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An Incomplete History of Los Angeles Barbecue

From earth ovens to the future of the smoked meat scene in Southern California

Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

The history of barbecue is, elementally, a history of humans and fire. Grilling, charring, roasting, smoking, and preserving animal flesh for consumption is quite literally a tradition as timeless as the Stone Age, though specific techniques, ingredients, and cooking instruments have changed greatly in the intervening millennia. Pinning down the precise origins of the Los Angeles barbecue scene is a similarly vaporous task; vaqueros and, later, cowboys have cooked meat in coal-warmed pits and on open-air spits here for centuries.

Unlike, say, the history of spice and heat in Los Angeles, a tracking timeline for barbecue is less about dates and more about broad periods of transition. As the region’s population boomed and diversified, so too did its culinary associations with smoked meat; the rise of social media, celebrity chefdom, and locally made smokers pushed those changes further. It has all culminated here and now, in this moment that marks what is very likely the height of LA’s barbecue culture, a time when Instagram stars selling backyard meats are competing with family-run heritage businesses that go back decades — and the whole nation is paying attention.

Here now are eight important shifts that have helped to shape the trajectory of barbecue in greater Los Angeles.

Vaquero Culture

As with the rest of America, the real culture surrounding LA barbecue — from its iconography and branding to the meats being smoked — is one rooted in old traditions and live-fire cooking, usually with nods to cattle rustlin’, cowboy hats, and the open range. For the West Coast, that means vaqueros, the horsemen from Spain and Mexico who began to roam grazing lands en masse by the late 1700s, well before the days of white cowboys glamorized in pulp Western novels and films. Because of their itinerant lifestyle and ready access to cattle, vaqueros helped usher in LA’s first barbecue era. Pit-cooked cow quarters were a staple at large community gatherings, while smaller cuts like tri-tip were best for on-the-move eating. Today’s Santa Maria style of barbecue, unique to California, stems from this time of the open West.

Black Migration(s)

Greater Los Angeles owes its cultural and culinary diversity to the exodus of large groups from elsewhere, whether internationally or across the continental United States. As millions of Black families left the South in search of better and more equitable lives, their migration — which unfolded in several distinct waves from the post-Civil War era to the middle of the 20th century — specifically impacted LA barbecue. Waves of mostly Southern Black families from Texas, Louisiana, and beyond helped to change the culinary landscape of Southern California and brought family and regional cooking traditions to the area, along with unique ingredients, some of which trace back to West Africa.

The Second Great Migration, which took place during and just after World War II, pushed the smoked meat scene even further. California’s Black population doubled between 1940 and 1950, even as redlining and other racist and government-sanctioned policies impacted nearly every facet of life. Black families were forced to commute farther for work, and paid less than their white counterparts when they got there. Because of racial covenants Black families were forced to live closely together in purposefully underserved communities, and were often unwelcome (sometimes dangerously so) in other towns and cities after dark — to say nothing of the restaurants and businesses that routinely turned away Black customers.

Barbecue restaurants sprang up across the city in the decades following the Great Migration, while backyard smoked meat hangouts and weekend church cookouts settled in as a vital part of community building across Los Angeles. Even today, some of the city’s most prominent barbecue families can trace their lineage back decades, if not further, to the waves of Black migration that shaped the area into what it is today.

Dr. Hogly Wogly’s

In the past decade or so, much of LA’s barbecue scene — at least a lot of the stuff that’s shown on Instagram and heralded publicly — has become intertwined with the look and flavors of smoked meat found in the Lone Star State. Horse Thief BBQ was among the first of the new breed to cook in the Texas tradition, transforming a defunct patio at Grand Central Market in 2013 into an open-air bazaar for brisket, beer, and hot links. Ray’s BBQ in Huntington Park, previously an underground backyard pop-up, followed suit in 2014, and Culver City’s Maple Block Meat Co. arrived a year later.

But none of these places, from Slab to Boneyard Bistro to Valley pop-up Carnivore Kingdom, can touch the early impact of Dr. Hogly Wogly’s Tyler Texas BBQ. The Van Nuys original opened in 1969 and introduced huge swaths of the city to the Central Texas smoke style. The restaurant’s heavily charred beef ribs and thin barbecue sauce can still be found in the Valley today, and while the lunchtime lines subsided long ago, fans of the place and its timeless charm abound. Frankly, lots of folks would have no idea what an LA smoked beef rib was in the first place if it weren’t for the real Dr. Hogly Wogly, an actual pharmacist and former Piggly Wiggly delivery man, who earned the nickname from his wife.

Woody Phillips

If today’s LA barbecue has one singular grandfather, it has to be Woody Phillips. Born in 1941, the Louisiana native moved to South Los Angeles at age 20 for a career in the aerospace industry, but it was his passion for cooking barbecue — at family cookouts and for the local community — that would shape the city he newly called home. Spurred on by family and friends, Phillips opened Woody’s Bar-B-Que on Slauson in 1975, taking over a struggling barbecue business and reengineering the menu with ribs doused in a sweet, slow-simmered sauce. Woody’s became a hit, expanding into multiple locations and even earning its own offshoot restaurant named Phillips, run by cousins, not far away. The two establishments have enjoyed a long, if friendly, family rivalry in the decades since. While Woody, the elder statesman, died just before the pandemic at age 78, his family continues to pursue his legacy of barbecue exceptionalism. The endless discussions of which place does it better, Phillips or Woody’s, continues to this day.

