Where There's Smoke, There's Leadbelly's

The folks at Leadbelly's finally installed the lighted sign about three weeks ago, and it doesn't say “Leadbelly's Southern-Style Barbecue,” which is its proper title; it just reads “Barbecue” because, well, what else do you need to know? Here, in this strip mall in a decidedly unhip part of Fullerton, you're not going bar-hopping at some trendy club; you're going for a tan under the sign that says “Tanning,” for a rubdown at the one that says “Massage” or, best yet, for no-frills-no-nonsense barbecue at Leadbelly's. This is barbecue at its most sincere, the kind of mom-and-pop that thrives on word-of-mouth and charges prices so reasonable it's almost anti-competitive.

Leadbelly's does it in a square room no bigger than most sandwich shops. But there are tables fashioned from entire doors that a family of 10 can crowd around. There are trumpets, wooden crates and all kinds of random knickknacks on the wall, as well as humorous aphorisms carved into wooden blocks that say such things as “Alcohol: Because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad.” The latter all but encourages you to try a beer from a list as dense as a phone book. At the bar, I saw a man stoically nursing the Stone IPA he ordered, transfixed by the television, not moving an inch the whole night, probably rendered immobile from the meat-heavy meal he just ate.

Almost everything here has meat in it, even the two lonely salads. What you want to start with are the “Loaded Pork Garlic Fries,” a house specialty that features three distinct textures of pig, two kinds of cheese and some sprinkled scallions that count as a vegetable. If it were any bigger, Adam Richman from Man v. Food would visit to prove he can eat it all in one sitting. And unlike other smothered fries out there, it never degrades into sogginess. Somehow, despite the mounds of pulled pork that taste like moist carnitas if it weren't so smoky, the crumbles of bacon, the cubes of fat-gushing pork belly and the stretchy melted cheese, the potatoes remain crisp. Still, you want to inhale it quickly while it's hot, before all the pork fat congeals and you realize it's a meal unto itself. To keep everything at temperature, the serving plate is heated. To keep your mouth lubricated, a well-made but calorically unnecessary white gravy is served on the side.

The only other appetizer you need to consider is the massive sampler platter called “The Buzz.” It includes two foodstuffs I've never seen before, not even at the OC Fair. The “Pig and a Pepper” is an interpretation of a jalapeño popper that has the same size, shape and breaded outer crust, but is actually a deep-fried fritter made by mixing pulled pork with cheese, bacon and chopped jalapeños together, then forming it into little footballs. The meaty clubs that are the “Hot Boxed Wings” are rubbed, smoked, fried and coated with spicy barbecue sauce—and are 10 times more complex than your typical hot wings. The rest of the plate overflows with homemade onion rings, more fries and sausage slices also offered as a choice for the main-course smoked-meat platters, which is the whole reason you're here in the first place.

And when you start on your meaty main course, you marvel that the modest, refrigerator-sized smoker pictured on the Facebook page is responsible for tri tips so pink, briskets so deep in flavor and sausages that melt like ice cream in your mouth. It's almost as surprising as the price you'll pay for a massive plate with all three: $15.95 as of this writing. Included are slices of bread you'll never touch and a choice of two sides from a list that boasts of collard greens, creamed corn that slurps like chowder, candy-sweet baked beans, and a jalapeño macaroni and cheese that comes with not only crumbled breadcrumbs, but also crumbled bacon. Leadbelly's also offers burnt ends, those charred brisket trimmings that are one of the most coveted delicacies in the world of barbecue; here, they're served steeped in an almost-too-salty sauce insulated with a thin layer of fat.

Those who come to Leadbelly's with no intention of eating a smoked-meat plate can have sandwiches stuffed with the same proteins or the only non-barbecue main entrée: shredded chicken simmered in a spicy, roux-thickened etouffee poured around a molded mound of rice. Any of those choices are better than the burgers, which tend to be dry. About the only other disappointment are the pork ribs. Though they're smoked to just the right amount of pull and texture, the chosen spice rub gives off an inexplicably fishy smell. Yet even this is saved when you slather them with thimbles of barbecue sauce—but you were going to do that anyway.


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