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Custom barbecue barrel pits in South Los Angeles
Custom barbecue barrel pits from Sweet Daddy Rose
Mona Holmes

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The Hidden Origins of LA’s Legendary Barrel Barbecue Pits

A small group of local producers has been supplying LA with the barrel pits on street corners and in backyards for decades

If you’re driving on Centinela slightly west of La Brea, glance over to the north side of the street to Close Up Kuts barbershop. More often than not, owner Dwight Morgan — also known as Dwight the Barber — will have his black barrel barbecue pit set up directly outside his four-year-old business. Morgan performs double duty as he crafts sleek fades on the heads of loyal customers before cleaning himself up, washing his hands, and moving outside to rotate food on his weathered barrel barbecue pit. On days like this, Morgan sells plates to customers, typically people passing by, or just gives them away to those who want something to eat but can’t afford it. He’s a busy man with multiple ventures, including his budding career as a stand-up comedian who brings his barbecue setup to gigs.

“I have three things I do right now: cutting, cooking, and comedy,” says Morgan.

Since California reopened in mid-June, Morgan is back to doing comedy. For years, he prepared food at his events using the beloved barrel pit he’d acquired from a vendor named Sweet Daddy Rose. “People be coming into my show because of my food,” says Morgan. “Last week, I had honey teriyaki chicken and a jerk chicken. But I’ll never find another pit like that. I just like barrel grills that I can smoke with. They’re sturdy and old-fashioned. I love the style. If you know anything about barbecue, a pit starts to get aged and all the essence gets in there and adds to the flavor.”

Dwight Morgan and his barrel barbecue pit in Los Angeles, California
Dwight Morgan aka Dwight the Barber
Courtesy of Dwight Morgan

Prior to Close Up Kuts, Morgan had rented a large space on La Brea and Arbor Vitae, complete with a barbershop, an upstairs apartment, and a spacious outdoor area. For 14 years he cut hair and hosted gatherings and after-hours parties in this space. He kept the vibe going with food that he always prepared on his barrel pit from Sweet Daddy.

Now, Morgan believes it’s about time to retire his pit or get a custom one that can hitch to his truck. His pit survived sometimes daily cooking and travel — it had even weathered the haphazard patch job Morgan did with sheet metal when he noticed the barrel’s deteriorating base. But after two decades, it can only go so far. “Last time I talked to Sweet Daddy a year ago, I talked to him about fixing the pit, but he told me to buy another one. That pit has served its purpose.”

Barrel barbecue pits — recycled and repurposed cooking oil drums — are a ubiquitous presence in Los Angeles. They’re stationed in backyards, businesses, and street corners. They’re simple constructions, lightweight yet sturdy. While anyone can buy a similar-looking pit from a corporate chain like Home Depot, many pits throughout Los Angeles likely hail from a handful of local makers who have been welding them for decades: J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory, Pit City Pits, and Sweet Daddy Rose.

J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Barbecue barrel pits from J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory
Wonho Frank Lee
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Pits from J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory
Wonho Frank Lee

Though it may seem like the Los Angeles barbecue boom is something that came on suddenly, the city has a deep history of outstanding barbecue. The Second Great Migration made sure of that when more than five million Southern Black migrants relocated to Los Angeles from 1940 to 1970 for economic opportunity. Throughout the South, segregation meant Black people were limited to low-skilled and low-paying jobs, but in California, they could find well-paying jobs in the military and the private sector. Prior to that, large populations of Black Americans moved to LA from Southern cities between the 1890s and 1910 to escape racism and segregation. The remnants remain in Southern California to this day.

There was also the famous LA resident Joe Romero, known as the Barbecue King, who made a name for himself by throwing what he called “Californio” barbecues. According to the Los Angeles Times, Romero hosted 50 barbecues a year from 1885 to 1932. He dug deep pits to roast meat while tending a fire for up to 12 hours. Along with the deliciously prepared meats, the meals always came with beans, tamales, and enchiladas, and Romero served up to 30,000 people.

