The Proud Bird’s more casual reboot features a menu that’s definitely worth the trip

By Richard Foss
richard@richardfoss.com

A Curtiss P-40 Warhawk hangs over the entrance to the food bazaar, with the Bludso’s counter on the right

You have to give credit to people who aren’t afraid of bold solutions to big problems, and The Proud Bird had one back in 2015. The LAX-adjacent restaurant with its famous collection of flight memorabilia and replica aircraft was unfashionably formal in style and unimaginative in cuisine. It was obvious that something needed to change.

Many restaurant operators would have gone in with Band-Aid fixes: fresh carpet, brighter paint, a new chef and hipper décor. Instead, the five-decade-old restaurant was gutted and completely re-conceptualized with a casual style and multicultural “food bazaar” featuring several separate food counters. It was a shocking transformation for an L.A. landmark, but even those who initially didn’t like the change had to applaud the ambition behind it.

There were hiccups at first, most centering on a needlessly complex ordering system that created long lines of confused people. But changes have been made and the experience is now much smoother, with hosts available to explain the process and assist first-timers.

The first stall you see as you come in is Bludso’s Barbecue, a justifiably famous outfit whose original location was in Compton. Owner Kevin Bludso’s high school prom was held at the original Proud Bird, and he was a fan of the restaurant. Given the lack of good barbecue places nearby this was bound to become an attraction, and there is nearly always action at their ordering station.

Other options include pizza, sandwiches, salads, chicken and waffles, rotisserie items and Asian fusion bowls. The range isn’t immediately obvious, so diners are advised to wander around and scope them all out before deciding.

Porchetta with fennel salsa verde, a surprise food bazaar standout

Once you order your food, pay and are given a number, you head for the bar to get drinks, which is a separate transaction. Then most people head for a table to await the alert that their food is ready. The ones who have been here before know that there is another step: get your napkins, condiments and utensils from another counter. On your first trip you probably won’t realize that these don’t come with your food.

The good news is that once the food is ready, it’s very good. The Bludso’s stall is pumping out the smoky, spicy barbecue that has made them a popular and critical favorite, and it’s every bit as good as the original. On three visits I’ve tried the ribs, brisket and pulled pork sandwich, and I’d have any of them again. The sides are sold in huge portions, and I found the greens to be a bit over-salted — but I had the same reaction to the ones I got at the original place, so they’re authentic to a fault. I preferred the mac-and-cheese, even though it’s made in the very creamy style I don’t usually favor, because they executed the dish very well.

The station next to Bludso’s offers porchetta, the Italian pork rolled with herbs and slow-cooked, and rotisserie chicken with what is described as Jamaican jerk seasoning. The bird was perfectly roasted but so mildly spiced that I thought at first I had received the wrong item. Even a mild jerk seasoning has a hit of cayenne, cloves, allspice and garlic, but this didn’t. The porchetta, on the other hand, was superb. This is an item few restaurants make because it’s time-consuming, and The Proud Bird’s version was tender with intense herbal flavors.

Another thing that was astonishingly good was the chicken and waffles, because they make real Belgian style waffles here. They arrive crisp and warm rather than hot, because the batter is so light and full of air that they lose heat rapidly, but that’s the way they’re served in Belgium. The chicken is good too, with some herbs and pepper in the crunchy batter; together, they’re dynamite.

The one salad I tried here was a “California salad” with greens, sprouts, avocado, quinoa and several kinds of seeds with green goddess dressing. I’m a big fan of green goddess, an item from the 1920s that’s making a comeback. The mix of mayonnaise with pureed scallions, tarragon, chives and anchovy is like a more herbal Caesar, bold and tangy. The version here is mild, so if I ordered it again I’d ask for extra dressing to enhance the flavor.

Cocktails and wine are available from the bar, and the drinks are generally well made though things run slow at peak hours. One oddity here is that they don’t seem to offer any dessert at all, a curious omission. They might not sell a lot if they did, because some people would be discouraged by having to get in line and pay again. That’s a downside to their service system that would be hard to remedy.

The Proud Bird’s food offerings and service continue to evolve — word is they’re thinking about replacing the pizza station with one making Australian meat pies. As things are, the high standard of food makes any other eccentricities worth dealing with, and they’re obviously working to improve both. They’ve made the really big change, so a few little ones are no big thing.

The Proud Bird 11022 Aviation Blvd., Westchester (310) 670-3093 theproudbird.com

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