"Barbecue has always been here," says Neil Strawder, who owns both the smokers and the nickname behind Bigmista's Barbecue, one of Los Angeles' best-known purveyors of low-and-slow-cooked 'cue. "But a lot of people haven't been willing to go to where the barbecue was."
Strawder is standing inside Bigmista's pop-up tent at a weekly downtown farmers market, trimming a freshly smoked hunk of brisket. As if to prove his point, a white-collar banker type peeks in through the order window, eyeing the scene. "It's becoming more accessible," Strawder says. "Not everyone was willing to go to the 'joint.' "
Truth be told, Strawder himself didn't start at the joint. The self-taught home barbecuer began his obsession in online forums, picking up tips and tools from respected pitmasters in meaty towns like Memphis, Kansas City and Austin, Texas.
That fusion of intelligence, tradition and technique across several regionally specific disciplines has given Bigmista's menu a boundless quality. On any given day, you might find dry-rubbed beef sharing plates with brined and smoked turkey breast, slices of peppery pastrami and sauce-covered rib tips, plus pineapple coleslaw on the side. This is the future of barbecue in L.A.
It's a relatively new development. For decades the smokiest, juiciest spare ribs and best oak-singed briskets in town could be only found in Texas-style barbecue joints, far from the city's epicenter. Your best options were to crawl up the 405 on a Saturday afternoon for a Flintstones-sized rack of Dr. Hogly Wogly's cherry-smoked beef ribs, or wait on the sidewalk at Bludso's in Compton, earning the right to inhale pork links, wavy brisket slices and stewed collard greens. Neither was convenient.
And that both restaurants claim a central Texas lineage is not surprising: Until recently, barbecue in L.A. was a balkanized experience, with dry rub fans and holier-than-thou BBQ sauce preachers sticking to their own establishments, and everyone else eating carne asada and tri-tip.
Now, thanks to operations like Bigmista's, the Kevin Bludso/Golden State mash-up on La Brea called Bludso's Bar & Cue, and a half-dozen barbecue spots slated to open in the coming months, L.A. barbecue is finally developing a style of its own -- one that has less to do with taste than technique.
Adam Perry Lang, a recent inductee into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame, likes where things are going. The New York City barbecue maven's personal brand of cooking involves a pecan-wood charcoal that he makes himself, along with unexpected cuts like platter-sized short ribs, served straight on the bone.
"I think I gravitate toward more and more honest food," Lang said over the summer, when he popped up on Jimmy Kimmel's backlot with a smoker, an Airstream trailer and lots of Astroturf. "[I'm] minimizing a lot of the spices and seasonings and just working on authenticity." You didn't have to ask Lang if the experiment was yielding positive results: Lines of tourists and office workers braved the near-triple-digit summer heat for $20 takeout containers of salty, roasted beef and a few pickle slices.
Wade McElroy and Russell Malixi also are big fans of L.A.'s updated barbecue conscience. Their new downtown BBQ patio space, Horse Thief, relies pretty heavily on embracing and morphing eaters' expectations. "We like to say that we do old-school, central Texas smoked meats, but with new-school sides," McElroy says. That means a 12-hour smoked brisket, but one made with love from well-treated cows raised outside the slaughterhouse-industrial complex, and fresh, vibrant side dishes using seasonal ingredients from local farmers.
"We always want this to be a place where you can come and get amazing brisket," McElroy says. "But at the same time, we want to show off a bit of expression, so we might roast a goat one day, or do a beef cheek or pork belly on Saturdays. We like to keep learning."
There's lots to keep a barbecue bookworm interested these days. Bigmista's plans to take downtown eaters back to school with a full-fledged restaurant on the corner of Fourth and Main at the turn of the new year, and Lang has promised an imminent (and permanent) return of his own.
Not to be outdone, there's Robbie Richter's forthcoming fusion barbecue restaurant opening up inside the Improv on Melrose, the new Hungry Pig in Historic Filipinotown pushing everything from chicken satay to Asian-spiced ribs, the classic baby back ribs and wood-fired pizza combo found at the Crossing in Atwater Village, and Roadsite Eats, the Hollywood Southern barbecue space from the minds behind Rush Street and City Tavern in Culver City.
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That should leave L.A. with more than a half-dozen new barbecue spots from downtown to Hollywood, each with its own, updated take on the classic elements of fire, smoke and meat. But for all their individuality, these places will share a mission: to deliver thoughtful, high-quality barbecue to a city that could always use more, without relying on the regional trappings of so many other big-shot barbecue cities. Think inspiration, not imitation.
So what does all of this new competition mean for Neil Strawder? A return to the grind, even if he's getting a storefront with the Bigmista's name slapped on the front door. As the hulking man moves effortlessly inside his farmers market pop-up tent, slicing bits of this and scooping ladlefuls of that to supply an order to the growing line, it's a challenge he's enjoying. "Everyone thinks, 'I can do that. I can start a fire and throw on some meat,' " he says. "It's certainly not that easy."
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