J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory, Pit City Pits, and Sweet Daddy Rose are modern continuations of this LA tradition. Sweet Daddy Rose and Pit City Pits are Black-owned, while the family-operated J & G Ornamental Irons was started by a Mexican immigrant who came to Los Angeles from Guadalajara in 1985.

When I first started researching this story in early 2020, I spoke with Sweet Daddy Rose — after all, he’d been the inspiration. We spoke about his business and experiences crafting barrel barbecue pits. He told me he’d been making them for over 30 years and selling them from his home in the Vermont Vista neighborhood. He was a charming, charismatic man who proudly claimed to be the original maker of barrel barbecue pits in Los Angeles. I paused this story during the pandemic and picked it back up a few months ago, only to learn that Sweet Daddy Rose died this year; his wife declined to be interviewed for this story. At the time, I didn’t even know his actual name, how he came to have such a memorable nickname, or how he began making pits. I spoke with multiple people who knew about his legend status, who’d heard about him by word of mouth or by name. He’d been reluctant to speak with me back in pre-pandemic 2020, but I was left with one impression: he was proud of his work and his barrel pits.

Dwight the Barber had experienced the same local pride surrounding pits. “I’ve been in the neighborhood a long time, and you can’t go down Century Boulevard without seeing all the barbecue pits on the street. Me and my cousin wanted to do a barbecue, and we had a small pit,” he says. “I’d been wanting to get one of those barrels for a long time. Sweet Daddy told me that Steve Harvey had bought the same pit, so I bought the same one.”

Pit City Pits owner Volley Dykes is another mysterious business owner and maker of barrel pits. His Hyde Park shop doubles as a TV repair shop and barrel barbecue outlet on West Boulevard south of Slauson. Although he also declined to be interviewed for this story, locals say the shop has been there for decades, with a worker producing and customizing pits in the rear of the store. The colorful barrels are always displayed out on the sidewalk, where drivers stop to inspect the single- or double-barrel varieties and upright smokers, or to purchase almond, cashew, or applewood chips for $25 per bag.

Both Pit City Pits and Sweet Daddy Rose kept a minimal social media presence. Each maintained a ghostlike online demeanor, without an Instagram profile. But Sweet Daddy’s name and his pits are omnipresent; everyone interviewed for this story was well aware of his reputation.

The drums used by barrel pit makers were previously filled with spent cooking oil from restaurants. Most LA restaurants use a regulated service to dispose of their old cooking oil, such as a used-oil collection center or a service that drops off an empty drum and then returns to pick it up when it’s full of fryer oil. After the barrels have seen enough action, they’re typically discarded and end up in landfills.

Some of these barrels are salvaged, and typically by a third party selling them to businesses like barrel pit manufacturers, who recycle them. A barrel that once held oil can be transformed into a 15- to 25-gallon barbecue pit with two racks or more, or even a double-sized barrel pit painted red, green, or yellow, or with custom colors. Sales can last most of the year, except in winter months. But it’s still a bustling business with customers across the region from all walks of life.

“I’m not a barbecue master. And that’s okay. What we do with our pit is we grill for the homeless,” says Michael Lopez of Mission ECHO (Ex-Cholo Helping Others). Lopez’s nonprofit feeds unhoused and underserved Los Angeles residents. He started out seven years ago by bringing doughnuts, pizza, and coffee to those in need throughout the city. He raised enough contributions to buy a van, plus something from J & G Ornamental Iron & BBQ Pit Factory to raise his game: a barrel barbecue pit. Lopez and his crew stationed the pit on a Skid Row street corner and served up his donated chili cheese dogs and chicken.

“We go out every weekend. Sometimes we’ll cook on Skid Row, or sometimes we’ll cook right here at my house in the front yard where the volunteers make all the plates. And then we’ll just stuff a van with all the plates and snack bags,” says Lopez.

