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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

County Line Turns Up Heat for City Slickers

The Western-style eatery uses a smoker for ribs, chicken and tri-tip and a hickory wood flame for steaks and fresh fish.

September 12, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For true lovers of authentic barbecue, the perfume of hickory ranks right up there with anything Lanvin, Estee Lauder or Givenchy produces. Those nodding heads in agreement should proceed immediately to County Line, a new Tarzana barbecue restaurant.

County Line has taken over the location once home to Truly Yours, and the interior has been completely remodeled. It's strictly casual now and reflective of the urban cowboy aesthetic: narrow Leatherette booths, a parquet dance floor, a scattering of neon beer signs, a wagon-train mural painted in soft colors, a huge stuffed buffalo head mounted on a wall.

The concept could, perhaps, do without the rope suspended from the ceiling, in the form of a noose. (Its presence affected a friend's 14-year-old daughter enough that she ate almost nothing.)

The rest of us made up for that. County Line has a real smoker in the back, and the restaurant's ribs, chicken, beef brisket, tri-tip sirloin and pork roast all spend plenty of time inside the contraption.

Steaks are cooked over a hickory wood flame, which infuses them with a delicious smokiness. A few fresh fish benefit from that hickory smoke, too. Salmon and Chilean sea bass, the two kinds of fish the kitchen almost always has on hand, are flame broiled and taste it.

Perhaps a few spirits from Truly Yours still occupy this space. How else to account for the menu devoting two entire pages to appetizers--highly unusual for a barbecue house. Truly Yours traded on being eclectic and having dishes for every taste.

At County Line, you have the option to start a meal with turkey nuts fries (don't ask), fried calamari, critter crab cakes, Buffalo wings, "tater" skins and dozens of other appetizers, all of which are basically distractions, albeit pleasant distractions, for the serious barbecue fancier.

*

These might be the best Buffalo wings on the street, crisply fried and colored a faint fluorescent red. The wings are sneaky hot and expertly prepared, just waiting to be cooled down in a creamy blue cheese dressing.

Pony Express "tater" skins are filled with a judicious amount of melted cheddar cheese and real bacon bits. Fried calamari rings are nicely battered and not too oily. Critter crab cakes are entirely Maryland bluefin crab meat, and the peppery Cajun dipping sauce that accompany them is a joy.

If you're like most people, it is the mahogany colored meats that have enticed you to County Line, with the added bonus of a few good side dishes. Pork baby back ribs would be my first choice. All the fat seems to have been smoked or dripped off the supremely tender meat, and a sweet spicy red sauce has been literally baked on, like the lacquer finish on a used Corvette.

Chicken is a deep bronze color outside; underneath the meat is smoky and juicy. However, you may want to pull off the unpleasantly rubbery skin before digging in.

Sliced meats are less appealing. Hickory smoked pork has a nice enough flavor, but the meat, in thick slices, could be more tender. And beef brisket doesn't cut the mustard at all. I brought a native Texan along to taste it, and she demurred after one bite.

"In Texas," she drawled, "brisket is supposed to be slow cooked until it falls apart, not sliced like roast beef and finished on a grill." She also expressed disappointment that her brisket did not exude the scent of cumin seed, the way it invariably does in a Texas pit.

Nobody voiced a discouraging word about Mark's special T-bone porterhouse, though, a whopping 16-ounce slab of exquisitely marbled tenderloin and beefy sirloin. And we all agreed that the "killer" beans deserved top honors among the sides, even if these beans are not as spicy as the word killer implies.

You'll get a choice of two sides with your entree, and my advice would be the beans and either a terrific baked yam or the house buffalo chips, which are hefty homemade potato chips.

There is also a creamy cole slaw, not much to brag or complain about there, and an uninspiring corn cobbette, which tasted as if it had had a turn in the freezer at some point.

The only desserts are commercial cheesecakes, but the restaurant does serve fresh-ground Kona coffee, one of the best cups of java on the boulevard. This is coffee with wonderful aroma. Drinking it in a hickory pit gives it added funk.

DETAILS

* WHAT: County Line.

* WHERE: 18588 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana.

* WHEN: Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $22-$43. Suggested dishes: Buffalo wings, $4.95; critter crab cakes, $7.95; baby back ribs, half rack, $11.50, full rack, $14.95; T-bone, $16.95.

* CALL: (818) 342-5171.

* FYI: No alcohol (but liquor license pending, so call.) Parking in rear. All major cards.

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