I have spent a lot of time driving around America, always keeping my eye peeled for the roadside culinary specialist. I have had spectacular meals in a shed next to a Louisiana gas station selling boiled crawfish, a boathouse in Maine vending lobster rolls, and a lean-to on the Makah reservation in Washington where a weathered local smoked salmon over alder fires.
The dinky restaurant called Morfia’s Ribs and Pies is as close as Marina del Rey gets to this ideal. The tiny dining room is cozy, and the collection of kitschy Americana gives it the look of a lot of barbecue shacks I’ve seen.
The menu is about what you’d expect – ribs, chicken and sausage, some side dishes that go with barbecued anything, and several desserts including pies. My wife and I ordered two combination plates with different sides, encompassing about two-thirds of the items on the regular menu.
Unlike places that have debased the term “barbecue” by applying it to oven-roasted meats, Morfia’s has a real brick smoker, crucial for getting the traditional product. Real Texas barbecue has a chewy exterior called bark, a rosy ring where the smoke has penetrated the meat, and an interior that is moist and tender but not mushy. I was never impressed by what came out of this smoker when this place was Benny’s BBQ, but Morfia’s knows how to coax real Texas flavor out of it.
I ordered beef ribs and pork hot links with collard greens and beans, while my wife selected chicken and pork ribs with cole slaw and macaroni and cheese. I picked the beef ribs for scientific reasons – I almost always prefer pork, but wanted to give these a try. The texture of the meat revealed that this is the “rib” in prime rib, tender and flavorful, and there was plenty of it on each bone.
I had two large ribs and what looked like two sliced sausages, a generous portion indeed. The sausage was made with pork, departing from Texas tradition, and was aggressively spiced – these were some very hot links indeed. The meat was coarsely ground with big flecks of red pepper, and it was topped with the same barbecue sauce that was on the ribs. That sauce was medium-spicy with a good balance of vinegar, tomato, cumin and other herbs so that there were layers of flavor, and it’s far above the standard for the Westside.
The collard greens were sensibly done with little or no hot spices, just the pot liquor and some bits of pork, and the beans were not over-sweet – just a touch of molasses.
My wife’s meats had the same virtues as my beef ribs – tender and juicy, with good bark on the ribs and crisp rather than rubbery skin on the chicken. The ribs were the stars on both plates, obviously the reason they were included in the name of the restaurant. I intend to return and try Morfia’s brisket and pulled pork, but it will take a lot of will power not to just order a rib combo again.
My wife had ordered sides that aren’t usually to my taste – cole slaw is often too sweet for me, while mac and cheese is a one-dimensional delivery system for carbs. The slaw was surprisingly good, with a bit of citrus tang and some celery seed; the mac had a more interesting cheese blend than usual but I like a bit of crust and texture, and the noodles here were soft. Both meals came with cornbread that was dense, with corn kernels in it, giving the flavor of fresh and milled corn. After so many eateries with sweet, cakelike cornbread, this was a pleasant surprise.
Morfia’s doesn’t serve alcohol but has an eclectic selection of soft drinks. The Americana cherry cola was surprisingly good, with a balance of fruity sweetness and cola sharpness, and I’d have it again.
After hesitating over their famous baklava cheesecake, we decided on blueberry cobbler and a slice of fresh pear pie for dessert. The pie was excellent, with natural-tasting fruit on a flaky homemade crust, but I found the cobbler disappointing, thanks to the use of sweet pie filling instead of fresh fruit. There are many dessert choices at Morfia’s and they’re all made in-house, so there’s a good chance you’ll find something you like.
Our bill for two was $39, very good for large portions of good barbecue. If you have been driving by this roadside shack wondering if there’s any reason to stop, give them a chance – it’s everything good about Texas by the side of Lincoln Boulevard.
Morfia’s is at 4077 Lincoln Blvd. in Marina del Rey. Open daily 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Street parking only, no alcohol served. Website at morfiasribsandpies.com. 310-821-6939.