Thursday, July 23, 2009

Perdue's Barbeque

Perdue's Barbeque
456 E Orange Grove Ave
Pasadena, CA 91104

Once more unto the breach, dear friends. I have spent years eating meal after meal at barbecue restaurants in Pasadena, hoping that I could call one of them great, to no avail. I have had many great meals at Robin's, but I have had some truly awful meals there. The one time I tried barbecue at Hutch's I was disappointed; they make my favorite burger in the universe but I will never try their 'cue again. Barn Burner, owned by the same folks who own El Cholo next door, is to barbecue what El Cholo is to Mexican food - acceptable if you've never had it prepared for you by someone with passion for what they are cooking; bland and disappointing if you have.
I first read about Perdue's Barbeque a few months ago but I did not rush to try it. It seemed like more of a catering company that set up a storefront to work out of, or, perhaps, sell leftover food. (Do not think me too cynical, I have seen this done in many places.) After the recent disappointments of Dickey's and Baby Blues, I have been returning to old favorites lately when I have been craving barbecue, so I haven't considered Perdue's.
Yesterday I made plans to have lunch with my mom, who is volunteering at a non-profit organization on Lake Ave. As it turns out, she is just a few blocks from Perdue's, and I was in a bit of a hurry, so I suggested we give it a try. She doesn't love barbecue as much as I do - most people don't - but she does love it, so she agreed.
From the moment I walked in I liked the place. This was not a restaurant trying to evoke an image of the South; this was a restaurant that could be in the South. There are mismatched tables and chairs in no particular pattern, wooden shelves on the wall, and pictures everywhere. Inside the front entrance are pictures of Satchel Paige, a photograph collage of the Negro League teams, and an old-fashioned baseball glove nailed to the wall. If you don't understand how cool this is, perhaps this isn't the blog for you.
There is abundant Southern hospitality inside Perdue's. If you have been to the South you know what I mean. I was greeted by no fewer than three people - as near as I could tell, the only three people working there. They were all friendly but moved and talked in that particularly Southern way, that "You're going to get a great meal but we're in no hurry and you shouldn't be either" manner of service. (Once, at a Denny's in Memphis, it took my friend Ryanne and I about ten minutes to complete our order after the waitress actually arrived at our table, and about another 45 minutes to get our breakfast.)
You order at an awkwardly-placed stand in the middle of the restaurant. I asked for the pulled pork sandwich and my mom ordered the brisket sandwich. We were asked what kind of sauce we would like, hot or mild. I asked for hot, my mom mild. We grabbed our drinks out of a large cooler full of ice and sat at the coolest table we could find, which wasn't easy. (Another thing that seemed Southern about this place: it was very hot and humid.)
The food came out in about ten minutes. On my plate was one of the most impressive sandwiches I have seen in quite a while, a massive pile of pork on a soft bun. (There was zero doubt in my mind that this place would not be serving barbecue on any ridiculous ciabatta bun.) This probably weighed close to a pound. Holding it in my hands, it felt about the size of one of those mini basketballs you win in arcades. I almost wanted to admire it for a few minutes. But I was hungry.
I immediately noticed two things on my first bite. First, this was the best pulled pork I have had in months. There were no chunks of fat and the pork was not drowned in sauce in an attempt to cover up its dryness. And second, damn this sauce was hot. Of course, I had asked for the hot sauce, so I couldn't complain. But I have had enough "hot" barbecue sauces at barbecue restaurants in Southern California to know what to expect: an overly-sweet, slightly spicier version of their regular sauce. This was genuinely spicy. (One of the best pieces of advice my dad has ever given me: never make assumptions, they're always wrong.) Not too spicy to detract from the pork, though.
My mom's brisket sandwich came on Texas toast. I took a bite of that and, not surprisingly at this point, it was the best brisket I have had in a long time, probably years. Her sandwich was large, too, although not the monstrosity mine was. I passed the point of being full while eating, but it was too damn good not to finish it, so I did. And then I helped my mom finish hers. My cole slaw, which, when asked, I requested on the side instead of on the sandwich, was also fantastic. It wasn't drowning in a creamy sauce, it had just the right touch of it.
I will be returning to Perdue's soon to try their chopped beef sandwich and hot links. It's possible that I just got very lucky on my first trip and my subsequent meals here will not be as good. But I would say it's much more likely that I have found not only my favorite barbecue joint in Pasadena, but in the San Gabriel Valley.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Johnny Rebs' Southern Roadhouse

Johnny Rebs'
4663 Long Beach Blvd
Long Beach, CA 90805

Years ago, a friend and I drove down to Johnny Rebs' in Long Beach for lunch. It was a good meal, not great, and I figured I probably would never be back. I had forgotten to take my camera that day, so I never was able to post any pictures of that meal. A few months later I drove that same friend down to Orange County to pick up a new car he had purchased, and we decided to try the Johnny Rebs' in Orange. I loved that meal and wrote a blog post about it.

