Smoked pork belly char siu is inspired by Chinese barbecue at Smoke Queen in Los Angeles on July 10, 2021. From storied Santa Maria tri-tip on the Central Coast, to barbacoa in Los Angeles, to hot links in West Oakland, the rules for slow-and-low are constantly rewritten here. (Adam Amengual/The New York Times)

Smoked pork belly char siu is inspired by Chinese barbecue at Smoke Queen in Los Angeles on July 10, 2021. From storied Santa Maria tri-tip on the Central Coast, to barbacoa in Los Angeles, to hot links in West Oakland, the rules for slow-and-low are constantly rewritten here. (Adam Amengual/The New York Times)

In search of the California barbecue tradition

The char siu was faintly reminiscent of the sweet, reddish-stained Cantonese roast pork that I knew, but with its own distinct power and pull. It barely made it home.

Yee-Lakhani, who wraps her bellies like briskets, was born in a small town 60 miles north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and grew up speaking Chinese at home in Garden Grove and Anaheim, California. She runs Smoke Queen out of a commissary kitchen in Orange County with three pickup points in the Los Angeles area.

Before the pandemic, she operated Baja Fresh and Sbarro franchises and smoked meat for fun at home, but she learned the work in more depth by watching pitmasters on YouTube, taking notes and cooking through the night, again and again, absorbing what to look for in her fire, her smoke, her meat.

Eventually, when it became clear she was building a small business, not nurturing a hobby, she invested in a serious 500-gallon smoker, custom-built to sit low to the ground, with counterweights on the doors so she could open and close them without too much trouble. “I don’t look like other pitmasters,” she said, referring to her small size.

On a recent weekend, Yee-Lakhani put her smoked char siu and brisket into puffy baos, and seared homemade sausages seasoned with galangal and lemongrass. Though she takes inspiration from the magnificent, black-barked briskets of Central Texas, she also thinks of her style as her own.

“I’ve never even been to Texas,” she said. “I can’t say I’m selling Texas barbecue.”

Barbecue styles in other parts of the country, from Texas to the Carolinas, are so well codified, it’s no wonder there are pitmasters across California who venerate them. But even among those who carefully study and re-create regional pleasures that belong to other places, the food tends to be more playful than prescriptive.

Moo’s Craft Barbecue in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, could serve beautiful ribs and brisket and call it a day, but Michelle and Andrew Muñoz pepper the menu with Frito chile pies and smoked beef cheek tacos. Their thick, verde sausages have snappy, translucent casings stained green with chiles. Their satisfying bread pudding has the dense creaminess of a slice of tres leches.

Their food reminded me that I didn’t have to go far from home for excellent barbecue. So I spent most of the summer driving from pits to pickup points all over the state, trying to glean a sense of what makes California barbecue what it is.

I started in Santa Maria, on the Central Coast, a three-hour drive from my home in Los Angeles, sliding north along the Pacific Coast Highway, through steep wooded canyons, then back down into golden hills dotted with vineyards, ranches and hoop houses full of strawberries and lettuce.

This is Chumash land, but in the 1830s, Spanish and Mexican land grants reshaped the region. Much like the Indigenous cooks who had cooked over fires and in pits, rancheros and vaqueros cooked in the open air. They threaded large cuts of meat through rods or skewers and turned them beside the coals they made from red oak fires.

As the cooking style, known Santa Maria-style barbecue, moved into local social clubs, its rules became more fine-tuned and established. For a while, the preferred cut was aged prime rib, seasoned only with salt, pepper and garlic salt, served to huge groups at once with sides of tiny pink pinquito beans, fresh salsa and grilled bread, for blotting up the juices.

You can find it close to this way at the local Elks Lodge cookouts, where some cooks use skewers taller than a person. But you can also find Santa Maria-style barbecue for dinner as a smaller, shining slab of steak cooked on a grill with homemade French fries at the Hitching Post, which is part time capsule and part restaurant. Though less concerned with presentation, it’s just as satisfying in the form of a chopped tri-tip with raw red onion and pinto beans, rolled up as thick, sticky edged burritos at Rancho Nipomo.

If you plot California barbecue out on a timeline, it doesn’t simply start at one point and end at another. It swirls and zigzags and folds back onto itself — layers and layers of styles swaying, coexisting, branching and overlapping in a great big cloud of sweet red-oak smoke.

The first time Alan Cruz tasted smoked brisket, he cooked it himself. “I was chasing that perfect brisket, and I was ruining a lot of meat,” he said.

Slowly, Cruz learned his way around the fires, and the smoke, and how to get it to burn clean. He now turns out trembling, jellylike briskets from a massive smoker he dragged into the backyard of his childhood home in East Los Angeles.

