At LA Smokehouse, you are the boss.
While most barbecue places stick to a standard meat-side-sauce regimen, the layout here is a little different. Diners pick a meat (or any number of meats) and a vehicle — such as a salad or bowl of grits — and maybe a topping or two (fried egg or bacon bits). Mix, match, repeat. Maybe throw barbecue on a po-boy. Maybe add chili. It's up to you.
This approach can mean the finished product isn't entirely in the chef's hands but at the customer's whim, which can end with varying degrees of success. Would you top a Caesar salad with chopped smoked chicken or a mountain of pulled pork? (The former is the way to go). If you decide to top a deli-style sandwich on marbled rye with sopping, wobbly slices of brisket, you better grab some napkins — and leave anyone you're trying to impress at home.
This is all good fun, but where the barbecue is concerned, the kitchen gets serious and takes a more traditional approach.
Chef and owner Daniel Wender grew up in New Orleans and Memphis, and his cooking style reflects reverence for Creole comfort food and the slow-smoked meats of the South.
Pork spare ribs are the best bet. Giant slabs arrive with moderate char and the rosy-hued meat easily slips from the bone. Smoked sausages carry a little bit of heat, but boudin links are rice-heavy and under-seasoned. Pulled pork could be moister, but it's elevated to a perfectly acceptable level with one of the many house-made sauces.
The restaurant provides a counter spread of six sauces, ranging from a saffron-colored mustardy Carolinas version to a hot and smoky vinegar-forward dip. Choosing what sauce to use with a particular meat and base can go any number of ways, but the acidic peach habanero version doesn't seem to add much dimension in any scenario.
The standard barbecue sauce is thick, deeply sweet and smoky. It's a great addition to many of the meats but goes especially well with the smoked chicken and pulled pork. There's an excellent salsa verde that has a dark emerald hue and distinct charred flavor, thanks to the addition of smoked poblano peppers. Those poblanos just might be the kitchen's secret weapon. Folding the salsa verde into the creamy, almost nutty-tasting Caesar dressing (on a salad topped with buttery cornbread croutons) makes the dish utterly delicious.
Some of the sides offer a peek into the kitchen's creativity and unorthodox approach, including the excellent black-eyed peas made with burnt ends — a soupy, smoky, campfire-appropriate dish. Coleslaw gets a burst of color and spicy heat from pickled peppers interspersed throughout the creamy medley. Creamy, cheese-capped stone-ground grits are good enough on their own, but when topped with smoked meat and gravy, they enter an entirely decadent realm.
Barbecue houses aren't known for adventurous menus, but the choose-your-own-adventure model adds creativity and fun at LA Smokehouse.