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Cutting brisket at Ragtop Fern's BBQ
Cutting brisket at Ragtop Fern's BBQ

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This Underground Barbecue Joint Reflects LA's True Smoked Meat Tradition

What street food newcomer Ragtop Fern's BBQ can tell us about our own style of 'cue

Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

For just about as long as anyone can remember, Los Angeles has had a barbecue problem. That is to say, it’s a problem there isn’t more (and better) barbecue in this city of misfit transplants, where many thousands move annually from smoke-tinged traditions in Texas and Kansas City and the Carolinas.

More recently, a handful of places have decides to skip with all the history lessons and start offering their own kind of L.A. barbecue, smoking meats in traditional ways, but with very unexpected results. The Filipino-leaning Park’s Finest is one — a delicious amalgam of rich island flavors and tenderly touched American ribs. And now there is Ragtop Fern’s BBQ, a one-man driveway operation in the northeastern stretch of Koreatown that’s turning out some of the city’s best underground barbecue, period.

Some of the city’s best underground barbecue, period.

The Fern in Ragtop Fern relates to Fernando, a genial UPS driver who, every weekend, rolls out a tall box smoker named Lucifer — it says so right on the front — that he and a friend welded together by hand. He’s quick with a handshake and even quicker with a smile, all while checking temps and adjusting dampers to bring the right mix of air flow and flavor to his heavy steel canvas.

Picking up barbecue from Fern is like attending the smallest block party you’ve seen. There will usually be a few friends, maybe Fern’s girlfriend, kicking around in front of a squat apartment building under some pop-up tents. There’s a cooler on the ground that opens and closes with regularity depending on if the day is hot or the Dodgers are already losing, and a clean folding table and Cambro carrier for the resting meat.

Lucifer, the smoker

A while back somebody gave Fern a small A-frame sign with the name Ragtop Fern and a small logo painted on, but it’s just as likely to be sitting off to one side as actually getting any use out on the street. If you’re at Ragtop Fern’s you either already know, or you let the smell of smoked meat guide. Either way, the sign is useless.

The other part, the first part, of Ragtop Fern’s BBQ is the ‘ragtop’, a colloquial term technically applicable for any convertible car, but usually reserved for those special wide-bodied 1970’s and 1980’s makes, the Cadillacs and Chryslers meant to be driven low and slow through the streets on a rambling weekend.

Fern is a fan of cars, of lowrider Chicano culture and backyard restoration. He’s got a Cadillac himself, and you’ll find him on Instagram giving the old beast a wash, or using the oversized cupholder as a breakfast burrito carrying device. He’s also a fan of the sense of community that cars, especially in Los Angeles, can bring. Ask him about any evening car meet-up in a ten mile radius and there’s a good chance he’s been, knows a few guys who coordinate the thing, and lists plans to return himself some day, towing Lucifer on a trailer behind him.

That’s the idea, really. Get enough money together to go mobile. It’s devilishly simple: just buy a small hauler, put the smoker on the back, and ride. Hit a few car shows, sell out in no time, and coast back home with cash in hand for one more beer out on the stoop before turning in for the night. Fern isn’t even all that interested in quitting his day job at UPS — it’s all about the weekends, when cars and barbecue and sunshine mix to create a uniquely Angeleno culinary tradition.

Fern isn’t even all that interested in quitting his day job at UPS

Which brings us to the barbecue. Fern will smoke just about anything, but he tends towards ribs, brisket, and pulled pork. Stop by on the right day and you might surprise yourself with a pick up of smoked chicken or a side of cole slaw (Fern’s girlfriend makes it), and on really special days you could find yourself staring down the bone barrel of a beef rib rack so smoothly satisfying, so lusciously fatty and ringed with smoke-infused bark, you can’t believe you’re standing on a sidewalk somewhere just off Virgil Avenue. Then the busy cooler opens again, and someone hands you a drink.

A set of beef ribs sit on a black cutting board. Farley Elliott

Don’t ask what "the right move" is at Ragtop Fern’s — every bite of barbecue you taste is likely to be among the most delicious you’ll find anywhere in the city. The delicate, rich brisket doesn’t quite reach the height of Central Texas top brass, but it’s more than enough to turn heads in Los Angeles.

Tender ribs get touched off with a key amount of thinned out barbecue sauce, not the overly sweet and thick stuff we may have all come to expect from our local rib stop. And those beef ribs … boy, when you can get ‘em, they’ll put a stop to your heart in more ways than one.

Finding great barbecue in LA is like searching for a unicorn

On a recent trip to Ragtop, while waiting for a mixed plate to sample, Fern spent his meat-resting time talking cars and food to a crowd that included a young Latino business couple, a well-known street artist, one of his neighbors from the apartment next door, and a pair that had driven in from Whittier just to pick up his barbecue. You haven’t seen that level of dedication to a barbecue destination since Bludso’s in Compton, which is still down for some long-running repairs.

The merry band of barbecue eaters also speaks to a higher truth about Los Angeles, and the way we tend to think about barbecue. We’ve mostly made the whole thing a unicorn search, that endless drive to head further out into the dells to discover the next best brisket, or the world’s greatest ribs from some corner shop in Santa Clarita.

But for Fern, and tens of thousands of Filipinos and Mexican-Americans like him, the best barbecue you’ll find has been right here all along, in driveways and back yards and on weekends during hazy summers. That is LA’s true barbecue legacy, and the real reason Fern knows he doesn’t even need that sign his friend got painted for him.
All you have to do to get barbecue as good as this, is head home.

Ragtop Fern's BBQ, weekends only. 120 S. Westmoreland Ave., Los Angeles. Cash only, pre-order through Instagram.


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