If acts of extreme eating hold some kind of (unfathomable) appeal for you, here's a meaty proposition I recently tackled in the line of duty: barbecue at Bludso's in Compton for lunch, more barbecue at the new Bludso's in Hollywood for dinner.
On paper, the two places where I indulged in this daylong meat orgy couldn't be more different. Bludso's in Compton is more a takeout window than a restaurant, though there is a seating area that opens up during the weekend. On weekdays, you order (smart customers call ahead), then stand around on the sidewalk or in a tiny alcove, waiting. Take your food with you or risk the unavoidable mess and eat in your car.
Is it worth the drive to Compton for a wait-20-minutes-then-eat-in-your-car meal? Absolutely. The ribs fall apart as you inhale them, the sticky sauce burns just right, and the holy trinity of baked beans, mac 'n' cheese and collard greens provides the exact right balance of sweet, cheesy and palate-cleansing vegetable funk.
It's barbecue with a mixed heritage: It is Compton barbecue, thanks to owner Kevin Bludso, a native of the neighborhood, but it's also Texas barbecue, thanks to Bludso's multigenerational pit-master heritage and the summers he spent in Texas working in his grandmother's restaurant.
Then there's the new Bludso's, on La Brea in Hollywood. It's a collaboration between Bludso and Jason Bernstein and James Starr, co-owners of the beloved West Hollywood burger-and-beer mecca Golden State, though Bludso is more a consultant than anything else. The recipes are his, but the cooking and smoking are being done by Noah Galuten, who worked both the front and back of the house at Golden State and is well known as a local food blogger (mainly for Man Bites World, as well as, full disclosure, his previous contributions to Weekly's Squid Ink).
They've opened Bludso's in the space that was the Tar Pit, Mark Peel's retro cocktail bar and restaurant, and it retains some of its stylish feel. It's been retrofitted to feel more like a barbecue restaurant, albeit an awfully fashionable barbecue restaurant, but some components of the Tar Pit remain — the swanky bathrooms, a state-of-the-art ice machine. The space is a broad square that feels almost industrial, with the bar running down one side, and lots of steel picnic tables and big leather booths sourced from Urbano, the downtown pizza parlor that closed late last year. Flat-screen TVs playing various sports channels dot the walls.
I went to the newer Bludso's with some skepticism. I believe that some food is regional and perhaps ought to stay that way. For the food-obsessed, travel is as much a culinary adventure as a cultural one: Food is the lens through which we view culture, with the flavors of a region creating a trip's most tangible memories. I'm as glad as the next person that you can get an accurate representation of Szechuan or Oaxacan dishes in L.A. without hopping on a plane. But in this era of rapid culinary globalization, it's nice to think that some things can only be had at the source.
In my experience, which includes 10 years of living in the South writing about food, this holds especially true with barbecue. I've never had fantastic North Carolina–style barbecue outside of the Tar Heel State, and I find that oddly comforting. Texas is perhaps the most successfully exported style of barbecue, yet I never liked Texas barbecue until I had it in Texas — something was always lost in the displacement.
But there are exceptions, places where the neighborhood and people who host a 'cue joint give it its own personality, creating a place that's influenced by a Southern or Texan owner's culinary roots but also true to its location. That's certainly true of Bludso's in Compton. But in Hollywood? With cocktails and flat-screen TVs? Is barbecue even barbecue if there's valet parking?
Surprisingly, for the most part the food at the new Bludso's Bar-&-Que is a pretty amazing representation of what you might get at a barbecue shack — in the South or in Compton. The meats are smoky; the sides taste honest. Collards are funky and imbued with vinegar, and the slaw is all fresh, vegetal cabbage crunch, with just the right amount of mayo. Baked beans are smoky and sweet, with enough heft and carmelization to distinguish them completely from the canned variety. The mac 'n' cheese is the closest I've had anywhere to my North Carolina mother-in-law's — tangy, made with real cheese, hearty rather than creamy. It may not sit well with those who grew up on the Velveeta version, but the Southerners I've brought to Bludso's scarf it down.
In Compton, food can take 20 minutes to arrive after you order, and it is piping-hot when you get it, slathered in (spicy, tangy, not-too-sweet) sauce. In Hollywood, it comes out with sauce on the side, so immediately that I suspect it must be waiting in steam tables or some other heating vestibule. It's often room-temperature.
The lack of heat itself doesn't bother me too much, but it makes for ribs that don't fall apart in the same way, and pulled pork that seems less juicy. It appears to have no effect on the brisket, though, which falls apart in great, moist slabs. Smoked chicken also is fantastically delicious, sweet and smoky and tender.
But the most important thing about a barbecue spot is its pit master, and while the influence of Kevin Bludso can be felt here, so can his physical absence be tasted. That isn't to say this isn't damn great barbecue — it is. Especially for the location. But there's simply no substitute for a true pit master, with all those years of standing over a smoker. The texture of the meat (the pork, in particular) in Hollywood doesn't quite live up to the smoky glory I experienced sitting in my car in Compton.
That said, some things here are so close to the Compton original that they almost don't work in Hollywood. I've heard complaints about the potato salad being too uniform and mushed, the cobbler too sweet. But to me, they're exactly how they should be at a barbecue joint. This isn't next-generation barbecue in any other way than its location and owners; it is completely true to its roots. For micro-greens on your potato salad, go elsewhere. And try to find a “next-generation” banana pudding more satisfying than the impossibly creamy, old-school version served at Bludso's.
Cocktails are fun, especially the more outlandish and creative ones, like the Jalisco Honey, a mix of gin, mezcal, Campari and Punt e Mes — basically a smoky Negroni. The old-fashioned was a touch too sweet, as was the julep on tap, but a julep is more about parading your big silver mug of ice around than it is about the drink itself. That was true in the 1800s; it's still true today. They also have the digestif Fernet-Branca on tap, which is hugely helpful once you've stuffed your face with all that meat and pudding.
Bludso's is a particularly fun and affordable way to stuff your face. With a large group you can even order the $85 “tray,” which comes with all the meats and sides and is too much food in the best possible way.
In many respects, Bludso's is like a dream come true: fantastic barbecue and sides, a comfortable room, great drinks, good location. It's certainly not Texas; it's not even Compton. But it's the closest approximation of honest barbecue you're going to get in Hollywood, and that's better than good enough.
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BLUDSO'S BAR-&-QUE | 3 stars | 609 N. La Brea Ave., Hlywd. | (323) 931-2583 | Tues.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; Sun., noon-8 p.m. | Meat plates, $5-$27, sides $4-$7 | Full bar | Reservations taken for parties of eight or more | Valet parking