It was, as the Lexus car ad tells us, a “December to Remember.” Or at least, hopefully it was, following a “Year to Forget.” Choose your crisis — and crack open a fresh bottle of Chardonnay to bury the memory; there were enough this past year to turn us all into confirmed tipplers and over-indulgers.
But there were, in the ashes of 2020, some fine and tasty moments I’m happy to bring back. Not just cooking with the family — though there was certainly plenty of that. But also, in the hope of keeping our long-suffering restaurants afloat, a regular conveyor belt of takeout from March on.
Yes, there was much joy to be had when outdoor dining became the Thing of the Moment, for a moment, during the summer. I am prayerful that it returns before the year is out; what a fine way to celebrate the end of this particular annus horribilis, and the beginning of a better year and a better future.
What was some of my most memorable takeout of 2020? The choices are myriad — many of the takeout bags are neatly piled in my garage, waiting for room in the recycling bin.
Until proper dining returns, these are the places where I’ll be getting my takeout this month — made somewhat more elegant by using real utensils, and not plastic. Which gives me a sense, a hint of going out for dinner — until COVID-19 becomes a memory that few of us will want to recall.
My favorite takeout barbecue
Willingham’s World Champion BBQ
443 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach; 424-390-4300, www.willinghambbq.com
With a grandiose name like Willingham’s World Champion BBQ, you’d expect a Las Vegas style production, with neon, fireworks, skydivers — goodness knows what else! What you might not expect is a storefront in a Redondo Beach mini-mall, dominated by a local bottle shop called Ruby Liquor. There’s a Ramada next door.
How good is Willingham’s? Let me tell you — I’d gladly shut down my laptop for the day for a bite of John H. Willingham’s much lauded brisket, his sublime chili, his astonishing St. Louis pork ribs. The man wears the title of Overall World’s Bar-B-Que Grand Champion, awarded to his cooking team, the River City Rooters, back in the early 1980s — and far as I can tell, never taken away.
The back page of his takeout menu is a long list of the cook-offs at which he was named Grand Champion. And here he is, in a mini-mall shop with a handful of tables, serving eat-in, and takeout to the well-tanned masses. Or at least, here’s his barbecue. John left us at the age of 80, back in 2013. His legacy is continued by his wife Marge.
You can get your meat by the pound, which is good for takeout or if you’re just feeling especially peckish.
Half-pound, and pound orders of the brisket, the pulled pork, the turkey breast (nice and smoky), the jalapeño sausage and the St. Louis pork ribs, along with the half slabs (short end or long end) and the full slabs is my idea of comfort food, when the world is too much for me.
I’m not sure I have the words needed to properly describe the brisket, which may well be the best found here in SoCal. It has a layer of crust, over a cap of tender fat, with a savannah of meat sweet and tender, and a second layer of crust redness on the bottom. It’s smoky, but not so smoky as to make you feel you’re eating a cigar. It hammers you with new levels of taste with every bite. It’s not so much a dish, as an accomplishment.
If I had taken some home, and put it in the freezer, I’d worry I’d eat it before it defrosted — a “brisketsicle” that could be sold on a stick.
And though it’s probably the high point of the pit master’s skill, it’s far from all there is. The pulled pork is so tender, and in such a vinegary sweet sauce as to potentially pass for a dessert dish — for those of us who consider ‘que to be a perfectly acceptable dessert.
The pork ribs make me glad I’ve got all my teeth, and that they’re well anchored; it’s a dish you’ll want to gnaw on till there’s nothing left.