Practice makes perfect
Sauced in El Segundo started out shaky, but has become a worthy destination
Sometimes I hear from someone who mentions a place that just opened and asks why I haven’t reviewed it yet. Do I want to let some other publication beat me to the story? They’re often surprised when I respond that I’m not concerned about this possibility.
Any restaurant is likely to have problems when they first open. The servers don’t know each other’s names, and can’t advise customers because they haven’t tried everything on the menu. The cooks are still getting used to a new kitchen, and the bartender can’t grab a bottle without looking to see what it is. The problems in each department multiply at the points where they interface, and a smart restaurateur starts by serving a limited menu of the simplest items. That means a review in those early days catches a staff at their least efficient, serving items that don’t represent their most ambitious offerings.
A case in point is Sauced, which opened across from Wholefoods in El Segundo in September of last year. When I visited that month, the experience was chaotic, the food uneven. There was potential in dishes like a brisket banh mi that crossed flavors from Texas and Vietnam and a warmly savory burgoo stew. But fries arrived lukewarm, egg rolls oily, and our drinks didn’t come out until our food was almost gone. The dining room was blastingly loud and chaotic, and the servers rushed even when the place was half-full. It did not add up to an enjoyable experience.
I hadn’t thought much about the place until I started hearing from friends that they had enjoyed meals there. The eight months from then to now has made a big difference. The music has been turned down, the servers know their products and can make intelligent recommendations, and drinks arrive minutes after you order them. Before you order anything, though, you have to figure out where to sit, there are several choices. The outdoor patio is for those who want to play shuffleboard, bocce, cornhole, or Jenga while you wait for your food. This gives that area the atmosphere of a stylish playground, while an activity near the bar has a different vibe. Sauced offers ax throwing, which seems like a stupendously bad idea until you see the sign that says you can’t do it while being served strong liquor.
They’re real axes, and are sharp, so caution is required. The management does not allow you to bring your own axes (I checked). The indoor/outdoor patio is the quietest space, and doesn’t have any of these attractions, and the large indoor dining room is moderately loud and caters to those who like to watch sports on TV.
They serve the same food in all these environments, centered on barbecued items both in their traditional style and incorporated into sandwiches, salads, soup, and other items. There are a few vegetarian items, and the glazed caramelized brussels sprouts with onions even flirt with modern ideas, but most of the food is through a Southern lens. Those sprouts are pretty good, by the way, but the portion is small for a fifteen-dollar appetizer. That’s one continuing issue here – starters are strangely small, with those sprouts, or four ribs fried and tossed in a sticky Asian-style sauce priced at seventeen dollars. There are full meals that include the meat and two side dishes for only three dollars more.
Over the course of four visits, I’ve tried the burnt ends sandwich, loaded sweet potato, brisket banh mi, and most of the barbecue plates. The loaded sweet potatoes are just what they sound like, an immense tuber split, and filled with cheese, baked beans, green onion, sour cream, jalapenos, and your choice of protein. I’m used to this approach with a standard russet potato, but I have to say that this works better. The sweet potato has more flavor and plays nicely with the smoky and spicy ingredients. If you don’t like spicy food, you can remove the peppers and it’s still good.
The brisket banh mi is served on a standard roll rather than the crisp-crusted baguette, and it’s a simplified version of a sandwich that can get ornate. The pork belly is topped with pickled daikon and carrot and fresh cucumber and cilantro, and then topped with a tangy but not hot sauce. It’s the same flavor combination as a traditional pulled pork and coleslaw sandwich with an Asian twist, and it works.
I was less thrilled with the brisket melt sandwich because it was over-sauced, and I wanted to taste the meat rather than just the sauce. I mentioned this to a server and they said the meat is always tossed in sauce and can’t be ordered any other way, so I’ll order something else next time.
The sandwiches and other items come with a wide variety of sides, and I don’t have room to describe them all in detail. The baked beans, waffle fries, jalapeno slaw, and mac & cheese are all decent but nothing special. The jalapeno cheese grits were a bit milder than I expected but nice, and the chili was unusually good, with some cumin and smokey paprika notes beneath a moderate heat. There aren’t many places to get good chili in the South Bay, and this is on my list of the best in the area. You can get it mixed with their mac and cheese, or get the buffalo chicken mac and cheese – either is filling but good. I was surprised to like their honey cornbread because elsewhere the honey takes over, but theirs has chunks of corn in the batter and the honey is used sparingly so it blends with the vegetable sweetness. The real winner among the sides is the burgoo, a stew from the middle South that traditionally includes squirrel and pheasant along with whatever else you shot when you were hunting, stewed up with vegetables in a meaty stock. They left out the squirrel and game birds, but nailed the rich but delicately seasoned stock with vegetable flavors. I have never figured out why burgoo isn’t more popular, and if you haven’t tried it, this is a good place to start.
And what about the main item, the barbecue? The chicken is a standout, the birds large, the meat moist with a crisp skin that has the flavor of a fruit sauce baste. I liked both the pork belly burnt ends, and to make it clear, “burnt” just means they have a lot of caramelization because this is made from the thin ends of the cuts of meat. The brisket burnt ends were a bit dry and chewy, so between the two I suggest the pork. The pulled pork seemed a bit over-smoked when I tried it but was still decent, but I might like this best in a potato or sandwich rather than a main item. The only item I didn’t like at all was their brisket, which is smoked for 15 hours and served well-done. I prefer brisket medium-rare to medium, but that isn’t an option here. As for the ribs, they too are smoked a little more than I prefer, but there was still some juiciness and meaty flavor, so I’d happily have them again.
Keep in mind if you get a two-meat combo here you do not need an appetizer, and probably no breakfast the following day – portions are big. When a server asked if we wanted desserts, everybody at the table laughed. I did feel that it was my duty as a food writer to try one of them, so went back a few days later to get the banana pudding. This was remarkably good and not over-sweet, a mix of bananas, crushed nilla wafers, and housemade whipped cream. It’s simple and Southern and a nice finish for the meal.
The drinks at Sauced are generally straightforward and well-made with fresh juices. The Hurricane is a classic well executed, and I recommend the Irish Goodbye made with Irish whiskey, orange marmalade, simple syrup, and lemon juice. They have beer and wine and a collection of boutique whiskies, so if you like to cruise fancy bourbons this is a good spot.
Sauced isn’t cheap, but they deliver quality – figure $50 per person at dinner and you won’t be far wrong unless you start experimenting with the fancy booze or paying to throw axes or play games. They’ve delivered on their earlier promise with a funhouse mirror version of the South that has some surprises.
Sauced is at 2015 Park Place in the El Segundo Plaza off PCH. Open daily at 11 a.m., close 10 p.m. Su-Thu, midnight Fri-Sa. Moderate to loud depending on area. Parking lot, wheelchair access good, full bar, some vegetarian items. (310) 426-8783. Saucedbbqandspirits.com. ER