Monday 2:00pm - 9:00pm
Tuesday 10:30am - 9:00pm
Wedneday 10:30am- 9:00pm
Thursday 10:30am - 9:00pm
Friday 10:30am - 10:00pm
Saturday 2:00pm - 10:00pm
Sunday 2:00pm - 9:00pm




How an American BBQ joint turned up in Chinatown, and why it’s thriving


very business has a story behind it, a tale of someone’s belief that he can do something better, faster, or cheaper than the guy down the street. Of course, all stories and all businesses are not equal, nor is a great story a guarantee of a great product or service. Still, I cherish the occasional times when I find an excellent restaurant with a really bizarre creation story.

Exhibit A is the Spring Street Smoke House, an American barbecue joint located in a commercial section of Chinatown. The location is no accident – owner Dan Patterson put it there because he owns the business that occupies the other two-thirds of the building, which happens to be the commissary for prisoners in a nearby detention facility.

Before you start thinking that people in the local hoosegow are dining so well that you might like to join them, let me note that patrons at the Spring Street Smoke House are getting entirely different fare. When Patterson set up his commercial kitchen turning out hundreds of meals a day, he noticed that part of the structure he had leased was once a separate business, and it had a small dining room. An idea formed: Real pit barbecues were few and far between in Los Angeles, so why not start one? He found a smoker he liked in Texas, shipped it to Los Angeles, and opened his doors to a public that was at first bemused by a barbecue joint in such a place, but has become increasingly appreciative.

The menu lists all the favorites you’d expect: beef and pork ribs, Texas hot links, brisket, and the expected sides of beans and cornbread. It also features some surprises, the most intriguing of which was the chicken breast stuffed with sliced jalapeños, onions, and cheese, then wrapped with bacon and pit-smoked. My companions each ordered a sampler of all the standard barbecue items ($10.95), and I selected the stuffed chicken breast ($8.75).
The first thing we noticed about our dinners was that they were huge. My order included two large stuffed breasts, and, though it was delicious, I was hard-pressed to finish just one. Then again, I was also filching as much barbecue as possible from my companions, who were each confronted with a mountain of food. The pork ribs were among the best I’ve eaten in L.A., well flavored with hickory smoke and a spicy, vinegary sauce. The combination was unusual, because the ribs were smoked Texas-style but the sauce was more typical of the Carolinas. I thought there might be some story behind this, perhaps of romance between people from different states who developed a hybrid that reflected both heritages. When I contacted Patterson to ask, however, he said his family isn’t from either place – his father just tried the combination once and liked it, so that’s what he learned to make. I was disappointed by the lack of a story, but not by the ribs, brisket, or chicken. The hot link was less to my taste, nicely spiced but with the meat finely ground where I prefer a coarse texture.

The chicken breasts stuffed with cheese, jalapeños, and onion are another of Patterson’s family recipes, one that works every bit as well as the barbecue combination. It’s not for the timid or calorie-conscious, but it’s cheesy, spicy, and meaty in the best of ways.

Our sides were almost as noteworthy as the various meats, with the collard greens a particular favorite. Greens in L.A. restaurants are often either bland or bitter, but these had a light sweetness that elevated them well above the standard. The hush puppies were equally praiseworthy, balls of cornbread fresh from the deep fryer that were commendably crisp and light. I wasn’t quite as fond of the beans, which could have used a bit more onion or spices to match the other flavors on my plate, but everything else was excellent.
Though the décor at Spring Street Smoke House is rather lacking – the only color in the spartan room comes from the packaging on the whole loaf of buttermilk bread at every table – the food is the main reason to return. And return I will, to try the smoked or deep-fried turkey, burnt brisket ends, and other specialties from a restaurant with, not just an interesting story, but the food to back it up.

Spring Street Smoke House, 640 N. Spring St., Chinatown, (213) 626-0535. Handicap access OK; street parking and nearby paid lots. Mon.-Sat., lunch and dinner. No alcohol served. Takeout available.