Los Angeles has always been a barbecue town, despite what most meat eaters (and, truly, anyone from Texas) like to say. Slow-cooking meat over flame and with smoke is a ranchero tradition that dates back centuries along the Southern California coastland, and black migration from the South to the West Coast in the early and middle 20th century brought even more smoke along for the ride. LA has even had a few notable names, Kevin Bludso among them, who have transcended the borders of the city to earn recognition elsewhere.
Today’s barbecue scene has become suddenly boundless, both in actual geography and menu topography. Just off Koreatown, Fernando of Ragtop Fern’s is cooking from a box smoker named Lucifer in front of an apartment building that’s steps away from thousands of Koreans, Central Americans, Mexicans, and white people — and the unaffiliated recipes he uses show off that diversity. Bigmista’s in Long Beach does a pan-continental style that looks more like competition barbecue than the central Texas stuff coming out of the smoker at Trudy’s in Studio City. It all plays, it’s all part of the barbecue cause.
Perhaps nowhere is this regional meta-blending more apparent than at Moo’s Craft Barbecue, hidden behind a single-family home in East Los Angeles. Owners Michelle and Andrew Muñoz have a timeless barbecue story that follows a familiar path: Get a home, get a grill, get obsessed. The only real difference is the era it’s all taking place in today, now that Instagram has given rise to an entire subculture of homegrown cooks who hawk their food in the DMs.
Moo’s Craft Barbecue has been up and running for several months now, earning followers and a loyal fanbase along the way. Step through the driveway door on a given weekend and find fans and newcomers mingling next to the still-warm smoker, with a line to the back patio slab where the Muñoz family stands (yes, sometimes their kids end up making an appearance). Andrew is on the slicing and weighing and the finer discussions of smoke point and cook times, while Michelle warms the crowd with a smile and heavy scoop of whatever side dishes she’s whipped up.
Blink once and it’s like you’re at a rather popular summertime grill party, complete with drinks and music and shade away from the sun. But blink twice and the whole scene will start to pull into tighter focus: This is East Los Angeles, one of the most densely packed street food centers in all of LA County. Tamaleros and eloteros work the bus stops here, while taco stands and ice cream men and churro trucks and women selling jugos from pushcarts fill in much of the rest. A few doors down from the Muñoz family clan, on the same side of the street, a prominent sign hitched to a lamp post reminds people that public vending is very much against the law. It even cites the legal code.
That doesn’t stop the weekend turnout at Moo’s. Family friends now don official shirts and manage the flow of foot traffic into and around the house, asking people not to double-park or block driveways or leave their trash on the sidewalk. After all, that’s what got All Flavor No Grease in Watts shut down. Inside, the party is a bit of contained chaos, with eager eaters eyeing their place among the crowd and doing guesswork as to exactly what (and how much) will be left by the time they make it to Michelle and Andrew. Forget preorders, this is true Texas-style food truck luck and diligence: Show up early, wait your turn, hope it’s not sold out.
Thankfully Andrew has the spreadsheets to anticipate everyone’s needs. He works in medical insurance by day — a job with enough travel to keep dropping him into Dallas for meetings and, after, runs to venerated barbecue stops like Pecan Lodge — so the numbers side isn’t hard. The real issue is keeping the previous night’s cook controlled and learning from past mistakes, especially with a new double-sized offset smoker. Handwritten notes line the smoker’s panels, memories of a brisket cook gone by.
Andrew, like many other disciples of smoked meat, cooks in the central Texas tradition. That means brisket with nothing more than a salt and pepper rub, and pork ribs equally unadorned. There’s white bread on the side, pulled pork for anyone who asks, and a couple of mild and hot barbecue sauce variants around as needed. It’s good stuff, and the briskets from Premier Meat wears their time under the thin blue smoke well.
Michelle’s half of the equation is just as interesting, with a sides menu that includes esquites, the traditional Mexican street corn salad. There are also handmade agua frescas to match with more traditional options like potato salad, coleslaw, and beans. But for a couple that found love in nearby Montebello and have always called greater East Los Angeles their home, Moo’s just wouldn’t feel right without a little local flavor.
It all plays. The esquites, the central Texas brisket, the neighbors and travelers from as far away as San Bernardino, all sweating out the summer next to a burnished green smoker in someone’s East LA backyard. This place is a party on the weekends, one that feels like Los Angeles and throws off the traditions of street vending in a part of the city known so famously for it. At Moo’s the party is at least half the fun.
Not that the barbecue itself isn’t up to snuff; it definitely is. It’s just that, whether you knew it or not, Los Angeles is already a barbecue town, even if it doesn’t follow the usual rules.
Moo’s Craft Barbecue, East Los Angeles. Follow them on Instagram for updates on the next event, including a pop-up at Indie Brewing Company in Boyle Heights on July 22.