Tioga, We've Got a Problem
|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
But barbecue in Los Angeles, although all of its traditions are imported, has hardly been regional at all. Sure, there's been the odd restaurant that's spiked its barbecue sandwiches with coleslaw in the manner of South Carolina, or served its ribs on beds of lard-fried potatoes the way they do on the South Side of Chicago, but those restaurants have been rare, overtaken by tidal waves of hickory-smoked ribs in spicy sauce. L.A. barbecue tends to be generically Midwestern, untouched by the sort of idiosyncratic local touches that let Kansas City, Memphis or the Texas hill country claim barbecue that is uniquely their own.
Which brings us to Authentic Texas BBQ, a newish barbecue place in a converted motel coffee shop, an airy glass enclosure adjoining a Days Inn on the west side of Inglewood, just past the giant doughnut. There is a great view of the motel swimming pool, and the blare of televised sports from the corner TV set is interrupted by jet-engine noise less often than you might imagine in a place so close to the airport.
Actually, if you pay much attention to the surroundings, Authentic Texas BBQ seems as deeply inauthentic as they come. A corroded barrel smoker perched out in the parking lot as the barbecue-pit equivalent of the cannon in a courthouse square spews "smoke" manufactured by the sort of fog machine haircut-metal bands used to blast onstage at the Whisky. The walls of the restaurant are covered from top to bottom with plastic-wrapped fliers, scorecards and magazines from three decades of Los Angeles sports fanaticism -- many of them still bearing address labels from the owner's childhood home in Beverly Hills -- as well as a smattering of vintage album covers and a fairly good selection of Negro League paraphernalia. Sauce is served in warmed Grolsch bottles. Something about the place, in fact, fairly screams Midlife Crisis, like those obsessive hot-dog palaces that pop up in the far Valley, or almost any suburban baseball-card emporium.
Where the owner of a local cheesesteak stand might feel compelled to import birch beer, Wise's potato chips and Butterscotch Krimpets in homage to a Philadelphia original, the proprietors of Authentic Texas BBQ go one better -- they fly in all their barbecued meats from Clark's Outpost in Tioga, Texas, a well-regarded pit just south of the Oklahoma border. Barbecue road trips from Dallas often center around Clark's, about an hour out of town, not too far from the world's largest swap meet, and with the sort of folksy gourmet trappings that tend to make Star Canyon regulars feel at home. While not appearing in Texas Monthly's recent list of the 50 best barbecue pits in Texas, Clark's was featured as the restaurant of the month in Bon Appetit.
I have never actually eaten at Clark's, but I have tasted its brisket at Wolfgang Pucksanctioned Meals on Wheels benefits, and friends have brought carefully shrink-wrapped orders of smoked trout and barbecued quail home to Los Angeles. Also, Clark's may be the number-one source of mail-order barbecue in Texas -- the restaurant even has a Web page.
Authentic Texas BBQ's Southern-style menu may be pretty far from the manly, beef-intensive offerings you'll find at the famous Central Texas pits -- at the best of them, such as the Kreuz Market in Lockhart, you feel lucky to get so much as a handful of saltines to go with your hot guts and sliced clod -- but it remains fairly true to the Tioga original. Clark's is famous for a side dish of deep-fried corn, and while the Inglewood version is not served impaled on mule-shoe nails (as it is in Tioga), it is pretty good once you get past the strangeness of its
McDonaldland aroma. Even out of season, the corn juices intensify and sweeten within the kernels, and the leathery skin develops a pleasant parched-corn taste in the bath of bubbling oil. Soupy black-eyed peas are laced with just enough minced jalapeño pepper to keep things interesting; stewed collard greens seem to be as much fatback as vegetable; beans are too liquid and oversweet. Somebody at the deep-fryer knows what he or she is doing: Cornmeal-dusted nuggets of okra are as carefully fried as any hushpuppy, and the spice-dredged fries have been great.
But there are problems inherent in shipping and reheating Texas barbecue (even at the source, the succulence of beef declines noticeably with each minute it is away from the pit), and not all of them have been overcome. Brisket, for example, the touchstone of any Texas pit, has the requisite deep-pink smoke ring, the veins of succulent fat, the dense texture you expect from good Texas barbecue, but the slices of meat weep oil when they are brought to the table, and although the complex, developed flavors come out with prolonged chewing, the brisket's dryness makes such chewing relatively difficult. Chicken is a little flabby, without much flavor; giant beef ribs suck up the smoke, but tend to be jerkylike, not wholly compelling.
Barbecued hot links, though -- garlicky, sliced Polish sausages instead of the coarser Elgin sausages known as hot guts -- take well to the reheating, remaining perfectly crunchy and moist. And the baby-back pork ribs are just swell, meaty things that are crisp-skinned and deeply smoky, rendered of almost all of their fat, a wonderful chaw. Spareribs may not be a Texas-barbecue thing -- Texas is beef country, friend -- but they are the Authentic Texas BBQ thing nonpareil.
909 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood; (310) 649-1740. Open daily 11 a.m.9 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $20$36. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: baby-back ribs; collard greens; black-eyed peas.
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