There’s a lot to like about Los Angeles’s recent barbecue moment, including the behind-the-scenes folks who make it all happen. But there are tons of diehard Central Coast-style cookers who would argue that barbecue has already been a part of the meat tradition in greater California, dating back generations. One such outfit is Calabasas Custom Catering, a weekend setup in front of 66-year-old Jim’s Fallbrook Market in Woodland Hills that doubles down on tri-tip, robs, crispy chicken halves, and that all-important red oak wood that Santa Maria-style barbecue aficionados prefer.
Calabasas Custom Catering is far from the new kid on the block. Husband and wife team Paul and Fran have been using the Jim’s Fallbrook Market parking lot for almost a decade, setting up in the back corner with some shaded tables, plenty of menu boards, a few photographs of the celebrities that have stopped by, and an aging food truck for support.
The team actually used to run a fleet of trucks throughout the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County, counting more than a dozen over the course of 40 years. Those were lunch rigs mostly, playing to the construction crews of a booming Valley decades ago.
Today, Calabasas Custom mostly sticks to private parties and that weekend cookout in Woodland Hills. They’re open Saturdays and Sundays only from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a big slow-cooking grill setup parked across the parking lot. That’s where the action happens, as they fire off dozens of racks of ribs, half-chickens, and tri-tip cuts throughout the day. Smoke billows up into the blue sky, and everyone in the surrounding neighborhood knows where to go.
The good news is, there’s something for everybody. The wide-ranging meat menu offers full of half rib racks sold a la carte, takeaway piles of tri-tip for eating at home, or meal plate combos and sandwiches that are better to eat on premises. Not that there’s much room — Jim’s only offers a couple of picnic tables near the front entrance. Otherwise it’s time to belly up to the hood of the car.
No worries, it’s best to devour to food as soon as possible, with messy fingers and a slew of side items from macaroni salad to coleslaw to two heat levels worth of barbecue sauce. That’s half the fun of places like Calabasas Custom Catering, restaurant operations that don’t hold central Texas-style brisket to be an untouchable holy grail of meat unwilling to share tray space with even a scrap of sauce. Diners get to do what they like. Pile on the coleslaw to a forkful of tri-tip, or pile the whole thing into a tortilla with some pico de gallo and go nuts.
California’s enduring Central Coast barbecue scene is served family-style, not in the shared-plates mentality of higher-end restaurants, but in the beautiful notion that it’s all there for the taking, in one big layout reachable by anyone at the table with an arm. That’s certainly the ethos behind Calabasas Custom’s 50-50 sandwich, which stuffs spoonfuls of pulled pork inside a small French roll that’s already layered with barbecue sauce and sliced tri-tip.
Nothing sacred in this cross-cultural barbecue melting pot, and that’s by design. There’s also nothing fancy about what Calabasas Custom Catering is offering. Fran and Paul don’t have company Instagram accounts, their Yelp page carries well under 20 reviews after years of serving, and there’s a Facebook page that hasn’t been updated since 2009. That leaves only one real option for ‘discovering’ the food that the pair has been serving up in various iterations since the 1970s: Simply show up, buy some barbecue, and dig in.
Calabasas Custom Catering sets up weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the parking lot of Jim’s Fallbrook Market, 5947 Fallbrook Avenue, Woodland Hills.