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6 smokin' barbecue spots in Southern California

Barbecue typically isn’t the first thing people think of when it comes to food in Southern California—unlike, say, the famed brisket of Texas or the tangy-sweet “burnt ends” of Kansas City, Missouri. 

Instead, we’ve got something different here in the Southland: The stretch from Santa Barbara to San Diego counties serves a world of different styles, from traditional Santa Maria tri-tip and old-school Southern ’cue to the bright flavors of the Philippines and Laos. Here are six of our favorites along Southern California’s barbecue trail.

Far Western Tavern, Orcutt

Far Western

Since 1958, the Minetti family has served traditional Santa Maria–style barbecue, which dates almost 200 years to the Spanish vaqueros. That means smoky, dry-rubbed beef tri-tip grilled over local red oak served with salsa (no slather of sticky-sweet sauce here!) and a side of broth-y locally grown pinquito beans.

The menu also features Santa Maria Valley craft brews and wines (the Riverbench Estate Pinot Noir is a great match for that tri-tip). Between the friendly service and Old California ranchero vibe—red-flocked wallpaper in the bar, touches of cowhide upholstery, and wood-beam ceilings—you’ll want to relax and linger.

On the way out, pick up wood-smoking chips, a bag of pinquito beans, salsa, and tri-tip seasoning to re-create the feast at home. As barbecue styles go, this is one you can approximate with tasty results on a kettle grill.

Deer Lodge, Ojai

Deer Lodge Tri tip

This circa-1932 timber-and-stone lodge is popular with the Harley crowd, especially on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, when the barbecue is fired up for tri-tip, St. Louis–style ribs, and pulled pork slathered with tangy-sweet Backwoods BBQ Sauce (it’s made in-house weekly, and you can grab a jar to take home).

Add a side of the lodge’s light, crisp sweet potato fries, and wash it all down with one of the 20 beers on tap (the selection is updated regularly), including many local craft brews, served in mason jars.

Love live music? Deer Lodge hosts an eclectic lineup of regional and touring acts from a variety of genres (country, rock, funk, you name it) on weekends.

The Park’s Finest, Los Angeles

Mama Leah at The Parks Finest

A tightly focused menu that blends Filipino flavors with American-style cuts of meat sets The Park’s Finest apart from other barbecue joints. You’ll enjoy a warm, friendly greeting when you arrive at this small eatery just east of L.A.’s historic Filipinotown.

The restaurant is decorated with wood tables, retro-style metal chairs, and a stylized mural on the wall. The menu pays delicious homage to owner Johneric Concordia’s family and friends.

Order Mama Leah’s 16-hour smoked top round in coconut-cream sauce spiked with vinegar, chile, and fish sauce. Named in honor of Concordia’s mother, it’s a comforting hug in bowl. You’ll want that with a side of rice to soak up all that delicious sauce, plus an order of Ann’s Cornbread Bibingka (sweet and moist, baked on a banana leaf).

Pro tip: Grab a to-go order of the 16-hour San Pablo pulled pork; it freezes beautifully and is perfect for making tacos or sandwiches at home.

Kra Z Kai’s Laotian Barbecue, Corona


Opened last year, this Inland Empire spot, located in a strip mall across from an El Super supermarket, has quickly built a cult following for Laotian barbecue specialties flavored with a hot punch of chiles and bright lemongrass with undertones of umami fish sauce.

Opt for the Lao BBQ Mix, which comes with a choice of succulent barbecue chicken, thinly sliced marinated and grilled beef short rib, barbecue pork rib, Lao beef jerky (thinly sliced, marinated, and deep-fried beef), and pork sausage (flavored with lemongrass, onion, and scallions). Order it with a side of sticky rice, a Laotian specialty that’s delicious drizzled with a roasted tomato dipping sauce.

Plates come with a crunchy, colorful side salad of romaine, julienned carrots, and shaved red cabbage with soy-sesame dressing—it’s a nice counterpoint to the rich meat. You’ll probably also want an order of the zippy signature Laotian papaya salad with long beans and tomatoes in a sweet, sour, and spicy dressing (your choice of mild, medium, or hot).

Bad to the Bone BBQ, San Juan Capistrano

Bad to the Bone

This popular pit barbecue restaurant just east of Interstate 5 brings an authentic cowboy ambience to Orange County. Owner Marty Wells is a former pro rodeo cowboy, after all.

Ribs—pork and beef—are the specialty, but go for a combo plate so you can also sample the 16-hour hickory-smoked brisket, with its gorgeous dark bark and tender Carolina-style pulled pork (dry rubbed, smoked up to 16 hours, hand pulled and tossed in a tangy Carolina-style sauce).

Some might be tempted to make a meal just from the smoky ranch beans and classic Southern sides—crispy fried okra, fried green tomatoes, collards, and hush puppies. You’ll also want to save room for dessert: fresh fruit cobbler, dark-chocolate pecan pie, or salted caramel bread pudding.

Bubba’s Smokehouse BBQ, La Jolla

Bubba's Smokehouse BBQ

Barbecue probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of tony La Jolla. But a whiff of smoke from Bubba’s will beckon you to this busy, popular spot that serves up the classics: smoked beef brisket, tender pulled pork, tri-tip, fall-off-the-bone ribs, and hot links that make a tasty change of pace from more typical beach-town fare, like fish tacos.

Can’t decide? Order the slider trio, which comes with pulled pork, chopped brisket, and pulled chicken. Most come slathered in Bubba’s sweet barbecue sauce. But what you really need is a cup of Bubba’s “Kickin’” North Carolina–style sauce—its vinegary kick is perfect to cut through the meat’s richness. You’ll still have room for the ample selection of starters and sides—fried pickle chips, fried okra, hush puppies, mac-and-cheese, and a creamy-tangy house-made slaw.

Go ahead and indulge, because you can walk off the calories hoofing down the hill to check out the sea lions lounging on the sand at Children’s Pool.

Alison Ashton, a former editor at Cooking Light magazine, is a Los Angeles-based food editor and writer.

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