Sunday, as Elizabeth and I were relaxing and cleaning after our 4th of July barbecue, we were watching Food Network. On Guy's Big Bite, Guy and another chef made a fantastic looking pulled pork sandwich with a Carolina vinegar sauce. I am pretty much always in the mood for barbecue, but on this particular day it was more than a desire, it was an almost need to eat some barbecue with a Carolina-style sauce. I thought about giving Territory BBQ another try, but I will probably wait at least another month or so to try them again. Suddenly I remembered Johnny Rebs' amazing North Carolina barbecue sauce, perhaps the best I have had in California, and I wanted it very badly.

So Elizabeth and I drove down to Long Beach for lunch. The place was packed when we arrived, and after waiting about 20 minutes we were given a table. (The hostess still called my name twice more, however. She looked a little confused.) We waited about another 15 minutes without any server coming by our table. The manager noticed that we had been sitting for some time without anyone paying attention to us, and she came over, apologized, and took our drink orders. Elizabeth got a peach lemonade and I got an iced tea, both served in Mason jars, which always makes me happy. A few minutes later the manager told us she had put in an appetizer order for us, on the house, as an apology for making us wait so long without service.

That wasn't necessary - her apology alone was enough - but I wasn't about to complain, especially when the appetizer arrived: a giant plate of onion rings. The batter was too dense and over-fried for my taste, but the onions were awesome, and I ate several of them. I took one onion out of the batter and ate it, discarding the batter onto a plate. The fact that this is the exact opposite of the way I ate onion rings when I was a kid was not lost on me.

I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with fries and cole slaw, and Elizabeth ordered the chopped brisket sandwich with the same sides. My sandwich certainly looked good when it arrived: a generous helping of pork with plenty of smoke ring on a soft bun. I took a couple bites of the sandwich plain. The pork was good, but too dry. I added some cole slaw and a generous amount of their North Carolina barbecue sauce and it was much better.

"Do you like it?" Elizabeth asked me.
"Yes," I said.
"But you don't love it?"
"You almost never love the barbecue you get."
"That's certainly true in Southern California."

I took a bite of her brisket sandwich. The meat was very good, better than my pork, but it was already covered in sauce, which I thought was too sweet. If a brisket needs sauce (and this one certainly didn't), I prefer something with a little more kick to it, something along the lines of Gates or Rudy's. But it wasn't a bad sauce, and Elizabeth certainly loved her sandwich.

I was full by the time I had eaten my sandwich and about a quarter of my fries, but I still pushed on and finished my plate, because their North Carolina sauce is absolutely fantastic. The fries were a good vehicle for eating more of the sauce, although I'm sure I could just drink it. This is probably my favorite barbecue sauce in Southern California. It may be another few years before I make it back to Johnny Rebs', but I know that sauce will get me back eventually.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Day Game in Chavez Ravine

I have been to several weekday games at Dodger Stadium over the years. Some have been great, some have been lousy. My senior year of high school I went to opening day with my dad, his friend and my brother. It was one of the best times I have ever had at the stadium. I had just returned from Italy about 16 hours earlier, a bit jet-lagged perhaps but still 17 years old and able to ignore it. Hideo Nomo beat the Braves 1-0. I wore the free t shirt I got that day for several years until it disintegrated.

6 years later I returned on opening day with my friend Taylor. It was a nightmare. We left UCLA well over an hour before game time and still arrived in the 4th inning. I had to park in a lot up a dirt road in the hills, probably closer to Pasadena than home plate. The Giants crushed the Dodgers, Kevin Brown was horrible, and traffic getting home was even worse.

In the years between I went to a few weekday games, usually with my high school buddies, and it was usually a good time. Other than opening day, the crowds are never too bad, and there is something cool about seeing all the kids from day camp at the games in their matching colored t shirts. When my friend Murph called me this morning and said his boss had given him tickets to today's game, I first said I had too much to do. But I thought about it for a couple minutes and called him back and said "why not?"

I took the train downtown to meet him at his office. He had a parking pass and $2.50 in train fare sounded a lot better to me than paying $15 for parking to meet him there. As I waited downstairs on Figueroa I noticed the giant "Mannywood" sign across the street. Not so much lately, I said to myself. Despite leaving downtown 20 minutes before game time we were in our seats before the first batter was done.

Neither team did much hitting. The Dodgers didn't get their first hit until the 5th inning. Both teams left a few runners in scoring position. The Dodgers got a run in the 8th inning and won the game 1-0.

It was warm but nowhere near as hot as the last few days. There is definitely something special about a day game in Dodger Stadium. Years ago my friend Hatcher and I talked for a few hours one evening about how much we both love baseball and he made a comment about the pace of baseball matching the pace of summer. I thought about that comment this afternoon. Although I'm an Angels fan, I've always cheered for the Dodgers against other teams. But as the years go by and I hear more and more comments from Dodgers fans about how the "Angels suck" when I'm wearing my Angels hat in public, I wonder if I care at all about the Dodgers anymore. But when I sit in the sun at the stadium, hear the organ music, and see Vin Scully on the diamond vision, I still find myself cheering for the Dodgers. I don't know if that will ever change.