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California Is One Of The Most Underrated BBQ Scenes In The Country

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I’ve never had the honor of trying the barbecue from Texas, the much-acclaimed cuisine around these Foodbeast hallways, only being in the state long enough to connect to my next flight. Before I set out on that adventure, I needed to take a look at my own home state and understand what kind of amazing barbecue California had to offer.

People like to hype how great Texas BBQ is, and I’m not here to disagree, but the great Golden State can definitely hold its own against the best of them when it comes to smoking meat.

As I embarked on my journey of barbecue enlightenment, I met three pitmasters along the way.

Stoked! California BBQ

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Jason Espiritu is the owner of Stoked! California BBQ. I first met him at Smorgasburg LA, a weekly food festival held in Downtown Los Angeles where social media-savvy patrons wait in line for Instagram fodder and ice cream.

Stoked! California BBQ doesn’t have a brick and mortar location, but you can find them on weekends at Smorgasburg LA.

It was blistering on Stoked’s inaugural day. The sun engulfed the long line of patrons, hungry to try the booth’s tri-tip. The heat didn’t deter them, neither did the wait. It was from Jason that I learned of Santa Maria-style BBQ.

Born in the Santa Maria Valley, Espiritu was a part of the fabric of a close-knit community. The area is known for its agriculture – primarily cattle ranches, strawberries, and a fine selection of wine. With a population of about 100,000 people, the valley holds a small town vibe, the kind where it seems like everyone pretty much knows each other.

What drew Jason to the BBQ business was, in fact, the community.

Growing up in that environment, you could look in any direction and see smoke lofting through the air. Get close enough and you smell the meat and red oak whiff around you. Get even closer and you for sure hear laughter and good times surrounding the BBQ pit. Lucky enough to be invited in for a bite? You’re guaranteed a stuffed belly and a happy heart.

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As a young man from Santa Maria, Espiritu’s story is similar to many others before him.

Every young man in Santa Maria eventually learns his way around the unique style of a Santa Maria BBQ Grill, so the story of how I got into BBQ is similar to so many others before me. You grow up eating the cuisine that your fathers and family would work together to cook. And eventually you are called on to learn how to split the wood, start the fire, stoke the coals, operate the grill grate, and figure out the proper cooking temperature… until you are finally entrusted with cooking the meat.

They key to the meat, he explains, is timing:

It’s not only about seasoning it properly, but it’s very important to NOT OVERCOOK it. Any resident of our central coast will tell you that a pink, medium rare is key.

There are four things Stoked! focuses on when it comes to their barbecue:

The wood, Red Oak, is native to California and produces a slow burn ideal for the cooking process.

The dry rub, accentuates the flavor of the meat with a simple mix of salt, pepper, and garlic salt. Jason does not use sauce.

For the cut of meat, they use tri-tip because of its particularly beefy flavor and marbling.

Finally, the smoking method utilizes a Santa Maria Style BBQ Grill. It’s an open pit with an adjustable grate that allows you to lower and raise the cooking surface so as to adjust the cooking temperature to one’s liking. When the smoke’s characteristics and flavor are absorbed, you can lower the grate and get a sear on your meat before serving.

Traditional side dishes paired with the meat are pinquito beans (a smaller cousin to the pinto bean, native to central California), garlic bread (to mop up all the meat’s juices), and a strawberry dessert of some sort (as strawberries are a major crop of the area).

To Jason, it’s purpose that drives him. His food is about sharing an experience, evoking an emotion and ultimately making people happy while staying true to the values of his home state.

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Jason doesn’t claim his BBQ brings anything different or new to the table. Rather, he wants to be an ambassador to the form of Santa Maria style BBQ that encompasses a rich tradition and history developed in California.

Stoked! California BBQ doesn’t have a brick and mortar location, but you can find them on weekends at Smorgasburg LA.

The Smoking Ribs

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Kenny Tran discovered his love of BBQ at the age of 14.

In his youth, his mother drove him to a Food4Less because beef ribs had been on sale for about 50 cents per pound. As the matron Tran went shopping for groceries, she tasked her son with grabbing the beef ribs.

Standing in the meat aisle for what seemed like forever, an elderly lady walked up to him and gave him some words of wisdom:

Oh honey, just grab any rack, boil em for 40 minutes and grill over high heat while basting your favorite BBQ sauce. That’ll get you started!

Tran said he never knew that that moment would drive his life’s passion. Though through refinement, his technique has also grown vastly from the simple boil, grill, and blast with sauce.

Because of emission laws in California, Tran can’t really duplicate BBQ from any other state. His restaurant, The Smoking Ribs, has to work with gas stick burners indoor for commercial or stand alone buildings.

Kenny reserves the traditional pit-smoking style of barbecue for catering events.

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To keep his customers engaged, however, the pitmaster does switch out the wood and flavor profiling every quarter.

What sets Kenny apart is his openness to growth, something you don’t see much of in such a traditional style of cuisine.

People in general are smart and always have great new innovative ideas to change or grow. I don’t have all the answers. It’s okay to not have all the answers. I’m still a student of the BBQ industry and business. We all have room for growth. That’s what makes our brand special.

Ray’s BBQ

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Ray Ramirez taught himself BBQ to save his life.

It’s about loving what I do and doing it to the best of my abilities.

In 2011, after being laid off from his job as a personal banker, Ramirez was worried he’d fall into depression. He picked up barbecuing as a hobby, something to do to keep him mind busy. Ramirez soon found that he had a knack for it, and started to learn as much as he could about this brave new world.

He began his barbecuing businesses smoking meat in his backyard and, after saving up enough cash, threw everything into a space in Huntington Park, CA.

While initially starting with gimmicky items like the pulled pork or macaroni and cheese burritos, they were quickly nixed to focus on traditional items like brisket and pork ribs.

What sets Ray apart from other BBQ restaurants is the quality of meats he uses. The restaurant is known for serving very high-end meats, like Duroc Pork. Considered the “Angus” of pork, Duroc is specially bred to have a redder tint and more marbling. This means that the pork stays tender and juicy as you cook it, more so than commodity pork.

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Ray takes a very hands-on approach to his restaurant, being the only one allowed to touch the pits and smoke the meat. If he’s sick, or decides to take a vacation, the restaurant closes down and you’re shit out of luck.

Ramirez can always be seen making rounds throughout his restaurant, taking the time to have genuine conversations with each of his customers.

You are not going to my shop, you are going to my house. And to me you are not a customer you are family.

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Each pitmaster taught me a few things about California BBQ that they’ve learned through their years doing what they love:

Community. Growth. Passion.

One day, I will take that trip out to Texas. There’s already a bucket list of barbecue restaurants I intend to visit and pitmasters I would love to meet. Until that day comes, however, there’s a treasure trove of smoked meat and genuine people right here in California, ready and willing to share a bit of their character, one emblematic smoke ring at a time.

I’ll proudly stand behind you, California. Just keep smoking that plump, delicious brisket.

By Peter Pham

Pete's favorite foods include pizza, tacos and pretty much any kind of breakfast. He'll usually snap a photo or two while his food cools down.

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