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Papa's: A Little Pit of Heaven

July 04, 1991|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who regularly reviews restaurants for The Times Orange County Edition. and

It's another Fourth of July weekend, and barbecue is in the air. Fred Burrell and his good North Carolina-style pit cooking pretty much get top barbecue honors in these parts, with the Texas-style hickory-flavored meats of Richard Jones not far behind.

But sneak over the county line into east Long Beach and you'll discover a regional style of barbecue that you probably never knew existed. I didn't know about this particular style myself until a few weeks ago, and I am already a fan for life.

I'm taking about Santa Maria-style barbecue. Yes, you read it right: Santa Maria. Up the coast in Santa Maria there are barbecue pits all over town, at least if what we hear from Louie Leppo, proprietor/pit master at Papa's Western Barbecue, has as much as a grain of truth to it.

Leppo is a big, swarthy man with hands like baseball gloves, and you can see him behind his restaurant most every day, standing over his huge red oak pit. That's where Leppo slowly bastes his meats in a secret marinade that uses no tomatoes or arcane seasonings; it's based on salt, pepper and garlic. It's a dry style of 'cue that relies on the quality of the meats used in preparation, and the marinade sort of bakes into the skin. I find it irresistible, and I don't miss the mess of a wet marinade, either.

"I used to be in the trucking business," Leppo said one day as he handed me a juicy piece of pepper-flecked pork, "until they deregulated. I came down here to do catering for the Rams, and now I do the Dodgers and Raiders too." Maybe that's why everyone hanging around on Papa's outdoor terrace looks as if he could play nose guard in the NFL. Of course, the reason could also be the vast quantities of Leppo's food they consume.

Anyway, it's a lot more comfortable out there. The inside is sort of smoky and claustrophobic, with a big U-shaped bar dividing the two low-slung dining areas. Inside, you have to eat off glass-topped tables with blue-and-white-checked table cloths, and the only visual is watching the gentle giants at the bar downing their huge schooners of beer.

Outside, you can sit at one of the long tables draped in tacky blue vinyl under a fishnet umbrella, and as a bonus you get to watch Leppo work the pit. The terrace aficionados not only get a much better show, but free samples at Leppo's whim. We got to taste little hunks of prime rib, tri-tip sirloin and pork, all while we waited for our dinners.

Dinners are simple here, but they pack a wallop. One of the best road meals I ever had in California was in the little town of Templeton, near Atascadero, where they served red beans and salsa as an appetizer. According to Leppo, this is de rigueur in Santa Maria cuisine.

So before you're order comes, you get wonderfully chunky salsa, a mild one with big pieces of tomato and onion swimming near the top of the dish, and some stone ground corn chips to munch on. I recommend you put on the brakes until the meats arrive, so you can enjoy the salsa with the beans. They are called poquitos up there, crossbred pinto and red beans that only grow on a few farms. Leppo has them trucked down especially for his restaurant, before stewing them with chunked beef and spices. Are they ever addictive.

But so is the rest of the food there, overwhelmingly simple and all prepared on the premises. The salads are terrific, served in big flat pie tins with homemade croutons and dressings. Ask them to mix the blue cheese dressing (its secret ingredient is goat cheese) with the nearly perfect Italian, a tart vinaigrette with just the right amount of vinegar. If you order one of Papa's salads--try the chicken salad, loaded with smoky chicken meat--you get a lazy Susan with all three of the house dressings, the third being Thousand Island, so you can mix them in as indulgently as you wish.

I recommend trying Papa's special combo, a huge platter with three meats on it, as an introduction to this food. It's loaded with cubed tri-tip sirloin, crusty on the outside; long, relatively lean pork ribs; and linguica, a Portuguese sausage that the chef wraps in pita bread.

Another possibility is to order something like chicken and ribs and pay a little extra for the baby backs. The chicken is a burnished brown shade, like brass that needs a good rubbing, and has got to be the smokiest I've ever tasted. The back ribs make the ideal medium for this barbecue. They are the most tender, most delicate ribs the restaurant serves, and they soak up Leppo's basting liquid like sponges.

The restaurant doesn't get too fancy when it's time for dessert. All dinners give you the choice of vanilla ice cream or something called peach schnapps, one of the most awful liqueurs since yellow Chartreuse. But if you pay extra, you can have one of Papa's homemade, all-American pies: double-crusted apple, chocolate cream or coconut. Of the three, the chocolate cream is best, just plain old chocolate pudding with a whipped cream topping on a flaky crust. Up in Santa Maria, I surmise, they'd probably call it a local dish too.

Papa's Western Barbecue is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.95 to $5.50. Salads are $4.95 to $8.95. Sandwiches are $7.95. Complete dinners are $9.95 to $15.95.

* PAPA'S WESTERN BARBECUE

* 3522 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach.

* (213) 597-4212.

* Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. through 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; bar open until 2 a.m. Closed Sunday.

* MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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