“My roots are Southern,” says Lonnie Edwards, the soft-spoken owner of RibTown BBQ, a busy parking lot setup in LA’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. Flanked by an intimidating-looking smoker wafting the scents of smoldering wood, beef ribs, and shimmering sausage links, the native Angeleno seems larger than life. Between the plumes of smoke, the bustling streets around his setup, and the numerous meats and sauces requiring attentive preparation, one would presume Edwards to be working with a sense of urgency and intensity. But when he breaks into his usual wide grin, it’s clear that Edwards has no use for a frantic or serious demeanor — not in his life, and certainly not in his barbecue: “Low and slow. Everything’s straightforward, nothing’s overly complex,” he says.
The 61-year-old has been cooking barbecue for decades, first as a hobby and more recently as a business. His smokers have quickly become an integral part of the ever-changing food scene in Jefferson Park (and South Los Angeles at large), a community that has endured redlining, government-sanctioned division and demolition, and — most recently — gentrification and redevelopment. Along with neighboring historic West Adams, the Jefferson Park area is today a hotbed of flipped houses, condo construction, and brand-new restaurants, putting Edwards and his RibTown operation at the center of one of the most rapidly changing neighborhoods in all of Los Angeles.
Edwards has been taking in the slow changes to the neighborhood for years as a resident and longtime youth football coach; he only began speeding up his own timeline, first as a backyard grill master and now as a restaurant owner, in the past several years. The timing has been fortuitous.
Recently, an emergent group of Black entrepreneurs, including Edwards, have begun to move the barbecue conversation back toward its Southern heart, without leaving the half-decade of Texas-focused dominance behind. Many are native Angelenos, some are first- or second-generation transplants from Louisiana or South Carolina families, locals who have found new reach using old smoker traditions and heritage recipes. Others, like the Wood Urban Kitchen, see barbecue as a jumping-off point for a whole new neighborhood vibe, complete with pulsing music and weekend hangouts for the next generation of Black Angelenos in changing Inglewood. But they’re not the first to define LA’s burgeoning barbecue scene.
There is a deep history behind the region’s smoked meat universe, built and codified in part through Black migration to the American West nearly a century ago. Families from states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee moved to the West Coast in droves during and after World War II in search of better working and living conditions, far from the Jim Crow laws and deep racial divisions that pervaded the American South for generations. When they arrived, of course, Black Southerners still faced segregation, harassment, and inequality at nearly every turn. Many families carried with them the cooking traditions and recipes of their former lives in the South, bonding in tightly knit communities over dishes as simple as oxtail and rib tips, off-cuts that were little used outside the Black community at the time.
As a direct result, the heart of LA’s barbecue scene has been proudly Black and tacitly Southern for generations. Restaurants and weekend street smokes have in large part collected in and around the Black cultural hubs of greater LA, in neighborhoods like Crenshaw, Inglewood, Compton, Carson, and West Adams, often setting up in strip malls, at high-traffic intersections, and in church parking lots after services. Unlike much of the modern Texas scene or the whole-hog Carolina barbecue style, ribs (sauced, sticky, and often sweet) take center stage, served alongside LA staples like chicken links and buoyed by sides like collard greens, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, and yams. And while some have noted the significance and allure of these culinary traditions over time, like Adrian Miller in his recently published book Black Smoke, the greater and more current conversation around California’s barbecue scene has not kept up.
Over the past decade, that talk has largely shifted away from broadly Southern (and predominantly Black-owned) stands and restaurants to a more distinctly Central Texan perspective, where the sauce is secondary, beef is king, and oak wood in an offset smoker is the technique of choice. It’s easy to love the barky, peppery Texas meats, particularly when they’re infused with LA heart at spots like the venerable Moo’s Craft Barbecue or the underground garage outfit Smokey Jones BBQ in Culver City — but loving that Texas-style exclusively leaves a lot of other great LA barbecue on the table and ignores much of the city’s history.
