by Dan Johnson
Join me on a jaunt down memory lane.
The year was 2006 and I was a vegetarian. It was my first foray into compassionate dieting. One that ultimately came to grief as the swells of time pushed the flimsy raft of idealism against the shoals of my meat-friendly upbringing.
On the precise six-month anniversary of taking a no-meat pledge, I trucked my happy ass on down to the corner of Figueroa St and Cesar Chavez Ave where the pre-Geoff Palmer intersection was routinely awash with a cloud of mesquite smoke emanating from the many smokers at BBQ King.
I’m a sucker for BBQ. It’s in my blood. When I first moved to Los Angeles, BBQ King was my go-to. Despite their preference for drowning every last shred of product in an obnoxious brown sugar sauce, I found that their commitment to smoking made the meat just as delightful sans sauce.
That’s how it should be done. Eating BBQ without sauce is the true measuring stick of BBQ. Like test driving a car in first gear before shifting it up to fourth. If it doesn’t pass on its own merits, you should not eat it dressed up in liquid flavor.
Sadly, BBQ King’s days at Fig and Chavez were numbered.
In 2008, Eater LA chronicled the joint’s wrecking ball destruction complete with dutiful documentation of the “Fuck Orsini” tag gracing the once proud smokehouse’s exterior.
As silver lining, the crew at BBQ King secured another brick and mortar location on the newly minted Restaurant Row. Not the impressive roster of eateries it is today, the 7th St corridor was then making the tough transition from Carol Schatz pipe dream into be-capitaled reality. BBQ King was but one of many brief interlopers in that process.
It wasn’t a pretty chapter.
The endearingly lackadaisical way with which they carried out business was a source of frustration at the new location. So too was the lack of once abundant parking that made the original a joy to visit. Still more disconcerting was the obvious fact that this smoked BBQ joint was somehow functioning without a smoker.
Their now defunct Yelp is an ugly scrawl of disappointment written in the language of indignant culinary graffito. Much of it speaks to these same frustrations while others spice up the convo with accusations that BBQ King isn’t true Texas BBQ, which is a bit funny given a state that prides itself on individualism and vast geography would probably not have a single homogenous marker for its prime food export.
I went to the 7th St location one too many times before rage quitting after a meal of dry meat drenched in sugar paste landed in my gullet like an anvil. It was a superlative instance of mediocrity. One I had paid too much for. I said sayonara and never looked back. By the time I got the heart to swing back around, it was a corpse of a restaurant with a leasing sign for a tombstone.
Flash forward nearly a decade. I was recently a guest at a catered event with some fairly fantastic BBQ. Lo and behold, it was the work of the fine folks at BBQ King who are alive and well.
They’ve set up shop at 54th St and Vermont Ave. It is a few short miles and a cultural world away from the current state of Downtown restauranteuring. The location itself is aggressively modest, but in an authentic way. It reminds me less of the uber-polished simulacra of country BBQ joints that typically push the smoked stuff in LA north of the 10 Freeway.
“The Pit” is spelled out in tile on the floor. Un-ironic vintage wood paneling lines the walls along with a television and a crooked photo of Michael Jordan and Kobe. The menu is a vinyl print tacked to the wall. Half of the tables are stacked with chairs.
There is a smoker. That’s all that matters.
$6.75 will get you a sandwich. It’s extra for the sides, which come in a non-standard variety of sizes. The corn bread is not worth calling home over. Stick to the sandwich. If you’re picky, order it without sauce, because that is the dominant taste feature of an ordinary plate here.
The crowd is sparse and a mixed bag of Latino, African-American and white. We take it for granted that smoked, roasted, grilled or fried meat is the true glue with which we bond together otherwise formidable cultural differences.
So too is common hatred a valuable unifier. During lunch, I find myself staring up at a particularly egregious collection of lies, untruths, omissions, careful hedging, politicized hogwash and general slovenly mind-rape executed in a marathon of idiocy by America’s favorite ventriloquist dummy: Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
I maintain that there are no coincidences in this life. The great, unseen cosmic game instills meaning in even the most trivial details. This helps explain why Sarah Huckabee Sanders looks eerily like the human manifestation of a Goomba from Super Mario Brothers. Her mealy-mouthed deceits and appeals to base patriotism are the contemporary political equivalent of a two-dimensional, eight-bit piece of shit that worked decades ago, but stinks of shit as we lift it to our noses today to blow on the cartridge so as to prevent catastrophic freezes in game play.
I’m not alone in my spite. The only other customer at BBQ King is a Latino man who is chowing down on an $11 combo plate with double mac and cheese sides while surreptitiously glugging from a paper bag clad tall boy of Tecate Light. He’s sighing loudly with every slipshod disavowal that spills out of Sanders’ mouth like another loose turd her boss has made her gargle just to see if she can.
Our takeaways are a bit different. I see the moral degeneracy the Puritans feared accelerated by complacent thinking, educational ineptitude and the asinine force multiplier that is mass media. My meal-mate sees betrayal. “You can’t trust nobody,” he chirps. On my way out, his parting thought is, “anything can happen—you gotta look over your shoulder.”
That’s about as close to the centerline of American thought as you will get today. This is a fundamentally moderate and popular opinion spoken in a restaurant that represents the mean.
It is not pretty. It seems almost barely chugging along. It is surrounded by a burned-out church and row after row of early twentieth century bungalows in various states of repair that testify to the drawn-out process of fading hopes that separates our 1900 ambitions for a prosperous 360-degree city from the reality of a post-modern metropolis in a fractured world.
In retrospect, BBQ King was not exceptional enough to participate in the Downtown rebirth. It wasn’t a prize-winning gem that online outlets raved about and lunch-hour sycophants were drawn to like moths to a flame. That’s what our city center requires now—extraordinary status. Without it, you’re a goner. A flash in the pan. A coulda, shoulda, woulda.
It’s an interesting thing to build a city off of. Los Angeles mythos is steeped in the fact that the best and most exciting things will rise here while the average will disappear into obscurity. Many of us support that narrative, because we like to imagine we are the best and most exciting ourselves. Mostly though, we are tepid and forgettable so we affiliate with wondrous things so we can hide our shortcomings in plain sight beneath the glow of a lauded other.
Still, there is always that gnawing feeling as if ours is not the real world and the bubble will burst one day and we too will appear as we truly are—less than electric and just fine despite it.
The cosmic game is not about sprinting forward to snatch divinity from the jaws of destiny, but enduring quietly in our own way amidst a scene whose dynamic qualities promise little but eventual oblivion and an opportunity to serve up our own modest smoked goods with the time we have.
I award BBQ King a “1” on the binary and offer a moment of silence to honor their resilience.