Is Los Angeles at peak barbecue? Compared with a few years ago, it sure seems like it. L.A. may not boast the same rich cultural heritage as Southern cities, but a growing demand for smoked meats has given rise to enterprising pitmasters who aren’t married to a particular style, be it fatty Texas brisket or sticky St. Louis ribs. We’ve got it all: fine-dining chefs who’ve swapped their sous vide machines for smokers, Austin expats slinging brisket and Shiner Bock, and family-run shacks that have been serving up stellar ribs in South L.A. for decades. There’s a smoke-fueled revolution on the streets, and the restaurants below are the best places to dig in and experience it.
10. Max City BBQ
It says a lot about the current resurgence of barbecue that Max City BBQ, an Eagle Rock barbecue joint opened by former caterers Jason McDonald and Melanie Blair in 2014, was originally funded via Kickstarter. At Max City, you’ll find the usual combination of meats and sides, with ‘cue that doesn’t hew to a particular region: baby back ribs glazed with sauce, juicy smoked wings, slices of tri-tip. The sides are a strong suit here, including paprika-dusted potato salad, moist cornbread muffins and a rather addictive flash-pickled cucumber salad. The space itself is fairly small, and Max City is at heart a neighborhood spot, so landing a table can be difficult (takeout is very popular). Yet snagging a seat at the bar might be the best move of all, since you’ll be able to peruse the handful of craft beers on draft. — Garrett Snyder 4729 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock; (323) 254-4227, maxcitybbq.com.
9. J “n” J Burger & Bar-B-Que
J “n” J's — as it's delightfully mis-apostrophed — has been around long enough to still have that old-L.A. barbecue shack game plan: Cater to the smoke-averse with menu additions like burgers and Philly cheesesteaks, and you'll have something for everyone. It's also the sort of place that offers virtually every type of barbecue: sliced beef, pork ribs, chicken, hot links, chicken sausage, pulled pork. The please-everyone mentality is odd for such a loyalty-driven food as barbecue. The meat hodgepodge tastes as Louisiana-appropriate as that plastic lawn furniture appears, and the menu prices read as if they've stayed true to owner Jay Nelson Jr.'s swampland days. Nelson once worked in the lumber business, which is perhaps why he uses an unusually democratic mix of oak, hickory and pecan wood. Skip the brisket and sliced pork here; focus instead on the beef ribs and, sure, the chicken. The collard greens are a must, as are the family's homemade pies. —Jenn Garbee 5754 W. Adams Blvd., West Adams; 323-933-7366, jnj-bbq.com.
8. Horse Thief BBQ
Perhaps the biggest appeal of Horse Thief BBQ — one of the original “additions” to the revamped Grand Central Market when it started taking on new vendors in 2013 — is its prime location. Nestled in a shade-covered patio along Hill Street, you can sip a craft beer while camped out with a plate of smoked brisket, an act that feels more Austin than downtown L.A. Wade McElroy and Russell Malixi, two native Texans who first met in Austin, specialize in a pretty straightforward version of Texas-style brisket at their barbecue takeout window. Lean and peppery, the oak-smoked meat comes adorned with raw onions, pickles and white bread, laid out on a sheet of brown butcher paper and ready for its Instagram close-up. When Horse Thief first opened, its sides skewed more upmarket (bleu cheese in the potato salad, for instance), but now they veer toward traditional, and the results are more convincing. There’s creamy coleslaw, gooey mac ‘n’ cheese and an andouille-laden jambalaya that's delicious if a bit out of place. If you come on weekends, there are even brisket breakfast tacos. Who can argue with that? — G.S. 324 S. Hill St., downtown; (213) 625-0341, horsethiefbbq.com.
7. Phillips Barbecue
If pork ribs are your thing, you already know about the peppery version Phillips has been pushing through its to-go windows in Inglewood and Crenshaw for more than 20 years. They're leaner than some (not a bad thing here) and the debate over whether you want the sauce on top is one we try to avoid in polite blog conversations. But as we're talking about Phillips' pork barbecue, not the beef offerings (stick to the pork, as the beef often comes off too dry here), the “hot” barbecue sauce is spicy, tangy and pretty hard to beat if you can hang with the heat. Expect a long wait (Tip: Call ahead with your order, though you will still wait). Think of it as more time to contemplate the beauty of a styrofoam box heaped with those famous ribs. —J.G. 4307 Leimert Blvd., Leimert Park, (323) 292-7613; 1517 Centinela Ave., Inglewood, (310) 412-7135; 2619 S. Crenshaw Blvd., West Adams, (323) 731-4772.
6. Robert Earl's BBQ
For years, Robert Earl has been mesquite-smoking his meats in a hand-welded, four-barrel cooker hitched to the back of a miniature ice cream truck, which doubles as a catering van. On the back, a painted warning says, “BBQ so good make u slap mama.” Maybe so, when you're talking about Earl's pork ribs and his beef brisket that's so tender it can't even hold its sliced shape. The homemade cooker spends most of its time heating the daily offerings in the parking lot behind Earl's year-old namesake restaurant in North Long Beach, Robert Earl's BBQ, where ribs, pulled pork and brisket have been added to the long list of sinful specialties. His wife's vegetarian sides (you'd swear there was bacon grease in the greens) are included with most meals. So skip the lines at Bludso's — in addition to competition-worthy, Texas-style barbecue, you'll be rewarded with the option of wolfing down one of Robert Earl Jr.'s signature “golden nugget” desserts: a scoop of banana pudding atop a pan-fried piece of cornbread. —Sarah Bennett 703 E. Artesia Blvd., Long Beach; (562) 726-1116, facebook.com/R.E.bbq.