Eduardo Diaz, owner of J & G Ornamental Iron & BBQ Pit Factory, donated another barrel pit to Mission ECHO after learning that Lopez had purchased one. Eduardo inherited J & G from his father Jose Diaz, who’d started the business on South Main Street just north of Century Boulevard in 1988. Eduardo, 30, describes his father as an artist who emigrated from Guadalajara and a metal fabricator who welded security doors and iron gates throughout the Southland, back when the region was a far more violent place. In the late 1990s, Jose added barrel barbecue pits to his inventory and found them to be popular.

Eduardo is aware of the limited number of barrel pit makers in South LA, and his customers have varied uses for the barrel pits. Some are home cooks hoping to smoke and cook their meats. He believes business is solid because J & G is a cornerstone of the Broadway-Manchester community. “Aside from Sweet Daddy, there’s only one other guy doing barbecue pits like this. A lot of customers come here because they have a catering business, and they come back and want something bigger. They know us because we’ve been here for so long.”

Eduardo took over the business when his father became ill with lung complications in 2019. At this point he had already been working in the metal fabrication business after receiving a license in structural welding from Los Angeles Trade Technical College in 2017. He took over the family business when Jose died in 2019. “He’d never wear a mask, and there’s a lot of metal particles here that you have to protect yourself from. But he never took those into consideration,” Eduardo says. “After that, I was kind of thrown in the mix.”

As the third of seven siblings, Eduardo feels a responsibility to his family and the community in South Central Los Angeles. Before Jose died, Eduardo shadowed his father to learn all he could about the family business and his father’s welding technique.

According to Eduardo, the shop is exactly as his father left it. In the break area, there’s an altar with Jose’s photo surrounded by candles. The main workroom has the drawing of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe that Jose originally kept there. The lot is enclosed by the metal gate Jose made by hand. It’s still standing. Every year, Jose used to create a Christmas tree by stacking barrels up to 20 feet high and decorating them with lights to illuminate the neighborhood. Now the legacy and his family’s needs fall on Eduardo. “It’s like a little empire that he started. What he’s done for this community, it’s not something that everyone could do,” says Eduardo.

Jose Diaz constructing a Christmas tree from discarded oil barrels in Los Angeles, California
Jose Diaz constructs a Christmas tree from discarded oil barrels
Eduardo Diaz
An oil barrel Christmast tree at J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
An oil barrel Christmas tree at J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles

Just like Sweet Daddy and Pit City Pits, J & G doesn’t have a huge online presence or major advertisements. But there’s a hitch in the business plan: The property was recently sold. The business has until August until its lease goes month-to-month. “There’s only so many people who do this in LA,” says Eduardo, who has watched the neighborhood morph into pricier apartments and new retail buildings over the past few years. “There used to be a church and other businesses right here. We’ll see what happens from there.”

That’s not the only change happening in the barrel barbecue pit industry. Prices for plywood and metals are skyrocketing, and J & G has to reflect that in its prices. But that doesn’t seem to stop customers from buying them. Until then, Eduardo will take things day by day. He has to, thanks to the high demand. “People can’t find these barbecue pits in San Diego, San Bernardino, Nevada, or Palmdale. They come all the way down here.”

Morgan still hasn’t bought a new barrel pit. He’s also noticed the increase of barrel pits on the street over the last few years. “The city isn’t issuing any citations for these food vendors. They’re coming out of their backyards with new techniques and new recipes. I get ideas from other people: We’re gonna try and do some barbecue shrimp kebabs. I’m trying to do some vegan barbecue too,” says Morgan.

“Whenever I pass by, I look for that barrel smoke,” he says. “I know the pit’s good, so the barbecue must be good.”

J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
A worker paints a barrel barbecue pit at J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory
Welding a custom barrel barbecue pit
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Smooth edges for a barrel barbecue pit
Wonho Frank Lee
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Preparing to weld a custom barrel barbecue pit
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
A custom smoker from J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Welding
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Inside the shop at J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Adding a handle
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
A custom pit

J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Metal used for barrel pits
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
Metal fabrication at J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory owner Eduardo Diaz
J & G Ornamental Irons & BBQ Pit Factory in South Los Angeles

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