Bludso’s in Compton

For years, those in the know chose Bludso’s. Owner and pitmaster Kevin Bludso caught the city’s attention when he opened his Compton shop in 2008, earning praise from the late Jonathan Gold and inspiring fans from all over to make the drive (and outlast the wait) for brisket and ribs made with lots of Texas love. From there, Bludso expanded his brand to include two other locations — Bludso’s Bar & Que on La Brea, and an international barbecue outpost across the Pacific in Melbourne, Australia. The original Compton shop closed for good in 2016, and while Bludso had promised to open another small takeaway nearby, it’s less likely now that he’s starring in Netflix shows and has relocated to his hometown of Corsicana, Texas. Still, the mystique of the original location remains.

Trudy’s Underground Barbecue

While Trudy’s is far from the first to introduce cooked barbecue to LA’s vast street food scene (let’s not forget about Ragtop Fern’s and his sidewalk box smoker, or the many weekend drum smokers spread around South LA), owner and pitmaster Burt Bakman was among the first to leverage Instagram successfully enough to turn his underground brisket hustle into a viable business. Today, Los Angeles barbecue is in many ways led by backyard, garage, and driveway pop-ups instead of real restaurants, with entire websites and podcasts devoted to finding and following the unpermitted weekend pitmasters of Southern California.

By smoking what was in 2017 probably the best Texas meats in Los Angeles from an offset smoker in his yard, Bakman partially created the scene we see today. His Trudy’s brand has also been a great ambassador for LA’s many pitmasters over the years, with Bakman sharing tips (and a smoker) with up-and-coming cooks, collaborating with nationally known names, and highlighting the vastness and quality of the smoked meat in LA. In 2018, Bakman opened Slab on West Third Street with the h.wood Group, where fans can find a box smoker version of his brisket, plus ribs, sides, and weekly pastrami.

The Anointing

People with even a passing knowledge of the national barbecue scene likely know the name Daniel Vaughn. The Texas Monthly writer is as close to a kingmaker as American barbecue has, gifting worthy restaurants with long lines of eager fans thanks to his annual lists and features. And while Vaughn mostly sticks to the Lone Star State, his words have also proven to be vastly validating for the Los Angeles barbecue scene simply because they carry so much weight. In 2015, Vaughn called Maple Block Meat Co.’s brisket the best in California, saying the restaurant could well become his new “barbecue home away from home;” in 2018, he called the meat at Ray’s in Huntington Park “otherworldly.” Each restaurant has proudly made a meal out of Vaughn’s words, which have helped shine a spotlight on LA and, along with Adam Perry Lang’s former pop-ups behind the Jimmy Kimmel studio in Hollywood and the All Star BBQ at the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl festival, given the LA barbecue community the national media attention it deserves.

Heritage Barbecue

Today’s Southern California barbecue scene is an ever-moving entity that jumps from new and innovative pop-ups, like the Neighborhood Barbecue, to lesser-seen options, like the Carolina-focused Edna Jane’s BBQ, both of which began during the pandemic. But almost nobody has done more for the future of Los Angeles barbecue than Daniel and Brenda Castillo. Their restaurant, Heritage Barbecue, ironically located an hour south in Orange County, is likely the first fully permitted barbecue restaurant in the region to use an on-site offset smoker. That’s a big deal for Texas traditionalists and for local pit builders like Fat Stack Smokers and Harper, who see the tank smokers as vital to the scene that they’re (literally) building in greater Los Angeles. However, local air quality boards, county building and safety code enforcers, and public health officials have been loath to approve offset smokers for restaurant use, forcing many of those Texas adherents into underground roles. Without the ability to cook on the equipment that matters to them in a fully permitted and legal way, many of LA’s best pitmasters may continue to operate at the fringes instead of opening up their own small businesses.

By getting their outdoor smoker setup fully certified and approved by public health and government officials, even a county away, the Castillos are showing us what common sense and restaurant-grade safety can look like in the modern barbecue era. Their space is an outdoor dining destination in itself, with the smokers on display and fans eager to watch the pitmasters at work in the open air. Many, like the itinerant smoked-meat-focused restaurant Zef BBQ and the busy AGL’s Craft Meats in South LA, are relying on the path paved by Heritage Barbecue to deliver them into their own space someday, in part by relying on an actual playbook the Castillos are handing out, which details the many conversations, permits, and pressure points that they worked through in order to open up legally.

Now, a year into business and with restaurant lines that snake down the block daily, Castillo is still fielding calls and DMs from hopeful pitmasters looking to take what he’s done in Orange County and apply it elsewhere. Some, like the closed Pearl’s in the Arts District, have tried to skirt the smoker rules with little success, while others, like the Swinging Door in North Hollywood, have gotten by simply by staying low-key. If the finer points of Castillo’s construction can find a way to become formalized in LA County, though, the sky’s the limit for LA’s already bustling barbecue scene. More smokers mean more business, and that means more customers and more ingenuity across the scene at large — all great things for LA barbecue. Thanks to the Castillos specifically, there’s hope ahead.

Janna Morton is an award winning illustrator whose colorful work focuses on themes of nature, inclusivity, overlooked beauty, grief, and joy. She grew up a fat, mixed race child of older parents living in the highly segregated city of Baltimore, Maryland.