LA’s newest Black pitmasters have been artfully striking a balance between reverence for barbecue of the past and eagerness to grow the scene they’re a part of now. RibTown, Louella’s Cali Soul Kitchen, Bootsy BBQ, and Ol’ Skool BBQ are shifting the narrative and once again broadening the city’s appreciation for smoked meat in all its forms. That’s a very good thing, in part because it pulls Los Angeles away from the hegemony of Texas barbecue. Edwards is at the forefront of this new-is-old scene, carving out space for his own barbecue style, hybridized with the understated influence of Southern barbecue and sensibility.
Edwards says he’s thankful that a growing social media presence and a glowing pandemic-era piece in the Los Angeles Times have helped to single out his business amid the discord of change in the neighborhood, but he’s not the type to get riled up thinking about what he does or doesn’t have compared to anybody else; he’s just happy to be turning meat for paying customers. “Low and slow” is more than just a barbecue mantra; for the mellow Edwards, it’s also a personal perspective.
“I can’t be pigeonholed behind what somebody else is doing,” says Edwards, speaking of his blended barbecue influences. “I think in life, you’ve just got to be who you are.”
For Edwards and RibTown, that means lots of pork and plenty of sauce. Rib tips are his specialty, an end-of-the-bone cut common enough in Southern barbecue and soul food cooking but little used in Texas. Edwards says the saucy, smoke-softened tips have become his signature, in part because he started by serving the immediate families and neighbors in Jefferson Park first. “It’s the gold,” he says. “It’s got everything, the marbling, the meat. It’s more flavorful. In the Black community, rib tips are huge.”
Because of a generational connection to the local Black community that has long supported his business, and because of the Southern-leaning food he serves, Edwards has — despite his low-key approach — managed to find himself at the center of a second big Los Angeles moment: the rise of the modern Black barbecue scene. After years of Texas-style barbecue dominance, mostly cooked by people with little ancestral connection to the food, RibTown and Black-owned restaurants and pop-ups like it across Los Angeles have begun to redirect the smoked meat conversation back toward its roots.
Taken together, these Black-owned barbecue pop-ups and restaurants are restoring the history of LA smoke one rib plate at a time. They’re also cementing the city’s barbecue legacy as an inclusive place where Texas bark, Southern sauces, and Angeleno-specific flavor innovations can all coexist. It’s a great time to be cooking and eating barbecue all across Los Angeles right now, as evidenced by the lengthening lines at RibTown. “We’ve exceeded the neighborhood,” says Edwards of his increasingly diverse clientele, people eager to taste the modern interpretation of Black Los Angeles barbecue. “We’re for everybody now.”
While Phil Martin of Black Cat BBQ doesn’t like to make waves, he will tell you in confidence that he thinks his Southeastern meat menu is in some ways more difficult to perfect than the brisket, hot links, and dry-rubbed ribs that many Texas-loving LA pop-ups have come to embrace. In truth, he never really cooked or ate much brisket growing up, and says the fat that rings the two-muscle cut so beloved by Texans can forgive some overcooking by less experienced pitmasters. There’s an intricacy to the sauces and rubs that form the backbone of his weekly cooks at the Beverly Hills farmers market — flavors that the Texas stuff doesn’t often have, he notes, ticking off spices that span well beyond the salt and pepper that plays so prominently in the Lone Star State. Not that he has anything against the tastebuds of his customers who come looking for the wobbly brisket they’ve seen on Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass videos.
“Everybody right now is just ‘Texas, Texas, Texas,’” says Martin. “I’m not here to convert people.” Though he held occasional Black Cat BBQ pop-ups out of his El Sereno home during the pandemic, Martin prefers his weekly farmers market audience over the fickle social media chase for customers. Black Cat isn’t a backyard hobby; it’s the primary income source for his family, so every weekend Martin happily cooks the stuff he knows will sell, and these days that includes brisket. “I like the creamy, mayonnaisey coleslaw,” says Martin. “My customers like the vinegar version, so guess what? I bring the vinegar.”
