Maple Block Meat Co.’s barbecue is so good that even Texas would be proud of it
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
Long experience has taught me to be wary when someone gets fancy with barbecue.
The best I’ve ever had has been in modest places, shacks and roadhouses where there is a shortage of elegance but big portions of hot meat and cold beer. There have been fancy places that surprised me, but not often, and none so much as the recently opened Maple Block Meat Co.
The restaurant is stylish and attractive, with a long counter along one wall where you can see brisket, smoked turkey and other meats being sliced. I had an experienced barbecue fanatic with me on this visit, and he eyed the meat appreciatively.
We could both see the “smoke ring” on the sliced brisket, the coral-colored layer you only get from long, low-temperature smoking, and we could also see that the exterior had a hand-rubbed crust of spices. The other selections looked just as delectable, and our hopes rose.
We decided to order two combos with different sides so we could experience many items, and when I asked for some of that brisket the counterman asked whether I preferred the lean or fatty end. This isn’t a question you always get, but it’s a sign of a pro — the fatty end is more tender and flavorful, but some people prefer the chewier lean meat.
I ordered the fatty with chicken combo, with greens and mac and cheese on the side. My companion asked for pork ribs and smoked turkey, with vinegar slaw and beans.
We retired to the patio, which had been nicely decorated but had a view only of a parking lot; trellis and some vines would make it a lot nicer. We settled in with our drinks — iced tea for me, a craft beer for him — and didn’t have enough time to put much of a dent in either before our lunches arrived.
Our initial reaction was shock. The pork rib and turkey combo consisted on one (one!) pork rib and perhaps a quarter-pound of big bird, with standard size small bowls for the sides and condiment cups of pickles and two mystery sauces. I had one slice of brisket and the leg and thigh of a very modestly sized chicken. The portions of meat were dainty considering that each lunch had run $17.
After silently wondering where I’d stop on the way home to top off my stomach, I dug in. And was amazed. That first bite of brisket was everything I could hope for — juicy and smoky, a little sweetness from peachwood smoke mingling with the gentle, perfect balance of salt, pepper and herbs in the rub. I think angels may have sung as I chewed the first piece.
“This rib …” my companion said with a tone of awe as he stared at his tray. “It’s really good. And you were skeptical about the smoked turkey. Here, try this.”
I did have low expectations of the turkey because I have often had it over-smoked, halfway to jerky and tasting of nothing but a distant fire. This was different, moist with a crisp skin, the flavor of the bird modified but not obscured by the preparation. Turkey is probably my least favorite meat, but I had to admit that some alchemy had rendered it delightful.
The pork rib was meaty and smoky and everything you look for in a pork rib — a nice slight chew along the skinny part of the bone, more moist and tender at the rib tip.
Even that little chicken had a flavor bigger than its size; I had expected the thin end of the drumstick to be slightly overdone, but it was perfect.
We were much more than halfway through our meal when it occurred to us that we hadn’t even investigated the sauces; the meat was so perfect as it was that we had fixated on it. One was chimichurri, which was nice with both the chicken and turkey, and the other two were mild barbecue sauces. I might have liked a little sauce with more heat to it if we had more of the brisket or ribs, but we were entranced with the natural flavor for as long as it took for those to disappear.
As for the sides, the greens had shreds of meat that added smoke to seasonings that gave them a nice spicy kick, and the mac and cheese was done right — the mac not overcooked, the cheese in the sauce milder than I prefer but still more than the milky goo often served elsewhere. It had been topped with crisp seasoned crumbs and onion, which added a welcome dash of color and texture.
We were both fans of the vinegar slaw, which was made with purple cabbage and reminded us of German pickles. Since Germans settled Texas in profusion, there may well be a connection. The only slight letdown was the beans, which tasted intensely beany but otherwise had only hints of onion and a little bit of green herbs. I might have wanted a side this simple if I had been at a barbecue place that amps up the hot sauce, but in this setting a dash of sweetness and spice would have livened the beans up.
As we departed we stopped to talk for a moment with the counterman, who gave us one of their apple hand pies as a friendly gesture. The pastry had a delightful flaky crust and the filling a nice dash of cinnamon, and it was such a satisfying finish that we didn’t even consider stopping anywhere else for dessert.
About five hours later, as the clock was about to strike six, I called my dining companion.
“Hey, are you hungry?” I asked him.
“No. Why?” he replied.
“Maybe at lunch we had the amount of meat we should be eating, rather than the amount we usually do,” I offered.
There was a moment of silence on the phone.
“Maybe,” he responded thoughtfully. “But I still would have been happier if I’d had one more rib.”
I had to agree with him. If there had been one more rib for him and a second small slice of brisket for me, it would have covered a bit more real estate on that big tray and been a bit more satisfying. The quality at Maple Block is off the charts; the quantity just about enough.
I’ll be back because the food is astonishingly good, as fine an argument for barbecue as a gourmet delight as anything I’ve experienced here or in Texas.
Maple Block Meat Co., 3973 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City (310) 313-6328 mapleblockmeat.com