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Meat and greet

L.A. is starting to get fired up about its barbecue

We may not have a football team, but at least Los Angeles is no longer a major city without a barbecue contest.

“For the life of me, I don’t know what took them so long,” says Arlie Bragg, a champion barbecuer from Nashville and coordinator for Los Angeles’ first-ever barbecue championship, BBQ’n at the Autry, at Griffith Park’s Autry National Center April 7-8.

“People don’t know that barbecue has become a sport.”

Don McCullough, executive VP of the Austin-based National Barbecue Assn., says the annual competitions number in the thousands.

And while that trade org doesn’t track overall figures, Bragg estimates that the more than 200 competitions sanctioned by KCBS — not the local TV station but the Kansas City Barbecue Society, largest of the nation’s multiple ‘cue overseers — award more than $2.5 million in cash prizes each year. Barbecue even has its own ESPN in the Food Network.

For those who might think barbecue too down-home for city slickers, New York City hosted its first barbecue invitational in 2003; it attracted about 2,500 people. This year, BBQ-NYC expects to see around 135,000 attendees.

Part of L.A.’s reluctance to play along may stem from a long-held — if you will — bone of contention.

“I wasn’t aware there was an L.A.-style of barbeque,” chuckles Mike Mills, whose cookbook “Peace, Love and Barbeque” received a James Beard Award nomination this week.

Mills doesn’t dismiss contributions from mainstays like Phillips and Woody’s, but even locals acknowledge that Los Angeles barbecue is less a style than a collection of regional riffs.

In Kansas City, the ribs are pork and the sauce is sweet. North Carolina is pulled pork and vinegar; Texas is beef brisket with a deep chili afterburn and in Memphis, they favor a dry rub over any sauce at all.

Here? “We don’t have a flavor yet,” says Luis Ramirez, who runs local blog BBQ Junkie. With three other barbecue bloggers, Ramirez will take a step toward defining that flavor as one of the Autry’s 28 teams. Its winner (as well as one from the Rose Bowl’s August cook-off) qualifies to compete in the barbecue’s Super Bowl, the KC American Royal Invitational.

Some say the problem lies in location. Leroy Ross Jr. is proud of Tasty Q Bar-b-que, which draws from the styles of Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas. However, he believes that Los Angeles pit masters are doomed to fall short.

“There’s no comparison,” Ross says. “Southern-style barbeque is better because of the simple fact that they’re able to get ahold of more hickory.”

Hickory produces a distinctive and flavorful smoke, but in Los Angeles it can cost as much as $800 a cord. That’s one reason many local restaurants favor the spicy smoke of red oak; a cord runs around $400.

Another barbecue dilemma may be that Angelenos think they know it already; after all, we use our backyard grills year-round.

However, barbecue has nothing to do with grills, or even most back yards. It’s about a long, hot and dirty process of smoking meat for up to 18 hours, stoking the low and slow charcoal heat with an aromatic wood that gives the meat its regional zing and clothes-penetrating smoke.

That’s why the 6-month-old Boneyard Bistro believes it’s discovered the secret of L.A. barbecue: Smoke the meat, not the customers.

The Sherman Oaks restaurant features white-jacket chefs, an extensive wine list, sauce served on the side — and reservations are necessary.

“Phillips and Woody’s do incredible food,” says chef-owner Aaron Robins, “but a lot of studio heads aren’t gonna go down there.”

Good n’ Messy
By Deborah Vankin

There are nearly as many styles of regional barbecue as there are Livestrong bracelets adorning celebrity wrists. From wood-drawn or brick pits fired up with red oak to super-sized rotisseries powered by hickory logs, Variety Weekend set out to explore the melting pot that is L.A. ‘cue.

Restaurant: Phillips Bar-B-Que
4307 Leimert Blvd.
(323) 292-7613
The Meat: Loosely based on the Louisiana style, washed in “secret seasonings.” Stand-out: the links — firm and flavorful, they pop in your mouth.
The Smoke: Red oak; smoked for a few hours in a wood-drawn pit smoker
The Sauce: Best all-around: spicy and smoky overtones with lots of heat

Restaurant: Woody’s Bar-B-Que
3446 W. Slauson Ave.
(323) 294-9443
The Meat: Louisiana style. Most balanced and consistent all-around ribs. The perfect pork rib: tender, falling off the bone, with accessible sauce — full and flavorful without being too spicy.
The Smoke: Red oak; smoked in a brick pit over an open flame for an average of seven hours
The Sauce: Somewhat sticky and viscous; on the sweet side

Restaurant: Tasty Q Bar-B-Que
2959 Crenshaw Blvd.
(323) 735-8325
The Meat: A hodgepodge of Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma styles. Stand-out: the links — juicy, flavorful and not too spicy. Best all-around side dish of beans with shredded meat.
The Smoke: California oak
The Sauce: Thin, somewhat oily; flavorful but not too aggressive

Restaurant: Jaybee’s Bar-B-Q
15911 Avalon Blvd.
Gardena
(310) 532-1064
The Meat: Dry rub, Memphis style. Excellent pork ribs — meat is perfectly tender and falling off the bone.
The Smoke: Hickory logs and chips, a little mesquite and… “If I told you anything else, I’d have to kill ya;” smoked 3-12 hours in a giant rotisserie
The Sauce: Slightly sweet and smoky, with a “Tennessee twang”

Restaurant: Bad 2 da Bone
4565 W. Century Blvd.
(310) 671-6600
The Meat: Meat is dry rubbed in proprietor Rita Gaines’ “own unique style,”but the sausage tasted suspiciously Polish.
The Smoke: Hickory chunks for pork and mesquite for beef; smoked for 3-5 hours in a wood-electronic smoker
The Sauce: Tomato based; sweet with a spicy kick

Restaurant: Boneyard Bistro
13539 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks
(818) 906-7427
The Meat: Kansas City “competition style.” Tri-tip, steak and beef ribs done in the Santa Maria style. Stand-out: the brisket — flavorful and tender with just the right amount of fat. Spareribs and baby back ribs had a spicy, slightly crispy surface that were potent but not overpowering.
The Smoke: Santa Maria style is done with red oak under the grill, which creates a drier, spicier smoke; other meats smoked for 3-15 hours “low and slow” in a hickory smoker
The Sauce: Dry-rubbed meat with sauce on the side