Food & Drinks

Some People Say Wood Makes or Breaks Barbecue. LA’s Pitmasters Disagree.

Walk into Ray’s, an underrated barbecue gem in Huntington Park, and you’ll find a sparse space with stacks of dried almond and pecan logs by the eating area waiting to go into the large black J&R smokers tucked into the kitchen. Here you can eat deeply smoked wagyu brisket that shines as it would in Austin or Lockhart, though owner Ray Ramirez likes to incorporate his Salvadoran background into seasoned sides of rice or brisket-stuffed empanadas. Ray’s opened in 2014, predating many of the city’s newer operators like Slab, Heritage, and Moo’s Craft. And though it draws more than 100 meat lovers a day who come here in search of Texas-style ’cue dripping with juicy fat, it’s still somewhat overlooked because of its location, many miles from a major freeway.

Ramirez says he uses a combination of pecan and almond because both woods are readily available in Southern California, and also because their supersweet taste works well with the brisket, pulled pork, and spare ribs he smokes. But he suspects that the type of wood doesn’t make as big a difference in barbecue flavor as people think — a hunch he confirmed over time by using different wood varieties. In 2018, Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn heaped praise on Ray’s BBQ, noting the “otherworldly” pulled pork and generally liking Ramirez’s other selections. Ramirez says he was using a mix of red and white oak when Vaughn visited, not the pecan and almond.

Woodfire stove at Maple Block Barbecue in Culver City, CA.
Matthew Kang

Barbecue experts attribute great smoked meats to everything from the type of smoker to meat quality to the dry rub, all of which likely do make a difference in the final product. But the wood in the smoker provokes the most debate, mainly because woods can vary from region to region. Other than the provenance of the meat, pitmasters often boast about the woods they usepost oak or white oak, pecan or almond, hickory or mesquite. But talk to barbecue operators across Los Angeles, and you’ll hear the opposite: They’ll insist that the kind of wood used to smoke barbecue really doesn’t matter. To many of LA’s barbecue experts, there are plenty of easy-to-alternate wood choices in Southern California to make incredible smoked meat. In fact, the variety of woods available on the West Coast have probably played a role in shaping the region’s distinctive barbecue culture.

Many of the city’s popular styles are rooted in a combination of strict dry rub Lone Star techniques and other Southern styles from Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee, which offer more saucy, sticky smoked meats. Pitmaster Shalamar Lane of My Father’s Barbeque in Carson draws from her family’s roots in Alabama and Texas. “I use post oak mainly because it gives a lot of heat but also good flavor, and because it works with all kinds of meat,” says Lane.

But unlike the rituals for strict Texas Hill Country ’cue, Lane adds pecan logs because her father and aunt used a mix of wood. “I usually add some kind of fruit wood. I used to use apple but it’s gotten really expensive and harder to get. I’ve tried walnut and white oak, but those flavors don’t work as well with all the meats.” In Alabama and Texas, her family didn’t use pecan or apple wood, but in California they found it more convenient to use fruit woods, which were easier to come by. In fact, Lane says friends even offer nectarine or peach wood logs after cutting down trees at their homes. Culver City’s Maple Block Meat Co., which received high praise from Texas Monthly’s Daniel Vaughn, uses locally sourced peach wood stacked along the side of the restaurant. The fruit wood is something pitmaster Rudy Suazo prefers for its mild flavor.

As one of LA’s more established underground barbecue specialists, Burt Bakman drew long lines at his San Fernando Valley home selling stellar Texas-style barbecue cooked in a large offset smoker. Then the realtor partnered with the h.wood Group to open Slab along West Third Street, where the restaurant is constrained to commercially approved box smokers. Bakman knows of the marketability of post oak, but he isn’t convinced that it guarantees great barbecue. It might even be some of the misplaced reasons why people think a specific kind of wood is the only way to produce true Texas ’cue: “We wanted to be like the cool kids in Austin, but post oak is just too tough to get regularly and certainly too expensive. When I was doing barbecue in my backyard, I was using a mix of red and white oak. We tried to do the same at the restaurant,” says Bakman. The pitmaster also says using white oak, much of which comes from California, is more environmentally responsible.

