Welcome to One Far Place, a Road Trip Week special where Eater LA takes a look at one out-of-the-way restaurant that is more than worth the drive. This time it’s Copper Top BBQ, a tiny roadside stand with big accolades located in the heart of the far Owens Valley.
Barbecue in California is a curious thing. The state swears by its own ranchero smoked meat and grilling heritage, with particular fondness for the little-seen (at least outside of the West Coast) tri-tip cut. Yet to ask anyone else in America about California barbecue is to often get one big, ambivalent shrug. So what does it take to get known, statewide, for having the best barbecue? It’s a combination of factors, apparently, but a strong Yelp rating certainly helps.
At least it absolutely has for Copper Top BBQ, a small roadside operation in deceptively tiny Big Pine, California. The place sits just feet from Highway 395 on the road to Mammoth (and, ultimately, Tahoe and Reno), at the eastern wash of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. It makes for some pretty stunning territory, with snow-capped peaks to one side and low, dry scrubland pushing far out in the other direction.
This is where the government held thousands of Japanese and Japanese-American families during World War II, at a place called Manzanar War Relocation Center not far away. The land is now a protected National Historic Site, and travelers passing through can read today about the howling wind that barrels through the 395 corridor, bringing clouds and dust with it.
Hardly the kind of place to make a barbecue empire, at least at first blush. But owner Hank Otten, who hails from Artesia in Southern California but has spent time all over, says he fell in love with Big Pine the first time he ever stopped in. And, seeing a need for quality food, Otten looked around and grabbed one of the first places available, a dusty turnaround with loads of car traffic and few folks slowing down. Within six months, Copper Top BBQ was born.
That was in 2013. At the time, Otten was a seasoned home cook with no real formal barbecue training, just a smoker and grill setup with a trailer to match. He and his son Matthew did the competition circuit a bit over the years and even pulled in some hardware, but mostly Copper Top existed as a place for travelers, weekend getaway junkies, and locals to congregate over some tri-tip, a pulled pork sandwich, and a drink.
The seating has always been outdoors, under a few shade umbrellas, with the highway rolling by at speed and the mountains just beyond. Still, anyone keeping the window rolled down is likely to smell the scent of barbecue long before they come upon the tiny parking lot, and that’s just about all the calling card anyone needs.
Then in 2015, Copper Top BBQ inexplicably landed the title of America’s Best Restaurant. That’s according to Yelp at least, who used some vague algorithm that in part indexed the average review rating score with the number of total reviews and time on the site. Word spread fast that a tiny roadside stand with no indoor seats had bested the likes of Eleven Madison Park in NYC and Rose’s Luxury in D.C., and soon the side of the road was littered with cars pulling over for a bite.
Today, Copper Top is much the same as before. Otten is still there flipping meat himself, and he’ll be the first to admit that he’s learned much since those early days. It’s hard to feed a horde of people who arrive out of nowhere expecting to be impressed, but he’s managed to mostly do just that. The restaurant still boasts a 4.5 star rating with nearly 700 reviews, and just about any day of the week folks line up and scout picnic table seats well before opening. The menu is completely crushed in just a few hours, and then Otten and family flip the open sign to closed, and get back to work on the next day’s meat.
Deciding on whether or not Copper Top BBQ is the best restaurant in America is absurd on its face, and far too subjective a statement to make any real sense. But deciding whether or not it’s the best barbecue to be had anywhere is more nuanced, and depends entirely on one’s definition of the genre. Copper Top BBQ by no means espouses a Texas, Memphis, or Carolina point of view. This is the easy stuff — ribs finished over wood, some surprisingly tender chicken, and hard-to-get-wrong pulled pork piled high on every plate, with sides to match.
Tri-tip is the tricky cut, easy to dry out and take for granted. It’s truly delicious at Copper Top and undeniably the star of the show, but lacks the depth, intensity, and determination that comes with a perfect slice of Texas-style brisket. They don’t even sell brisket at Copper Top.
So where does that leave Hank Otten and the Copper Top BBQ team? Right where they started, staring out under the mountaintops to lines and lines of cars, each eager to find out for themselves if a restaurant they’ve heard is great can truly measure up. That’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is life out in Big Pine, under the open sky and with the wind whipping along day after day. Yet Copper Top remains, ready to serve, even without all the lists and accolades. The truth is, Hank Otten just fell in love with the place.
Copper Top BBQ
310 N. Main St.
Big Pine, CA