Does Los Angeles have its own style of barbecue?
For many diehard regional barbecue fanatics from Texas to Kansas City to the Carolinas, the short answer (served with pursed lips and a thrill, certainly) would be, unequivocally, no. But this succinct review doesn’t come close to capturing the breadth and richness of LA’s smoked meat scene. There is a deep passion here, from the barbacoa traditions passed down to the Portuguese sausages that have survived for centuries as part of the Santa Maria style barbecue. Los Angeles is a city where barbecue is not a hyper-regional dedication; rather, it is a personal journey told through smoke and generations.
Put simply: Los Angeles, thanks to its scale, history and diversity, is one of the best barbecue cities in America. Countless styles, techniques, and family traditions are represented in the local smoke scene, giving LA an edge almost no other barbecue town has. In the span of an afternoon, it’s possible to score bark-smoky Texas beef brisket, hot chorizo verde ties, southern-style baby back ribs, and goat barbacoa that has been cooked overnight in a central valley pit. And while strict followers of specific regional styles (such as Caroline’s Whole Pork) may not find exactly where they are itching, that’s okay. Southern California’s hundreds of barbecue restaurants, rotating pop-ups, and weekend stalls play a whole different game.
There are traditionalist fare, like the impeccable Central Texas-style tail (seen through a California lens, of course) produced by Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano. There are the new school flavors of places like iii Mas BBQ, which marries smoked meats with spices from the great Armenian diaspora of LA. In Orange County, a lady from the Smoke Queen pit runs a quirky 500-gallon smoker and cooks up Chinese-American specialties every week that include rich, fat, slowly smoked char siu. There are entirely forgotten genres of local barbecue that once permeated Southland, as well as a modern push to bring black-owned, Southern-focused barbecue back to the forefront of the smoked meat conversation. There are female pitmasters making surprising and delicious new forays with long-used cuts of meat, and a singular rib fanatic that evokes the magic of a trailer in a Pasadena parking lot.
All week long, Eater LA will be dissecting and devouring the abundance of ribs, breasts, pork shoulders and sides offered by the big Los Angeles barbecue scene. We have maps for local pop-ups and maps for outside of town barbecue restaurants to try; features on famous barbecue faces and lesser known arrivals; a winding tale of the connections a single South LA smoker can make across generations; and the intricate story of a once-legendary barbecue tradition that has almost entirely disappeared. Welcome to barbecue week. – Farley Elliott