5. Bigmista's Barbecue and Sammich Shop
The story of Bigmista starts with Neil Strawder, a former banker who towed his competitive-level, firetruck-red smoker around to farmers markets across L.A. and gained a cult following in the process. Crowds would buy meat by the pound: thick-cut brisket, oak-kissed rib tips and a ultra-peppery take on pastrami that occasionally ran as a special. In late 2014, Strawder and his wife, Phyllis, opened a brick-and-mortar of Bigmista’s in Long Beach, a place where you could pop in for a towering smoked turkey sandwich, juicy hot links heaped over stewed collard greens with a side of pineapple coleslaw, or a “Q bun,” a pulled pork–stuffed bread roll that’s like the Southern equivalent of cha siu bao. On weekends the line can billow out the door like woodsmoke, and the shop will almost certainly sell out of its platters — referred to as B.A.P.O.M. (Big Ass Piles of Meat) — well before closing time. But if there is any barbecue worthing rearranging your schedule for, it might be the tender smoke-ringed spareribs at Bigmista’s, served with a side of tangy house-made sauce but completely bliss-inducing on their own. — G.S. 3444 N. Los Coyotes Diagonal, Long Beach; (562) 425-4227, bigmista.com.
4. Barrel & Ashes
Studio City’s Barrel & Ashes was put together by a dream team of sorts, beginning with the two executive chef/owners, both alums of the Thomas Keller empire: Timothy Hollingsworth, who is in L.A. after spending almost his entire career at the French Laundry, and Rory Herrmann, who has a résumé peppered with restaurants such as Per Se and Bouchon. The feel of the restaurant itself is suburban barn chic, and like many barbecue restaurants outside of the barbecue belt, the style of ‘cue is kind of amorphous, though Texas is obviously the main influence. Brisket and spare ribs are glazed in pepper-heavy, sticky, Texas-style sauce. The pork is all from Salmon Creek Farms, a natural-pork producer out of Idaho, and the rest of the meat is just as carefully sourced. The spare ribs are sometimes not as tender as they could be, but the brisket, thick with smoke, is one of the better examples in town. The most alluring of the meat offerings is probably the pork short ribs, a fatty, juicy pile of meat that got me to that primal barbecue place, where your hands are sticky and your decorum goes out the window and you can only think of shoving more meat in your face. The braised greens have the right amount of vinegar pucker, and I’d happily eat Barrel & Ashes’ hoecakes just about anywhere anytime; the hot cornmeal batter forms a delicate crust around the edges but remains pudding-esque inside, and a light drizzle of maple butter gives it a sly sweetness. —Besha Rodell 11801 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 623-8883, barrelandashes.com.
3. Bludso’s Bar & Que
Spinoffs don’t always equate success, but in the case of Kevin Bludso’s collaboration with Golden State owners Jason Bernstein and James Starr to bring Compton ‘cue to Hollywood, the results have been pretty damn convincing. Besides the big-screen TVs and the fully stocked cocktail bar, for the most part the food at Bludso's Bar & Que is a pretty amazing representation of what you might get in the South or in Compton. Pitmaster Noah Galuten (a former L.A. Weekly scribe who studied under Kevin Bludso for a length of time) ensures the meats are properly smoky and the sides taste honest. Brisket falls apart in great, moist slabs, and the smoked chicken is fantastically delicious, sweet and smoky and tender. 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 caramelization 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. —B.R. 609 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood; (323) 931-2583, barandque.com.
2. Maple Block Meat Co.
Maple Block, 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. Chef Adam Cole smokes meat ver well, brisket in particular. 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. 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. Although sides and sauce can be hit-or-miss — the greens are fantastic and funky but the mac 'n' cheese tastes suspiciously like the white barbecue sauce — Cole and his crew at Maple Block have the hardest part, the expert smoking of the meat itself, down to an art. —B.R. 3973 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 313-6328, mapleblockmeat.com.
This is the year that L.A. became barbecue-obsessed. There are new swanky barbecue places opening all over town, TV personalities are hosting barbecue pop-ups on their backlots, and famous barbecue critics come to L.A. to sample our wares. But when the urge strikes for smoky meat and comforting sides, you’ll still find us driving to Compton for Bludso’s. Kevin Bludso, a fourth-generation pitmaster, has taken his Texas heritage and created an L.A. mainstay that was here long before barbecue became a trend in SoCal and will be around long after the cheffy set has moved on to other pursuits. It’s a classic place — you stand in line, then order at the counter, get your brisket or chicken or ribs or pulled pork in a styrofoam container, and sit elbow to elbow with the hungry crowd and eat. It’s the type of place where you put your head down into that container and don’t come up until everything is gone and your face and hands are a sticky mess and you don’t quite know what happened. That’s the kind of barbecue magic that doesn’t happen just anywhere. —B.R. 811 S. Long Beach Blvd., Compton; (310) 637-1342, bludsosbbq.com.