He faced a quandary as he started to sell his work: What do you call barbecue informed not only by Tex-Mex, but also by your mother, your aunt and your favorite neighborhood taqueros?

Maybe taxonomy doesn’t matter, except when it comes to search-engine optimization, but Cruz, who runs A’s BBQ, and whose family comes from Acapulco, Mexico, settled on the term “Chicano barbecue.”

“When people think of East LA, I want them to think of my food,” he said. “And it’s not just the food, it’s my community, and the way we serve it: We’re a bunch of Chicanos, and we’re having fun and we’re messing around and we’re making it up as we go.”

The first time I went to A’s, a rooster joined me as I crossed the street, speeding ahead in a frantic waddle as if trying to beat me to the line, which stretched down Cruz’s driveway and around the corner.

It was made up of a mix of locals and friends, who greeted him with fist bumps and snippets of gossip, and people who had traveled farther for a taste of the food, and needed a quick explainer when they got to the cutting station.

There were al pastor sausages and smoked, al pastor pork bellies evocative of the vertical spits that rotate at taquerias, dripping with rendered fat and pineapple juice. There were ribs, lightly sweetened with piloncillo. There’s often an enticing option to make tacos with smoked brisket and supple, sweet-smelling tortillas from the nearby Kernel of Truth factory. And Cruz has made tamales with smoked brisket as well.

But I cannot leave A’s without some of the cochinita pibil, a pork butt smoked for a few hours then wrapped up with citrus juices infused with herbs and returned to the pit. Cruz uses grapefruit juice to add depth to the orange, and that grassy juice emulsifies with the pork fat, stained with achiote, to form a kind of liquor.

It’s delicious, and it draws your attention to the Mayan pib, one of the many genres of sweaty, underground pits engineered by Indigenous cooks, where barbecue was born, simultaneously, in so many places at once.

Matt Horn was raised in Fresno. Growing up, his father and grandfather, who both worked in construction, smoked meats like ribs, chicken and hot links for every big family gathering, from birthdays to funerals, using a series of small backyard smokers with offset fire boxes.

“I remember the ribs and chicken, heavily sauced, and the hot links plain, but with a nice char on them,” he said. Sometimes, Horn’s grandfather would use a piece of soft white bread to take a crisp-skinned hot link right off the grill, and hand it to him as a snack.

After his grandfather died, Horn pulled one of his grandfather’s old smokers out from under a tarp, cleaned it up, and practiced smoking in his grandmother’s backyard. “I never wanted to learn someone else’s style,” he said.

In West Oakland, at Horn Barbecue, Horn makes potatoes with sour cream, Cheddar cheese and green onions, just like his grandmother (though he uses fresh potatoes, not frozen). He turns out the kind of giant beef ribs and dark, jiggly briskets that help to define Central Texas barbecue, but he also serves whole hog barbecue on the weekends, and ages quail and duck.

His plain hot links are a highlight of the menu, exquisite, in my opinion, and he’s always experimenting with new kinds of sausages — roasting plums, smoking them, searing the fruit directly on the charcoal. What is Horn’s work if not its very own unmistakable and unconfined style of California barbecue?

The Compton-born pitmaster Kevin Bludso, of Bludso’s Bar & Que, has never understood why pitmasters in California are often left out of the national barbecue story, which has a rich history well beyond Santa Maria-style.

“At one point, LA had so many barbecue restaurants, stretching from Watts to Compton,” he said. “As African Americans migrated here from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and other places, they brought their styles, changed them up, and they built legendary restaurants in LA through the 1970s.”

When he opened Bludso’s in Compton, in 2008, Bludso cooked ribs and rib tips, but also chickens. These were rubbed to mimic the spicy, comforting flavors of the pollos asados turned out by the street vendors who used makeshift grills all over his community, but they weren’t cooked on grills. The chickens were cooked low and slow in the pits, as his granny might have done. The chickens were kissed with red-oak smoke.

Bludso’s barbecue chicken is delicious, and it could have been a hit anywhere, but it always belonged in the place where it was made. It always belonged in Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Matt Horn is known for the sausages he smokes at Horn Barbecue in West Oakland. (Adam Amengual/New York Times)

Matt Horn is known for the sausages he smokes at Horn Barbecue in West Oakland. (Adam Amengual/New York Times)

Matt Horn, owner of Horn Barbecue in Oakland, learned how to smoke meat in his grandmother’s backyard.<ins> (Adam Amengual/New York Times)</ins>

Matt Horn, owner of Horn Barbecue in Oakland, learned how to smoke meat in his grandmother’s backyard. (Adam Amengual/New York Times)

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