Barbecue is, above all else, regional. East Texas barbecue is different from Central Texas barbecue. Eastern and western North Carolina 'cue have their own distinct qualities. Alabama white sauce is as different from the stuff in Kansas City as a deep red Bordeaux is from a summery Provençal rosé. Part of the pleasure of visiting barbecue restaurants in the South is the ability to take a deep dive into that region's foodways, to understand that what's on your plate could only be had in that state, that county, that town. You would no more expect to find great brisket in the Carolinas than you would go bird-watching in Alaska hoping to see parrots.
Of course, climate change may yet bring parrots to Alaska, and our food culture's rapid globalization means that there's now an outpost of Bludso's Barbecue in Melbourne, Australia. But my main beef with most barbecue joints outside of the South is their failure to recognize the benefits of regionality and instead try to do too much, to be all barbecue to all people.
Maple Block Meat Co. is just such a place. The restaurant, which opened in August in Culver City, pays homage to all kinds of traditions, including the more modern L.A. tradition of making your barbecue restaurant very pretty in a wood-lined, rustic kind of way, and filling it with good booze (in this case, craft beer and a decent wine list). Behind the counter, you watch as your meat is cut up to order, the fatty, smoky smell of it filling the room.
The chef, Adam Cole, moved around the South as a kid, living in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, and he got a taste for quite a few different barbecue styles. Since then, he's worked at the Bazaar and ink. (in both places under chef Michael Voltaggio) and was a butcher at the much-missed meatery Lindy and Grundy for a few years. He spent some time training with a competition barbecuer, and at Maple Block he's smoking whole animals in J&R wood smokers that are built in Texas. Cole is not adhering to any particular style or region; you can get brisket or chopped pork or smoked turkey or smoked chicken or pork ribs or prime rib or Scottish trout.
The sauces aren't named for their regionality but their color: red, white or green. The red is perhaps a little bit Memphis and a little bit Lexington: tangy, tomato-heavy, sweet and with an odd aftertaste, which I think might be cocoa. You can get it mild or spicy — and the spicy isn't very spicy. The white sauce is an Alabama-style, mayo-based, peppery concoction, and the green is like a cross between chimichurri and pesto.
Should I hold any of this — the varied influences, the lack of specificity — against Maple Block Meat Co.? I should not. But it's hard enough to do one kind of barbecue, along with all the sauces and sides and extras you'd expect, and do it very well. It's almost impossible to do three or four kinds.
What Cole does do very well is smoke meat, and, in particular, brisket. The tender slices of beef are intensely smoky, the ratio of fat to lean meat is just right, and the peppery crust on the outside gives just enough prickly flavor. This brisket is as good as any I've had outside of Texas and far better than 90 percent of what the other 49 states have to offer.
I'm not the first to notice the superiority of Maple Block's brisket; Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor for Texas Monthly and perhaps the most respected barbecue writer in the game, penned an essay in Los Angeles Magazine a few months back declaring his admiration for Cole's efforts. After quipping that "California has sunshine and great wine — they're not supposed to have great brisket, too," Vaughn declared Maple Block's brisket the best in California.
Most of the other meat on offer is pretty great, too; the ribs don't fall apart, but the meat is pliant and juicy, and the turkey has a golden, crackled skin and moist white meat — and was the unexpected winner in the make-your-own-sandwich category (some of the platters come with sliced white bread for this purpose). Pile on the turkey, slather it in white sauce, and you've got one hell of a lunch.
I didn't love the chopped pork, which wasn't so much chopped as chunked and was infused with so much sauce that the porcine glory didn't shine through. Outside of the eastern North Carolina style (whole hog, vinegar and a little heat, no tomato), I prefer to sauce my own pulled pork barbecue for exactly this reason — people's tastes are different, and you should let them choose how much distraction they want from pig and fat.
And I don't love the sauces, either, particularly that weird, chocolate-tinged red sauce. Sides were hit or miss, too — the mac and cheese tastes suspiciously like the white sauce and has a creamy viscosity that makes me think perhaps it's made with the same mayo base. The greens are fantastic and funky, but when we asked a server for some vinegar to perk them up, he brought us a ramekin of salad dressing. That's the kind of faux pas that makes for good joke material, the kind of comedy that would call into question the entire premise of expecting good things from a fancy barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles.
Another thing that should be joke material is the pimento cheese spiked with anchovy, but this turns out to be a great idea and only serves to ramp up the umami factor in the cheesy spread, which comes here slathered on white bread. I wish they sold it by the tubful.
The last time I reviewed a promising, slightly upscale L.A. barbecue restaurant, the thesis of the review was basically: Barbecue is hard. Cole and his crew at Maple Block have got the hardest part — the expert smoking of the meat itself — down to an art. It's the other stuff that needs refining: the secondary dishes, the sauces, the seasoning of the pulled pork — which all make it seem as though the crew is wandering around the tundra with amnesia, asking, "Who am I? Where do I come from?"
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But here's another truth that's very closely tied to the fierce regionality that makes barbecue as contentious as politics or college football: Given the fact that people define this particular cuisine and its necessary attributes in ways that are wholly personal, there's no way in hell you're going to please everybody.
MAPLE BLOCK MEAT CO. | 3973 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City | 310-313-6328 | mapleblockmeat.com Lunch: Daily, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun.,0x000A 5:30-9 p.m. | Meat plates, $13-$48 | Beer & wine | Street & lot parking