Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Territory BBQ + Records


Territory BBQ + Records
534 N Hoover St
Los Angeles, CA 90004

I'm often suspicious when I hear a big deal about a new barbecue restaurant opening in the area. The best barbecue joints don't issue press releases two months before they open and don't stress how important authenticity is to them. They just go about their business. Pictures of cartoon pigs or menus waxing poetically about the Mississippi Delta and King Cotton are the domain of places like Lucille's Smokehouse and Famous Dave's. These are not terrible places, but they are selling more than barbecue, they are selling an image, as if eating beneath a sign advertising Dixie Beer is going to make me feel like I'm in the South. I do not care about the number of license plates or vintage road signs hanging on the walls. I care about one thing only: the quality of the barbecue. I know where the Southern cross the Dog, and it ain't in Southern California. So just serve me some good 'cue, OK?
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Years ago I ate at Arthur Bryant's, one of the most revered names in American barbecue. The floors were bare, the lines long, and the tables and chairs were the cheap variety you probably haven't seen since your junior high cafeteria. And the meal was one of the 5 best of my life. (Although, to be honest, I prefer Gates BBQ a quarter-mile away.)
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Barbecue, more than any American food, is regional. And it's personal. My favorite style of barbecue, the Carolina style, can be divided into North Carolina and South Carolina styles. And those are further divided into regions of the states, to the point that you are left with more divisions than Major League Baseball.
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So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I read an L.A. Times article a couple weeks ago about Territory BBQ and how they were planning to offer "all" styles of barbecue. I didn't see how this could work. What if Kentucky Fried Chicken suddenly decided they wanted to start offering grilled chicken? OK, bad example. But it still seems incongruous with the way great barbecue is made. Were they going to have several smokers going, each with different woods? Doubtful.
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Still, there was a lot about the article that I liked. In the accompanying photo, the owners did not look like two guys who were opening a barbecue joint with the hopes of creating a chain within the next few years. They looked like two guys who simply like barbecue and music and want to sell both. And they used three words in one sentence that were guaranteed to grab my attention: "simple, Southern and cheap." While I would have no problem paying more than $100 for a sandwich in Los Angeles that could replicate the ones my buddy Hatcher and I once ate on the banks of the Mississippi during Memphis in May, wrapped in foil and accompanied by ice cold cans of Budweiser, I am wary of these barbecue chains charging $13 for sandwiches, and $20 for appetizer platters the size of hubcaps. From what I read of Territory, I was holding out hope that this could be the barbecue joint I have longed for around here.
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It is not. But it is close, and it certainly could become it some day, because they have nailed the most important part: the meat was great.
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Territory BBQ is a bizarre looking teal building with iron bars over the windows and orange writing on the walls. The appearance means nothing; you will not find better ribs west of the Mississippi than you will at Phillips, and that place looks like a run-down check-cashing outlet. Inside the small front room is a menu board on the wall. I was pleased when I saw the menu: it seemed a very manageable number of smoked meats - pulled pork and brisket, with ribs available for dinner. This was not the huge menu I had feared.
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Elizabeth and I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and a brisket sandwich, with sides of mac & cheese and potato salad. She ordered a Crush grape soda and I ordered a Cheerwine. I have not had Cheerwine in about 7 years, and I'd forgotten how much I like it. It is a cherry soda (made in North Carolina since 1917) with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, so it has that sweeter, cleaner taste, like the Mexican bottles of Coke.
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After placing our order the guy gave me a receipt, said it would be about ten minutes (we were #61, my mind flashing back several years to a trip my friend Tom and I took down Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans, through the Mississippi Delta, looking for the perfect roadside BBQ stand) and told us "the sodas are all in the fridge on the patio; help yourself." I loved this. We opened the fridge, took out the sodas we'd ordered, and took a seat on the patio, as laid-back as any restaurant I have seen in California. There are a few tables scattered about with iron chairs, checkered tablecloths, and a bucket in which to put your dishes when you finish. Next to that is a container of solution to deposit your used silverware. Fantastic.
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In the article I'd read in the Times, it said they were going to offer three varieties of barbecue sauce, including a vinegar sauce, which is my favorite to eat with pork. But the only bottles on the tables were mustard sauce. This wasn't a huge deal, since I like that, and as long as the pork is good it doesn't really need sauce. But I am always looking for a good North Carolina-style vinegar sauce.
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Our food came out after just a few minutes, The sides were straight from Smart & Final, which is neither surprising nor bad. The scoop of cole slaw with my pork was nothing special, but the mac & cheese was good and the potato salad was really good. And, most importantly, both meats were great. The brisket had one little piece of fat in it, but that was all. The pork had hardly any fat and was pink at the tips, with a couple crunchy pieces of skin mixed in for good measure. The bread was standard white bread, the bread of choice for barbecue. The portions of the meat were quite small. I hope after they've been in business a while and get a handle on costs they will make their sandwiches larger. We were both hungry a short while later. But the sandwiches were only $8 each, so neither of us felt like it was a rip-off.
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After I finished my sandwich someone came out from inside and put a bottle of sauce on the counter. I could tell immediately that it was the vinegar sauce I'd been craving. I walked over and picked it up. It was still warm and I poured some into my basket, dabbing a couple scraps of bread into it. It was awesome. I wished I'd had this at the start of the meal. Elizabeth hadn't finished her brisket yet so she got to eat the rest of it with this sauce, which she loved as well.
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I really liked Territory and I will be going back. By making the portions larger, by making a better cole slaw, and by making sure that vinegar sauce is always out on the tables when I visit, I could see Territory becoming my favorite barbecue place around.

3 comments:

JB said...

This is one of my favorite blogs I've encountered so far. I was a college baseball player and I freaking love barbecue. Well done, that food looks tremendous

Matt said...

Yeah, I wish they tried a little harder with the sides. Maybe with a little time, after they get the mains in a better place, their sides will get better too. The canned beans really weren't doing it for me.

PulledPorker said...

I agree. Part of me is worried that they have opened a place where they don't really have to try very hard. But part of me hopes once they get things figured out they will start making their own sides and make the portions bigger.