If you happened to be the kind of guy who takes his pair of Stacey Adams for a weekly polish at Chambers Shine Parlor and Shoe Repair -- proudly serving South Central since 1955 -- you may have noticed a change in atmosphere recently, an intoxicating plume of meaty smoke wafting from the space next door, a tiny storefront with the name Randolph's Smoke House neatly painted across its front window.
In fact, if you were curious enough to peer through a screen door that separates the smokehouse kitchen from the shoe parlor, you might see Randolph himself, clad in a soot-smeared apron, feeding the fires of his monstrous barbecue smoker with thick logs of hickory. You might even be lucky enough to gaze in as he swings open the wide, steel doors of the smoker to reveal a dozen thick slabs of pork ribs glistening in the hazy abyss.
Once those heady fumes of smoke and meat have bombarded your senses, ordering anything less than a half-rack is nearly impossible. Randolph's spareribs might be the most intense in town -- sinewy bows of pig covered in a peppery black bark, gnarled by smoke until the layers of tender flesh have been cured as pink as an Ozark ham. Randolph swears against salt in his barbecue -- it's the salt, he proselytizes, that keeps the smoke from reaching total saturation. A week later you are elated to find that the sweatshirt you wore that day is still imbued with the sharp tang of hickory.
Stephen Randolph, who has owned and operated Chambers since he took over from his father-in-law in the '80s, opened Randolph's Smoke House a little less than a year ago, retrofitting the vacant kitchen next door with a small takeout window. There's only room for a single table out front -- it's intended more as a waiting room than for actual eating -- and the freshly painted walls haven't yet accumulated the charcoal chiaroscuro of Phillips' or the faded wallpaper of news clippings at Bludso's. (There is, however, a rather interesting selection of Ernie Barnes-esque artwork lining the wall.)
Randolph is a native Angeleno -- he was raised nearby in Watts' Nickerson Gardens, attending Fremont High and later Cal State Dominguez Hills -- but he spent a good span of time working pits in Memphis, and another stretch eating everywhere from St. Louis to Nashville to Tulsa. "I thought about covering the floor with peanut shells, like they do at the roadhouses back East," he says. "But this is city barbecue. I don't think people would go for that around here."
Helping man the smoker is Allen "Dooney" Vixson, the man who cooked the weekend BBQ fundraisers they used to put on in the parking lot of the Prayer Assembly Church of God in Christ. When Vixson heard about Randolph's, he arrived with a heaping pot of his homemade sauce in lieu of a résumé. The viscous pitch-black mixture hinted of dark brown sugar and was bursting with garlic. Randolph hired him on the spot.
You might be inclined to pick up an order of the funky braised collard greens, splashed with vinegar to counteract their bitterness, or maybe some baked beans, dense and sweet, fortified with a trencherman's portion of meat trimmings. Your opinion of the coleslaw, made á la minute, might depend heavily on your disposition toward Miracle Whip. There are smoked half chickens, thinly sliced tri-tip sandwiches, a rather decent beef link, and whole smoked tilapia on weekends, but to order any of them might be missing the point. You want those pork ribs: rubbed with spices, bathed in smoke and sauce, served in lean meaty strips or chopped up into thumb-sized rib tips, hunks of hog that spend an extra hour or two in the smoker until their stratum of gristle and fat collapses into edible bliss.
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"If someone says they got better ribs, then they haven't tried these yet," insisted a burly man who had just ordered two whole racks of pig along with a paper cup of Kool-Aid for his fidgety son. "This place is the best thing to happen to the neighborhood in a long time." Could this be barbecue as civic boosterism? It might just be that Mr. Randolph knows the power of a proper smoker better than most.
Randolph's Smoke House: 8472 S. Central Ave., L.A., (323) 587-9698. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. MC, Visa. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10-$25. Recommended dishes: pork ribs, rip tips, collard greens, baked beans.