Does Los Angeles have its own barbecue style?
For many dyed-in-the-wool fanatics of regional barbecue from Texas to Kansas City to the Carolinas, the short answer (served with pursed lips and a shudder, certainly) would be, unequivocally, no. But that succinct critique doesn’t come close to accounting for the breadth and richness of LA’s smoked meat scene. There is deep passion here, from passed-down barbacoa traditions to the Portuguese sausages that have survived for centuries as part of Santa Maria-style barbecue. Los Angeles is a city where barbecue isn’t some hyper-regional dedication; rather, it’s a personal journey told through smoke and generations.
More simply put: Los Angeles — thanks to its massive scale, history, and diversity — is one of the best barbecue cities in America. Countless styles, techniques, and family traditions are represented in the local smoke scene, giving LA an edge that almost no other barbecue town has. In the span of an afternoon it’s possible to score smoky, barky Texas brisket, chorizo verde hot links, saucy Southern-style spare ribs, and goat barbacoa that was cooked overnight in a Central Valley pit. And while strict adherents to specific regional styles (such as Carolina whole-hog pork) may not find precisely the place that scratches their itch, that’s okay. Southern California’s hundreds of barbecue restaurants, rotating pop-ups, and weekend stands are playing a different game entirely.
There is traditionalist fare, like the impeccable Central Texas-style ’cue (viewed through a California lens, naturally) produced by Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano. There are the new-school flavors of places like iii Mas BBQ, which marries smoked meats with the spices of LA’s large Armenian diaspora. In Orange County, a Smoke Queen pit madam runs a 500-gallon offset smoker and turns out weekly Chinese American delicacies that include rich, fatty slow-smoked char siu. There are entirely forgotten genres of local barbecue that once pervaded the Southland, and also a modern push to bring Black-owned and Southern-focused barbecue back to the forefront of the smoked meat conversation. There are female pitmasters making surprising and delicious new inroads with long-used cuts of meat, and a singular rib fanatic who conjures magic from a trailer in a Pasadena parking lot.
This whole week, Eater LA will be dissecting and devouring the abundance of ribs, briskets, pork shoulders, and sides offered up by the greater Los Angeles barbecue scene. We’ve got maps for local pop-ups and maps for out-of-town barbecue restaurants to try; features on famous barbecue faces and lesser-known arrivals; a winding tale about the connections that a single South LA smoker can make across generations; and the intricate history of a once-legendary barbecue tradition that has almost disappeared entirely. Welcome to Barbecue Week. — Farley Elliott