Grills of Your Dreams
Your essential summertime list of top local keepers of the barbecue flame
Barbecue: If there’s a more loaded word in the culinary dictionary, I don’t know it. It is a catch-all term meaning different things to different people. It hopscotches cultural lines, conforming to none. Even within what our own country calls barbecue, there is vehement disagreement: One region’s sacrosanct recipe for baby-back ribs is another’s sacrilege.
What the word means to me is cooking by fire, either direct or indirect, with flames of varying intensities, but always involving some sort of charring—at least, that’s the definition I’m going with. And while barbecue is a summery food to us Americans, it can be just everyday fare to every one else.
So if you, dear reader, will allow me to take these liberties and riff on the subject using these broadest of parameters, here are some locales where you can feast on the product of man’s primeval need to sear, smoke and put some burn on animal flesh.
Still thinking of barbecue in the way the Food Network does when it crams it down our throats during sweeps? Well, then get your brisket-and-baby-back-lovin’ self to Blake’s Place, a mom-and-pop that’s actually owned by Blake’s mom and pop. Don’t expect kitschy Southern theming or anything frivolous on the walls. Located in a stark industrial area, it is as serene a temple to what we Americans call barbecue as you’ll ever get in OC. The brisket is fork-tender and pink in the middle. The homemade sausages snap. Everything is served on Styrofoam plates like your most recent picnic in the park. 2901 E. Miraloma Ave., Ste. 1, Anaheim, (714) 630-8574; www.blakesplacebbq.com.
If you just have to have those wall-mounted knickknacks, the ever-expanding chain born in Long Beach is one to please. Themed crap is all over the walls, fanciful illustrations of pigs and plaques with quotes that sound like they were penned by Mark Twain himself. In the center of it all is a figure of Lucille Buchanan, a fictional mascot concocted by Craig Hofman of Hof’s Hut fame to sell his brand. And man, has it worked. Lines at all branches are perennially long—and I, for one, really don’t mind enduring them. Their portion sizes are ridiculous, and although the recipes for brisket, ribs and chicken are purported to have come from Ms. Buchanan, they’re all still smoky, tender and delicious: the best mass-marketed food from an imaginary character since Popeye’s Chicken. Multiple locations; www.lucillesbbq.com.
Cambinos Asian BBQ
If the name of this hole-in-the-wall confuses you, here’s a hint: It is a portmanteau of Cambodian and Filipino. Get it? Cambinos! As such, you can expect things on skewers because that’s what most Southeast Asians consider barbecue. Pieces of marinated chicken and pork are threaded onto bamboo sticks, and then simply grilled. Others, like the flavorful beef short rib and pork spare ribs are not, since they are still attached to bone. 5721 Lincoln Ave., Ste. F, Cypress, (714) 484-0511.
Shinsengumi Robata Yakitori
Speaking of things skewered on sticks, the Japanese have their own version called kushiyaki. The most popular form is yakitori, another catch-all that can constitute anything from chicken gizzards to the chicken tail (yes, chickens have tails). At Shinsengumi, all parts are lovingly turned over the costliest charcoal in the world—binchotan, which are cylindrical logs as brittle as glass that burn white-hot and impart an unequaled sweet smokiness to anything within charring distance. 18315 Brookhurst St., Ste.1, Fountain Valley, (714) 962-8952.
Manpuku Tokyo BBQ Dining
Yet another variant on the Japanese definition of barbecue manifests itself in yakiniku, a cook-it-yourself style of dining. The best place to practice your Bobby Flay-aping prowess is Manpuku. Every table is equipped with a blistering charcoal brazier, upon which you will sear, char and cook all manner of flesh—porcine, bovine, gallinaceous, marine. Mostly, you’ll want to focus on the fattiest cuts from each species, with particular emphasis on the pork belly. It will sizzle and sputter, fueling the flames as they shrink to become the crispiest bacon you’ll pluck from an open pit of fire. 891 Baker St., Ste. A-2, Costa Mesa, (714) 708-3290.
Cham Sut Gol
The Japanese may have their yakiniku, but the Koreans are famous—nay, infamous—for their contribution to Garden Grove’s culinary landscape: the Korean barbecue. There are too many to name in the city’s Korean District. All are good to great, but Cham Sut Gol is the one to watch. Here, for a paltry set price, you are plied with an unlimited supply of sliced brisket planed to the thinness of a playing card, moist chicken, two kinds of marinated beef and thick-sliced pork belly. Really, things cannot get any worse for your summer diet. And I haven’t even begun talking about all the complimentary side items called panchan, which includes one of the tastiest potato salads ever made. 9252 Garden Grove Blvd., Ste. 10, Garden Grove, (714) 590-9292.
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Aloha Hawaiian BBQ
Not to be outdone by the Koreans, the Hawaiians borrowed their kalbi (beef short ribs) and made it into something called “the plate lunch.” The word “plate” is a misnomer, especially at Aloha. What you get in their Hawaiian BBQ Mix is more like a trough in which kalbi, hunks of chicken and a formidable hill of sliced barbecue beef are piled high with rice and mac salad—food designed to make new Hawaiian Islands out of the people who can finish it. 2336 Park Ave., Tustin, (714) 258-1888.
In Little Saigon, arguably the most popular barbecue dish is called thit nuong, grilled pork marinated in fish sauce and lemongrass. It tops flotillas of rice, noodles, even sandwiches. Hundreds of restaurants serve it, but if you just want this money meat to take home, go to Huong Huong. Here, you can buy it by the pound, then take it to the office, a potluck, or someone’s backyard cookout. The possibilities are as endless as the raves you will receive. 9262 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 3, Westminster, (714) 895-6551.
The name may say falafel, but in Sahara Falafel’s BBQ Combination Plate, you’ll find a kafta—grilled beef sausage tenderly flipped over the lapping fires of a grill no bigger than a school desk. Smear it with toum (a punchy, over-the-top paste made of garlic), wince and repeat. Afterward, get some falafel for dessert. 590 S Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 491-0400.
Nothing I’ve written about so far matches the sheer joy of eating barbecued meat at Agora. As far as I’m concerned, this upscale Brazilian take on barbecue in Irvine is charred-meat mecca. Cuts of cow, chicken wrapped in bacon and filet mignon wrapped in bacon (I think I may have mentioned the bacon) are all fire-roasted whilst impaled on swords. These swords, by the way, are also the method of transport to your table. Most of what is unthreaded from these sabers and onto your plate is simply seasoned with sea salt, allowing the natural sanguine flavor of the meat to sucker you into eating more than you ever thought you could. When you become so stuffed you can barely speak, flip over the provided card to the red side. Only then will the protein parade stop. 1830 Main St., Irvine, (949) 222-9910.