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A Classy Barbecue Joint

Inside its Hollywood-envisioned, round Southern eating room, Mr. Cecil's California Ribs serves up plates of meat to dream about.

September 28, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This place looks way too themed and production-designed to make great barbecue. The room is painted with faux exposed bricks, as if it were some crumbling old rustic home. Around the walls there are little metal cutout figures of barbecue shacks patronized by pigs and cows, even an accordion-playing frog and a tennis-racketed giraffe. The ceiling lights look like a handyman's utility lamps, wired with bright yellow extension cord.

In short, Mr. Cecil's California Ribs presents a sort of dreamy Hollywood take on a Southern barbecue joint. And it's sort of entitled: This building is a genuine California Crazy theme restaurant dating from the 1930s, one of the four standing remnants of the old Chili Bowl chain. That's why Mr. Cecil's dining room, with cartoons of pigs having a hoedown on its window shades, is as round as a bowl.

The place appears poised to become a chain, complete with T-shirts with logos. And, I must say, I hope it does. It's a classy operation, the only barbecue place I know where takeout food goes in neat boxes, rather than paper bags, and where the drink list includes a bunch of hip beers, such as Red Hook Hefeweizen and Shiner Bock.

It even lists a famous Belgian Trappist ale, Chimay Red, in a big 750-milliliter bottle. Stick that in your average barbecue pit and smoke it.

Tender, Eye-Opening Juicy Beef Ribs

The ribs are highly distinctive. Many a beef rib has dry, scanty meat, practically jerky on the bone. But these eye-opening ribs are tender and juicy with a rich, almost spongy texture. Meaty and smoky too, of course.

Much the same is true of the pork ribs, which come off as something between the usual ribs and a sort of smoky Spam. All ribs come with corn bread and coleslaw and a choice of a couple of hot sauces that appear to be the well-known brand Texas Best.

Mr. Cecil also has a distinctive style with his hamburger. It's a half-pound patty, sweet and smooth in texture, served in a large English muffin with lettuce, red onions and tomatoes.

And that's all. No mustard, no mayo, no pickle relish, no sauce of any kind. There's a bottle of ketchup on the table, but otherwise this nervy, gutsy burger comes before us without any condiment, trusting the quality of its meat alone. I tend to put ketchup on part of the burger, for variety, but it really works without it.

There's a grilled chicken breast, apparently marinated with soy and onions, served on a roll the same way, without added condiments. It's not quite as impressive as the burger, but it's tender and flavorful.

In the interests of Southern authenticity, apparently, the place offers a catfish platter. Like everything else here, the fish chunks are beautifully cooked, but the problem is in catfish itself, which develops an ammoniac smell within hours after being caught. Many a catfish eater doesn't object to this flavor, but others may view catfish with grave suspicion. Even the talented Mr. Cecil can't beat this problem, so I've learned to skip the catfish platter and the catfish nuggets appetizer.

Just Plain Fried Buffalo Wings

Perhaps because of the restaurant's disdain of sauces, the buffalo wings appetizer will disappoint buffalo wing fans, because it's plain fried chicken wings, without the hot sauce and blue cheese that spell buffalo wings to most of us.

Two other appetizers are very good, though. This place makes excellent hush puppies; the balls of cornmeal, about the size of a walnut, are fried good and brown. Jonathan's spicy salsa and corn chips is a plate of chips with really fresh chopped salsa--it might even be made to order, it's so free of the wateriness and oxidized tomato flavor that mar so many salsas.

Side dishes include very good fries (fried in lard, as they should be), sweet baked beans flavored with bacon, fresh coleslaw and passable vegetable kebabs.

Dessert is rather limited. There's a sort of fast-food pecan pie--a thin cookie-like crust with thin layers of custard and pecans--and a brownie of the old-fashioned sort that's nearly a soft cookie. Go for the lemon bars, with their flaky crust and tangy lemon topping.

It's the most California thing here.

BE THERE

Mr. Cecil's California Ribs, 12244 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 442-1550. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, 1 to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 1 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Beer. Parking lot. All major cards. Takeout. Barbecue for two, $12 to $28; with appetizers and dessert, $23.50 $47.

What to Get: hush puppies, beef ribs, baby back ribs, hamburger, grilled chicken sandwich, French fries, baked beans, lemon bar.

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