody goes there anymore. Now they’ve opened a second location on the Third Street Promenade at Wilshire Boulevard. If you can find the address on the web congratulations. It’s right across from the Barnes & Noble.
I’ve already been there three times. The hummus is terrific, and has the right texture so you can get it onto the pita bread. The onion, peppers and chorizo is new to me and wonderful as an appetizer (I took out six portions last week and served it to 12 people for an appetizer at home). The baba ghanoush (eggplant dip) is smoky. The beef kabobs were everyone’s favorite because of the marinade. The chicken kabobs were also good, if a bit dry, but a nice hot sauce came with them.
The star was the leg of lamb. This was cooked so that we could pull the meat off with a fork, and was served with a creamy garlic sauce. It was the best I’ve had in town. (Where else can you find it? Sometimes at Pinocchio’s in Pacific Palisades).
It’s a great addition to the Downtown dining scene, and a must go.
If you go
Baby Blues BBQ
444 Lincoln Blvd.
Morfia’s Ribs & Pies
4077 Lincoln Blvd.
Marina del Rey, Calif.
1146 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Wood Ranch BBQ
189 The Grove Dr.
313 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
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.