Richard Foss

BBQ champ comes to Redondo [restaurant review]

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Willingham’s World Champion BBQ lives up to its name

Pilhwang Bae, owner of Willingham’s World Champion BBQ, with son Sang and wife Jong holding brisket and pulled pork sandwiches and ribs served with cornbread collard greens and pinto beans. Photo by Kevin Cody

School is out, Memorial Day past, and across America people rediscover their taste for barbecue. This might be a seasonal desire to return to nature, or possibly a realization that cooking outdoors doesn’t heat up the house, but either way lots of people suddenly remember that grill that has been getting dusty since last September.

Once you clear the spider webs from the gratings and are reminded that it’s a lot easier to clean a barbecue just after cooking rather than waiting six months for the grease to harden, the idea of buying those ribs or brisket from a specialist looks a lot more appealing. If you prefer slow-smoked Southern barbecue to grilled steaks or burgers and you don’t have a dedicated smoker, you need to go to a specialist, anyway. The meat has to be dry-rubbed with spices before being smoked and then roasted, and the three-step process requires time and skill.

Though the South Bay has had places specializing in this style of barbecue at least as far back at the 1930s, in recent years there have been few options, most of them chain restaurants. A newcomer has recently entered the scene with an eye-catching pedigree. The owner of Willingham’s World Champion BBQ trained under an acknowledged master of the Memphis style.

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John Willingham had won just about every award in the field of barbecue. Before he died in 2013 he had taken on a student named Pilhwang Bae. Bae (nicknamed Phil with customary Southern informality) studied with the master for years, and he recently opened a barbecue restaurant in a small space behind a liquor store in Redondo.

The interior is functional rather than picturesque, a couple of tables in a red-walled room. Most of their business is take-out, though on a recent lunch visit the tables were all full so some people do dine in. The menu is simple, short, and traditional – pick your meat and decide which of four sides you’d like — chili, coleslaw, pinto beans, or collards. The meats are brisket, pulled pork, turkey breast, pork ribs, or jalapeño sausage. All but the ribs can be ordered as a sandwich or plate.

I have tried all but the turkey breast, since they were sold out on all three visits I have made. (This made me wonder whether they actually serve it, but as I have met someone else who has had it, I know it’s at least occasionally available.)

I watched as Mr. Bae removed a chunk of pulled pork from the oven and shred it using what looks like a pair of large combs, and I could tell even before tasting it how moist and tender it was because it almost fell apart, and released plenty of steam in the process. This is what you get from a long, slow cook, and though pulled pork is generally my least favorite barbecue item this was as good as it gets.

I’m much more a brisket and ribs guy, and those hit the spot too. When you order brisket here you are asked whether you prefer the lean or fatty end, and your answer makes a difference in your experience. As you might expect, the fatty end is more moist and flavorful but also has some wastage. I did what I always do when given a choice like this and asked for a little of each so I could experience the difference. The lean end has a bit more exterior per portion, so if you most enjoy the smoky crust with spices this is the way to go, but the meat flavor of the fatty end was just a little more concentrated, the texture almost buttery. Which would I order next time, you might ask? I’d do the same thing as this time, because I liked both.

As for the ribs, they’re my main event at a barbecue joint, and these are hands down the best in our area. There was a visible smoke ring (the pink rim around the white interior meat that is a visual guide of how far the woodsmoke has penetrated), so there was almost a bullseye effect with red caramelized spice crust, pink ring, and white meat. As at all good Tennessee barbecue joints the ribs were served dry with sauce on the side, and there are four to choose from: mild, sweet, “cool breeze,” and hot. I tried all four and preferred the mild and the sweet, because both had enough vinegar and spice kick to complement the meat.

The jalapeño sausage was interesting but less essential than the other meats. There were big pieces of deseeded pepper mixed in with coarsely ground pork, and it would go nicely on a sandwich along with some coleslaw to cool the heat. I might even try that some time, but only if they’re out of the ribs and brisket because that’s what I really crave from here.

The standout among the sides is the meaty chili which has scraps of smoky beef and pork mixed in and enough red pepper and cumin to give it some authority. The pinto beans are the more typical barbecue beans with less meat and spice, a decent side dish but not a scene-stealer. We were surprised by the spicy collard greens, which I liked but one of my companions found too peppery. The coleslaw did its job controlling the fire, and is a reliable companion to anything here.

Soft drinks are offered if you happen to be dining in, but no alcoholic beverages. If you’re taking this barbecue home I’d suggest a medium tannic red wine, though some white wine drinkers might prefer a dry pink wine. Or you can go for the traditional pairing with your favorite beer, and get the flavors of summer off to a great start.

Willingham’s World Champion BBQ is at 443 S. PCH in Redondo, west of the liquor store. Open 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tues.– Sun. Parking lot, wheelchair access good. No online menu. (424) 390-4300. ER

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