Bakman suggests that the reverence of post oak is a bit overblown. “We have great beef in California. In Texas, not everyone uses post oak. In West Texas they use hickory or mesquite. Not even everyone in Austin uses post oak,” he says, adding that the mystique around Texas has more to do with the experience of eating the barbecue than what actually happens in the pit. Bakman thinks he got all the approval he needed a few years ago at the LA Times Food Bowl event when Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue tried his brisket — and loved it.

Winnie Yee-Lakhani operates Smoke Queen BBQ, where she laces Asian flavors into smoked meats like char siu pork belly or brisket-filled bao. For Yee-Lakhani, it’s a waste to get post oak from Texas or Oklahoma from both a cost and an environmental perspective. “I prefer white oak because it’s close to post oak but is two-thirds of the price. A pallet of white oak costs $300, versus $450 for post oak,” she says. “I’m already burning wood and that’s bad enough, but if I buy wood from Texas and [have] it shipped here, it just isn’t necessary. We already have a very good alternative.”

Maple Block Barbecue pitmaster Rudy Suazo in front of the smokers inside the Culver City restaurant’s kitchen.

Maple Block Barbecue pitmaster Rudy Suazo in front of the smokers inside the Culver City restaurant’s kitchen.
Matthew Kang

Rudy Suazo holding up a log of peach wood outside Maple Block Barbecue in Culver City.

Rudy Suazo holding up a log of peach wood outside Maple Block Barbecue in Culver City.
Matthew Kang

The self-identified “pit-madam” thinks white oak produces a result that’s only mildly different from that of post oak. “You get a medium to strong smoky flavor that goes well with any protein,” she says. “People who are die-hard purists … would swear that if you’re doing Texas-style you gotta use post oak. I’ve tried them all, and there’s absolutely no sales increase or decrease [based on the wood].” Yee-Lakhani skillfully operates a 500-gallon offset smoker and cooks everything from gigantic dinosaur bone beef ribs to wagyu briskets tinted with pink smoke rings using a range of logs; worrying about the nuances of the wood seems like the least of her concerns. The proof is the barbecue and the frequent customers who do whatever they can to get it from her smoker.

Bakman thinks one element that some barbecue diehards might miss is the powerful influence of context on the perception of barbecue. Snow’s of Lexington, Texas, for example, became an icon partly because of its evocative story and setting. A trip to Snow’s, known as one of the nation’s best barbecue destinations, begins with a long Saturday morning drive from Austin through the plains, and ends with seeing the legendary Tootsie Tomanetz on arrival as she checks the restaurant’s massive smokers. Snow’s opens only one day a week and closes when it sells out; the dusty outdoor barn-style dining area is mere blocks from a cattle auction. That kind of business model is unsustainable for most Los Angeles businesses, and the journey of simply getting to Snow’s and tasting the entire package of a Central Texas barbecue is not something most city restaurants can offer. But folkloric barbecue narratives are strong enough, sometimes, to convince people that things like the wood in a region are a major factor in the goodness of the meat. (Snow’s uses post oak, by the way.)

Ultimately, exaggerating regional settings or types of wood as markers of greatness oversimplifies the reality that all good barbecue requires long stretches of time, backbreaking work, and the ability, financial or otherwise, to source great ingredients. In many ways, Los Angeles barbecue stands out because of what its operators offer in spite of the challenges of higher production costs and restrictive emissions standards. Still, Los Angeles’s pitmasters don’t seem that worried about how the city’s barbecue reputation stacks up against others in different states; they have the technique, equipment, and ingredients — including quality wood — to make the best barbecue they can.

In fact, with its many emerging styles and techniques, LA has become its own barbecue destination. The city doesn’t have cattle auctions or foggy rolling hills for miles in every direction or, for that matter, 86-year-old pitmasters named Tootsie. But it does have enterprising pitmasters who bring passion and knowledge to the craft without the weight of a long heritage or stylistic dogma. LA’s relatively recent emergence as a barbecue region allows pitmasters to create things like the rich coconut-slathered smoked top round at the Park’s Finest and the redolent garlic- and cumin-rubbed wagyu brisket from Smoke Queen. Wood is still a common flavor component, but LA pitmasters can experiment with using sweeter fruit woods or more intense red oak to achieve what they consider to be delicious barbecue. California’s barbecue may not have the national fame of barbecue in Texas or Memphis or the Carolinas, but Los Angeles has its own story to tell.

Logs at Ray’s BBQ in Huntington Park, CA.

Wood logs at Ray’s BBQ in Huntington Park, CA.
Matthew Kang

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