The 45-year-old Martin, who grew up in Colorado but has been around his Southern family’s pits all his life, is happy to balance his bottom line with his own personal taste. He started cooking whole hog as a child while visiting family in South Carolina, but he didn’t start to formalize his own drum and box-smoker barbecue setup until he’d been in LA for years. Even now, he finds that he’s happiest playing between the poles of authenticity, not striving to cook strictly regional versions of anything. He’s proud of his colorful, complex rib rub and likes that his barbecue sauce leans sweet, even if it means getting an earful from his own Carolina-barbecue-loving parents. “Hey, that’s what I like,” says Martin. “I just do what I do, and as long as my bills get paid, I’m happy. The proof is in the pudding.”
Like RibTown’s Lonnie Edwards, Martin says that while he follows (and is a fan of) many of the prominent modern barbecue pop-ups around the city these days, he doesn’t feel the need to compete. “To be honest, it’s not something I really think about,” he says. Black Cat’s barbecue is broadly Southern and is influenced by his personal experience as a Black Angeleno cooking meat and sides for farmers market customers in Beverly Hills; a different perspective from other pitmasters across town is bound to offer a different result, which is ultimately good for everyone involved. LA barbecue’s far-reaching and inclusive breadth is its strength; there’s room for everyone (and everyone’s individual flavor profiles and styles) in the nation’s most populous county. To oversimplify the scene to just being about tri-tip or brisket would be missing the whole point.
Martin doesn’t see the scene in black-and-white terms either, though he admits that not all barbecue restaurants carry the same quality. “You know, I don’t need anybody to remind me that I’m Black. I hear about ‘Black barbecue’ or ‘white barbecue,’ but I think it’s more ‘good barbecue’ and ‘bad barbecue,’” he says. “In South Carolina, there are a lot of white guys who can get down. That’s real.”
Martin says he’s happy to bide his time on the fringes of LA’s talked-about barbecue scene while playing to his given audience at the farmers market — especially if it means he won’t be shut down for cooking without permits, as has happened to other prominent barbecue operators over the years. Getting shut down wouldn’t just be a one-time setback; it would mean fines and an uncertain financial future for his family.
“The stakes are a lot higher now,” he adds. “I mean, this is literally it for me. I was having a conversation with a customer of mine who said, ‘Oh, man, your barbecue is great.’ Well, it has to be. I’ve got a mortgage. Gas is $4 a gallon. It’s got to be great. Playtime is over.”
Manu Aka takes a similar approach to his North Hollywood restaurant, the Memphis Grill. The barbecue takeaway opened during the pandemic and has struggled to find its footing, navigating shutdowns and low foot traffic while trying to build its social media brand in a saturated barbecue market. Aka had been working to open his Tennessee-style barbecue restaurant for eight years before signing his lease on Lankershim, and now most of his days are spent trying to sell out of ribs and pulled pork while also worrying about growing his business locally and on social media.
“Sometimes I think I’m in the Twilight Zone,” says Aka of the year of openings, closings, and general pandemic uncertainty. “Things are challenging, to say the least.” The rocky start has pushed back the opening of his indoor dining space and the reveal of his full menu, so for now, the Memphis Grill remains a work in progress, albeit one that still serves some pretty fantastic barbecue. There are pulled pork sandwiches (a Memphis classic) and ribs that can be served dry or “wet,” the latter draped in a tomatoey, brown sugary sauce.
As for the hurdles he can overcome, Aka says he’s focusing on the product first and playing to a crowd of homesick Tennesseans and Valley diners looking for quality barbecue. “Memphis really puts an emphasis on pork,” he says, though like Phil Martin, he also has brisket, tri-tip, and smoked chicken on the menu. Aka knows those will sell too, but for him, pork is king. “It’s something I’ve dedicated myself to, to make it as excellent as possible.”
With time, Aka hopes to turn Memphis Grill into a hub for all kinds of Southern flavors, including fish preparations and even burgers and fries. His focus for now, though, is simply to build up his financial reserves after opening during the pandemic. “I always have hope, no matter what,” says Aka. “After everything I’ve invested, this is scary. I’m not going to lie about that.” He’s handling the cooking himself, while his wife takes orders and tries to keep their social media channels updated. Finding staff also remains an issue for the Memphis Grill (as it does for all restaurants right now).
