2000s Archive

Smoke and Mirrors

Originally Published June 2002
A serious "barbecuist" with a craving for perfectly seasoned, fork-tender meat finds reflections of the South in California.

I would like to say that divine inspiration led me to Prayer Assembly Church of God in Christ, on East El Segundo Boulevard, on that hot Saturday afternoon. In fact, though, it was Woody Phillips's 34-year-old son, Roderick, who did it, after I had promised to bring him back some barbecued turkey necks. But it must have been divine inspiration that led the Reverend Clevester Williams Sr. to add a bar-becue stand to his stucco-and-stained-glass edifice. "I started forty years ago because I had built a church and I needed ten thousand dollars to buy some pews," he told me. "I went to bed that night and asked the Lord how I could get the money. And the Lord revealed to me the barbecue, the spices, and the wood."

There was fine barbecue packed into my Styrofoam container that day. In the case of the ribs, which had a wonderful smoky sweetness, the simple seasonings had become one with the meat. The turkey necks were fall-off-the-bone tender, although they lacked a deep smoke flavor. The sauce, one of the best I had in Los Angeles, was neither too thick nor too sweet. Well spiced with chili powder and flecks of red pepper, its heat was just right. I had to admit, however, that standing in line in a church parking lot on a broiling afternoon is not for everyone.

But I was there on a mission. When I told friends that I was setting out in search of California barbecue, they reacted as if I were off to hunt unicorns. "There is no such thing as California barbecue," they insisted.

If you presume that the slight, light, barely cooked aesthetic of California cuisine defines the cooking of the whole state, and not just the style of some of its most celebrated restaurants, it's easy to understand why "California barbecue" would seem like an oxymoron. Who ever heard of free-range ribs? Who ever bothered to put heirloom cabbage in coleslaw?

"Barbecue is southern," my doubters continued, conveniently forgetting that Kansas City and Chicago are barbecue capitals and that neither of them is in the South. "Immigrant food in California comes from Mexico, China, Indonesia—not America," they said, forgetting that while emigrants from Mississippi and Tennessee brought barbecue to the Midwest, their counterparts from Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma often headed farther west, to the Golden State.

Besides all that, I have been to every one of the places you're supposed to go for great barbecue. In 1994, I traveled much of the country with Frank Stewart, a wisecracking photographer who prefers his ambrosia smoked. We were writing Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, a book about American culture as expressed through our nation's obsession with smoked meat. In the course of that trip, I quickly learned that barbecue authorities are a dime a dozen and that their opinions are often worth even less.

So I didn't expect to find a million great places in California, especially once I had discovered that in the Los Angeles Yellow Pages there is just a small listing for takeout "barbecue stands" and practically no listing at all for sit-down barbecue restaurants. It's as if all the barbecue places are located in alleys between pawnshops and filling stations—just on the outskirts of respectability. I can't imagine barbecue being slighted this way in Kansas City or Memphis, towns whose whole identities are wrapped up in their reputation for smoked meat. But I figured that with its combination of black immigrants, hardwood, and great barbecue weather, California had the ingredients I needed to prove the doubters wrong.

My hunch that barbecue existed there was formed in 1996, when a friend and I drove along Central Avenue, in South Central Los Angeles. Back in those days, only five years after the beating of Rodney King, the area was better known for riots than ribs. Still, it seemed to me that I saw nearly a dozen barbecue places.

Central Avenue is to Los Angeles what Beale Street is to Memphis: the commercial and cultural heart of the African-American community. As early as the 1920s, Central Avenue was being referred to as the Harlem of the West. In part because segregation relegated black musicians to playing on Central Avenue (or in Watts), a vibrant music scene developed there. During World War II, as migrants came west to work in arms factories, the African-American population grew. But in the '50s, as black Angelenos started moving to other parts of the city, Central Avenue began its decline.

I started my search on that street but found little sign of the restaurants I had passed years earlier. Because of the large number of barbecue places on Slauson Avenue, however, I was tempted to conclude that I had found my new barbecue boulevard there. But after tasting the food at the first two places I saw, I began to suspect that the avenue was mostly show. Then, one Saturday, I stopped at Woody's Bar-B-Que, a takeout place whose outer wall was emblazoned with a gray and white bulldog urging passersby to stop. Owner Woody Phillips's menu included pork ribs, beef ribs, sliced beef, chicken, and—an unusual addition—chicken links. I ordered a combination plate and braced myself for more disappointment.

First, let me digress. The tasting of barbecue is a precise affair that involves an assessment not only of quality but of authenticity as well. Good barbecue must be smoked over hardwood or charcoal, and the flavor of the fuel must penetrate the meat. Barbecue should be tender. Brisket and pork shoulder should yield to the fork with little effort, and ribs should separate from the bone without excessive pulling and tugging. The difficulty lies in cooking the meat long enough to attain this degree of tenderness and smokiness without drying it out. Some of the best pit masters cook indirectly. They separate the meat from the wood or charcoal so that the smoke flavor gets through but the grease from the meat doesn't cause the fire to flare up and char the meat. Other cooks, no less skilled, insist that barbecue gets its flavor in part from the seasoned smoke that rises when the grease from the meat hits the coals. (I have had great barbecue cooked both ways.)

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