Lucille's Smokehouse Bar B Que
7411 Carson Blvd
Long Beach, CA 90808
Almost exactly five years ago, I had just returned from a vacation to Memphis in May with my friends Hatcher and Min. Although Memphis in May encompasses several weekends of festivals, the one we went to probably will not come as much of a surprise to you: The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. I ate barbecue for every meal save two: 1) a deep fried hamburger at Dyer's, the legendary Beale Street joint where all beef patties are fried in a vat of oil, an oil they have not changed in 98 years, and 2) a chicken gyro sandwich one afternoon when Min declared we needed to "eat something healthy." I have no idea what gave her that idea.
That chicken sandwich, from a chain called Zoë's Kitchen, was actually fantastic, although not entirely in keeping with the spirit of the trip. Nor in keeping with the spirit of Memphis, I suppose: the restaurant has gone out of business. This does not surprise me, as most things on the menu were pretty healthy. I am not one for souvenir t-shirts but I have one from that trip that I love. It has the Memphis in May logo on the front and on the back it reads: "Memphis, the 4th Fattest City in America. We Won't Rest Until We're #1"
When I got back from that trip I abstained from barbecue for a long time. Okay, it was only 48 hours. But it seemed like a long time for me. A couple weekends later my buddy Troy invited me down to see his new place in Long Beach and take me out for barbecue. We went to Lucille's in the Belmont Shore section of town.
"This may not compare to what you just ate in Memphis," he said, "but I really like this place. I'm anxious to know your thoughts."
This was a gorgeous afternoon and the restaurant was packed, as indeed all of Long Beach seemed to be. We took a table in the bar - the only table in the house for which there was not a wait - and drank a couple cold beers while watching the Angels beat up the Red Sox 13-6. (I actually just looked up the box score from that game to double check my memory; not only am I correct, but it turns out that was five years ago to the day. Funny.)
I ordered a pulled pork sandwich that day, realizing even at the time that was probably going to be a disappointment. I mean, in the last three weeks I had eaten pulled pork at some of the most hallowed names in barbecue: Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, Corky's, Central BBQ. (I even had a pulled pork sandwich on President Clinton Ave in Little Rock on the way to Memphis, just after visiting the Clinton Library, that was almost the equal of those Memphis sandwiches.)
What surprised me was that the pulled pork sandwich I had that day at Lucille's was awesome. Speckled with smoke ring and served on a soft bun, it was unquestionably the best barbecue sandwich I had ever had from a chain in California.
I never went back to that Lucille's, but I have been to the one in Rancho Cucamonga (in Victoria Gardens) several times since then, and have never had a sandwich that came close to the Belmont Shore sandwich. So a couple years ago I kind of gave up on Lucille's. It was always good, but not worth fighting the always-present crowds, higher than average prices, and inconsistent quality.
Yesterday I had the day off and volunteered to go with my mom down to Newport Beach - she was picking up something she needed for work and this way we could go in the carpool lane. A few miles north of Long Beach we both were hungry. I suggested going to Lucille's, and she agreed. This is not the same one I went to 5 years ago in the Belmont Shore section of Long Beach, this is right off the 605 Freeway.
We got a booth right away and both ordered iced teas. Served in a Mason jar, this was one of the better restaurant iced teas I have had in a while. The menu at Lucille's is big, not to mention several lunch specials, but I decided to get my usual pulled pork sandwich. My mom ordered a half a ham sandwich and cup of chowder, and we ordered some Dixie egg rolls to start.
Dixie egg rolls have always been my favorite appetizer here: diced chicken, andouille sausage, grilled corn, greens and cheese, all stuffed into an egg roll wrapper and fried. They are very good, although the fruit sauce they are served with is a little too sweet so I only use it sparingly, instead opting for the Memphis barbecue sauce.
There are three bottles of barbecue sauce on the table: Original, Hot and Spicy, and Memphis. The Original is disgustingly sweet: it tastes of molasses and honey and not much else. The Hot and Spicy is decent but not really hot or spicy. It's more of a regular barbecue sauce with a tiny amount of spice thrown in. The Memphis sauce is my favorite of the bunch. It's not anything fancy - ketchup, mustard, brown sugar and vinegar - and to be honest I don't recall ever having a sauce in Memphis that tasted like this, but it's tasty.
My pulled pork sandwich looked very good when it arrived, served on a fresh potato bun. Plenty of the pieces of pork were tipped with smoke ring and, once I removed a pretty large piece of fat, it was a good sandwich, except for one thing: it had mayonnaise on it. I don't like when restaurants put mayo on barbecue - it's just an attempt to hide the flavor - but at least they usually alert you to the fact. Lucille's menu claimed the pork came with a "Creole mustard sauce" which sounded good to me. But this was just mayo. It added nothing and made it impossible for me to call the sandwich anything other than slightly-better-than-average.
I tried some of the corn chowder. It was a Southern-style, with pieces of ham in it and overall much thinner than any version I have ever had. For a warm late-spring day it was quite nice, although I think I prefer the thicker style that you usually find. I did not try any of the ham sandwich but my mom liked it a lot, the ham being marinated in Coca Cola and molasses before being smoked.
I am glad I returned to Lucille's after a few years, and I like the place, but it is nothing too special. All of the locations are beautifully decorated, but the large menu makes it impossible to specialize in any one thing. It's much better than most chain restaurants, but it pales in comparison to my favorite small barbecue joints like Bludso's or Perdue's.