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Lucille in the Sky with Ribs

The carnal carnival at Breas sole redeeming factor

Photo by Tenaya HillsLet's make fun of Brea. A city with an antiseptic downtown ruled by packs of Von Dutch-garbed teenyboppers. The Paris of North Orange County. Dry. Home of an electorate that failed to re-elect council member Steve Vargas in 2002 because Vargas wouldn't shut up about his colleagues' sweetheart deals with developers and trash companies. And did we mention that Brea Olinda High's Ladycats basketball squad is the prep version of the Luftwaffe? Dangerous, talented girls.

For a backwater with ambitions of grandeur, then, it's apt that Brea's most-happening locale is a barbecue chain where the portions are as gargantuan as its host city's budget deficit. Such is the promise of Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que, a three-year-old establishment that attracts herds of Breans pining for social life and edible dining. Even if you visit midday on a Tuesday, the wait is a minimum 15 minutes, and then only if the gluttons inside decide to shuffle out upon completing their dinner. The certainty of an extended delay doesn't faze the patrons who sit outside on benches, their eyes constantly glancing at the beeper that announces openings.

Inside, the ceiling sports intricate cast-metal designs, with pseudo-vintage African-American art covering the brick walls. The wails of recorded blues singers are barely discernible above the din created as multiple families of four tear into their weight in ribs. But what wows everyone is the almost stifling aroma of burnt pork, chicken and beef, so thick your breath comes in clipped gasps. Waiters will invite you to walk over to the source: a towering Soviet-style metal smoker, in which cooks transform raw slabs of meat with Lucille's scorching home-prepared rub. Observe this wizardry at your own risk, though: it's common for patrons to snag apparently vacant tables.

Bustling, aromatic, just a little bit scandalous—Lucille's is rocking! But is its hot-spot reputation warranted? No and yes. Scene alone does not a successful restaurant make, and truth be told, the Lucille's Smokehouse vibe is just too master-planned—or did that massive wall of booze constituting Lucille's bar appear near the entrance by accidents of design? And though live entertainment growls on weekends, most of the performers studied at the Johnny Lang School of Fake Knocks.

But if Lucille's falls short in atmosphere, it succeeds tremendously in food. Sides here—two per entrée—are as big as appetizers, and appetizers constitute a month's worth of courses in some sub-Saharan nations. Buttermilk biscuits exhibit a snowy flakiness and arrive with a thimble of rich honey butter. Some of the better appetizers include fried green tomatoes, slabs of the fruit deep-fried to a shining golden color but simultaneously crunchy and juicy, and honey peanut coleslaw, simultaneously tart and sweet. Most tables will also feature the little greased squiggles known as shoestring fries—yours should, too. Drinks are served in jars large enough to preserve a squirrel.

But these servings are mere crumbs when measured against the feral bulk of a Lucille's barbecue plate. I'm reminded of the classic Simpsons episode in which Homer visits the Slaughterhouse, a beef barn that sells 16 pounds of what a waiter describes as "indomitable tenderloin." Homer tries but fails to finish the Sir Loins-a-Lot, and most of Lucille's customers will likewise walk away with takeout cartons the size of suitcases. Tri-tips are layered like a deck of cards, eight oblong strips to a serving. Ribs break off easily, the inside tender and outside like black shards painted red with barbecue sauce. There's also chicken, hot links, pork shoulders—everything in the barbecue galaxy.

You can order each separately, but the better, bulkier options are the "porch" selections in the menu. These combos are priced only a bit higher than a stand-alone entrée yet are three times as large—the "back porch" choice, for instance, combines sweet St. Louis ribs, half a bird and more of that wondrous tri-tip, a veritable barnyard of splendor. After plowing through one of these, you'd better waddle out fast before the Lucille's owners size you up as ready for a dance on the grill, so plump will you be.

Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que, 1639 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 990-4944; also at 7411 Carson St., Long Beach, (562) 938-7427; 4828 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 434-7427. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Full bar. Dinner for two, $18-$54, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
 
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