What does it mean to open a brick and mortar barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles right now? There’s the usual list of needs: permitting, staffing, finding the money to make it all happen. Then there’s the pandemic stuff, including creating a safe work environment for employees, for diners doing pickups — and that’s to say nothing of the pandemic-era competition, when more and more folks are setting up home restaurants to serve their own communities. The Los Angeles barbecue scene of the past several years has been nothing if not (mostly) tight-knit, but still, the barbecue business is a hard racket to make work.
“It’s tough in Los Angeles,” says Alec Lopez of AGL’s Craft Meats, a longtime local pop-up known for stints at places like Strand Brewing, Glendale Tap, and Ambitious Ales. Lopez is currently working to formally open his first restaurant inside of a small storefront in the Florence-Firestone area, after helping to man the pits at the now-closed Pearl’s BBQ in the Arts District, and on his own. The new shop, which sits south of Downtown and north of Compton, formerly belonged to Smokin’ Telle’s BBQ, a closed operation from 2019 that was itself an offshoot of a catering company trying to make it in the restaurant game.
Now it’s Lopez’s turn to smoke brisket, flip ribs, and serve customers at the address, except this time he’s got something that basically no other fully permitted physical barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles County has: A Texas-sized 1,000 gallon offset pit smoker where the restaurant’s meat will be cooked, despite there being no local legal framework to do so. Just ask Flatpoint Barbecue, who got shut down last weekend and slapped with a $1,000 fine.
If it works, AGL’s Craft Meats could help to spark a smoker revolution in Los Angeles.
To date, Los Angeles County public health, building and safety, and state air quality board folks have each (in their own way) fought off the arrival of true Texas smoking traditions at the restaurant level. Open-air pit smokers are not technically allowed to be used at any restaurant under their jurisdiction, which is why Burt Bakman of Trudy’s Underground Barbecue had to switch to a restaurant-compliant box smoker when opening Slab on West Third Street. Bludso’s uses a compliant indoor setup; so does Ray’s BBQ in Huntington Park, not far from Lopez’s new address on Central Avenue. Other states and cities have long allowed these traditional smokers, which many in Texas (and elsewhere) say is the only way to truly and properly cook a brisket. But not in LA County.
There are creative local workarounds, from event permit usage to public health officials who don’t ask too many (or the right) questions at older restaurants further out from the city center, but ultimately a fully legal, non-pop-up barbecue restaurant using an offset Texas-style tank smoker simply isn’t allowed at the moment; you’d have to go to Orange County’s buzzy new Heritage Barbecue for that.
Lopez’s new restaurant setup at AGL’s Craft Meats won’t be legal, either, but he’s willing to push it if it helps to bring more clarity to barbecue in Los Angeles County overall. “I’m going to try to do this for as long as possible,” says Lopez of his plan to proudly continue using the former Pearl’s smoker to serve customers at his restaurant. The rig itself won’t be there (it’s a beast to haul, for one), so Lopez and his team will cook at an undisclosed off-site location, transporting the food to an existing box smoker inside the restaurant to maintain necessary serving temperatures and storage requirements. He’s hoping one day to change that process. “I mean, if I could pull up the smoker and be out front with it, that’d be even better,” says Lopez. The current two-part cooking and transporting process adds steps, time, and other headaches — something fully-permitted restaurants don’t need to worry as much about.
Right now, the Long Beach-born Lopez is selling around 15-20 briskets’ worth of meat each weekend, plus ribs and sides, serving only on Saturdays by Instagram preorder. He plans to grow those hours to include Sundays this spring, then Thursdays and Fridays down the line, with post-pandemic ideas of of reconfiguring the restaurant to even include a buffet line where walk-up diners can watch the carving in action. He’ll expand the menu too, growing on its Central Texas-style oak-smoked base to include other fun items like barbecued beef cheeks with Korean flavors, plus more pastrami and jerk-seasoned ribs. Lopez is part Cuban, having watched his father and grandfather cook pigs for holidays, so that’s a possibility as well. “It’s AGL’s Craft Meats,” says Lopez, “I want to keep that craft spin on it. Different sauces, different meats, you name it.”
That all comes with time, and planning, and the nervousness of opening a brand new restaurant during a pandemic — while trying to change the entire scene for others, too. There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but Lopez has a broad base of supporters from West LA to Whittier who have been in his corner this far. Now he just needs some public officials in Los Angeles County to back him up, too.
AGL’s Craft Meats is available Saturdays at 8472 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles, by preorder only.