Barbecue is a divisive subject. How to cook the meat, and how to sauce it, dry rub or wet, and on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line are the stuff of tomes, and, I’d wager, lives lost. Like fried chicken, another American victual anyone with a little meat and heat can try his hand at, barbecue is populace food, and as such inspires fierce regional loyalties. Los Angeles is no exception -- here the battle lines are drawn between East and West.
Until recently, I swore allegiance to Dad‘s, a window-service-only spot that served a wet barbecue with a Kansas City sauce, the ribs drenched in a thick liquor of meat juice, molasses, smoke and fire. When (whimper) Dad’s closed, I went on the hunt for something similar, and found Tasty-Q, on Crenshaw, which is hard to miss, with its black smoker billowing onto the street. A former fast-food joint, the place has been hand-painted with jumping fish and levitating chicken parts; with a trailer and a few more smokers out back, Tasty-Q would look at home in south Louisiana, where the owner and cooks were raised. Inside, a couple of Billy Bass singing fish flank the ordering and pickup windows. It‘s a tough choice: ribs (beef or pork), hot links, chicken, a whole lot of soul food specials. I order the pork ribs, four foot-long beauties sloshed with a couple of cups of sweet, rust-red, peppery sauce. Mighty wet, and tender, and tasting of a long smoke over oak and hickory. I sop up every bit of the sauce with two slices of soft white bread and sit back, stoned on this mess of good food.
”You all right out there?“ A hair-netted cook has popped her head through the service window into the dining room. ”I can’t come out and check, so just holler.“
Tasty-Q is a homey place, with plastic flowers and TV sets and what feels like a genuine desire to give people a good meal at a fair price. If you bring your own turkey, they‘ll fry it ($1.50 per pound), and what could be more considerate than a drive-thru, where one night I pick up three bags: a slab of 20 pork ribs that, end to end, would stretch across my living room; a half-bucket of rib tips, fatty and black and easy to pop in the mouth; hot links that snap when bitten into; a dish of red beans and rice with enough black pepper to make the eyes water; sweet-and-spicy candied yams; slow-cooked greens. After the initial shock of the sheer amount of food (which set me back $37.65), the family has at it, and we are quickly up to our elbows in sauce, it’s everywhere, even in my hair, bones litter the table, someone begs for the last hot link, even little kids ask for more of the fiery, sweet, smoky ribs. Then, silence. Stoned again.
Soon after, we‘re driving on West Pico when we see a building as round as a bun, with another hand-painted sign: Mr. Cecil’s California Ribs. Like Tasty-Q, Mr. Cecil‘s has a homey interior; unlike Tasty-Q’s, it‘s a fabrication. Originally a Chili Bowl restaurant, one of a chain built in the 1930s and ’40s, the new incarnation takes its Deep South inspiration from the House of Blues school of decorating, with a fake tin chimney and shotgun-shack replicas hovering over the door. I can live with these conceits if the ribs speak to me.
Mr. Cecil‘s little round dining area, ringed with cutouts of dancing farm animals, is packed. There are lively Brazilian tunes playing, and the feeling is warm and cozy, until a man wearing a denim shirt hustles us past Tom Hanks and his family and onto a narrow patio, where the view is of an adult bookshop and the music is full-bore traffic. We can’t fit around the table the man has seated us at; a few minutes later, he moves us against a wall, where we face stucco painted with patches of ”crumbling brick.“
The wine list is similarly pretentious: six bottles at around $15 each, a Chateau Margaux for $600 and a Lafite Rothschild for $625. We order instead from a good selection of beers. The mood is leavened by a starter of excellent hushpuppies; no cornmeal pucks these, but featherweight, the just-crunchy exteriors giving way to downy interiors, flecked with scallion. Catfish strips with a crumb batter are admirable; swiped through a lemony tartar sauce, they disappear fast. The kernel-studded corn bread is fine, though not the stuff melting-butter dreams are made of.
Ah, here comes the meat. Lean St. Louis ribs, baby backs, beef ribs, hot links, all dry, ”California-style.“ This translates into a 24-hour marination in ”secret ingredients,“ then 20 minutes on a charcoal grill. Sauces -- a too-sweet mesquite and a wimpy Cajun -- arrive in syrup dispensers; the meat tastes better without them. Or most of it does. Hot links are oddly mealy, with no sputter when the skin breaks. The St. Louises have an expressly white-meat flavor, and while the baby backs are beautifully cooked, moist and toothsome, only the crackling, caveman-size beef ribs, with flakes of char, have us licking our fingers.
We pay the $80 bill, full but not satisfied, and decidedly sober.#
Tasty-Q Barbecue, 2959 S. Crenshaw Blvd.; (323) 735-8325. Open all day every day from 10:30 a.m. Entrees $3--$13.50. No alcohol. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: pork ribs, rib tips, red beans and rice, hot links.
Mr. Cecil‘s California Ribs, 12244 W. Pico Blvd.; (310) 442-1550. Open Mon.--Thurs. 11 a.m.--10 p.m., Fri. till 11 p.m., Sat. noon--11 p.m., Sun. noon--9 p.m. Starters $2.95--$5.95; entrees $5.95--$16.95. Beer and wine. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: hushpuppies, baby back ribs, beef ribs.