There’s also a barrier to entry for many new barbecue operators in Los Angeles, especially for those without the finances and free time to network with the established players on the scene. Having the right (expensive) offset smoker or showing up in an LA pitmaster group shot on Instagram or being invited to the exclusive All-Star BBQ event at the annual LA Times Food Bowl series can have lasting, positive effects for an upstart barbecue business’s bottom line. Aka hasn’t broken through just yet, but it’s not for lack of willpower or desire.
Ultimately, Aka and his wife can only take things one day at a time, one post at a time. “I can’t show everything I want to right now,” he says. “I’m frustrated, but I’m just so busy trying to make what I have the best it can be.”
For Los Angeles native Keith Corbin, chef and co-owner of Alta Adams and Louella’s Cali Soul Kitchen along with chef Daniel Patterson, being a part of the current rise of Black-owned barbecue means not only showcasing his smoked meats but also opening up the conversation more broadly to the historic roots of diasporic Black foods. He’s quick to pull the threads of current flavors to see how far back they go, and he has a reverence for the West African foods and cultures that inform his Angeleno cooking. Corbin quietly opened his newish stand, Louella’s, inside Culver City’s Citizen Public Market this summer, after more than a year of waiting and uncertainty as a result of the pandemic. While Alta in West Adams continuously remade itself during that same period — going from an upscale sit-down restaurant to a takeout dinner spot and wine shop — Louella’s never had the chance to begin, until now. The restaurant marries soul food and California flavors with tastes and techniques from the historic South and Africa to create something unique to LA.
Throughout the pandemic, as Alta Adams toggled between being open for on-site dining, reduced to takeout, or closed entirely, Corbin found solace in smoking meat using a tried-and-true backyard barrel smoker that reminded him of weekends with his Louisiana-born grandfather. “There was no recipe, no sit-down to talk techniques,” says Corbin, “I just watched him and his passion for it.” Many of those dishes, including an upcoming brisket sandwich cooked over apple and mesquite wood, can now be found at Louella’s.
“It’s a part of our culture, our heritage,” Corbin says. “Not even just Black, if you think about the development of America and through all the migration.” Corbin points to Mexican-style barbacoa, itself influenced by Caribbean pit cooking, and to the Portuguese sausages and tri-tip smoking of California’s historic Santa Maria-style barbecue. “Even if you go back to the Wild Wild West, cowboys cooking meat over open flame, it’s just an American thing. Kill meat, cook it. Each culture has just made it their own.”
Still, Corbin draws an easy line from today’s Black barbecue scene to the culture’s rich and traumatic history through the American South and, ultimately, the slave trade. “West Africa kind of resembles how we eat today in California,” he says, from the simplicity of the preparations to the ingredients to the multicultural background of the chefs. “You have Black people who can cook Caribbean, and that’s separate from the South, and that’s separate from Creole. It’s not about wet, dry, vinegar … it’s our own thing.” Today’s smoked meat scene in Los Angeles (and its dining scene at large) is a unique amalgamation of so much diversity and history, with a backbone in the Black experience. “It’s a representation of what California is, it’s a multicultural state,” says Corbin. “Let’s bring all these flavors, all these influences that people have used to cook, and bring it together.”
Lonnie Edwards of RibTown says he doesn’t view anyone — be it Corbin or the Long Beach underground pop-up Brother’s Keeper BBQ — as competition. He’s been around long enough to have witnessed the many ebbs and flows of Black-owned barbecue across Los Angeles, from the original Bludso’s in Compton to the Lighthouse on Western to the Mr. Jim’s days from decades ago, with its catchy slogan “You need no teeth to eat Mr. Jim’s beef.” He’s taking the current renaissance in stride, too.
So when will RibTown become as famous across Los Angeles as some of the other big names in barbecue? For Edwards, who measures himself only against his own desires and vision, it’s a matter of time. “I’m just focused on the food,” he says. “All things in time, that’s all I can say.”