Put California and food together in the same sentence these days and it's hard not to automatically envision sculpted or anemic people counting the grains of wheat germ, eating sprouts with chop sticks or spritzing a carrot stick with a light vinaigrette and chasing it with a no-salt daiquiri. "Real food" usually comes with cut limes and a pineapple garnish, clay-oven baked at the most but never - not even tempura - fried. The Redwoods and Sequoias are preserved not from logging but from the locals seeking a high fiber diet to go with their organic tofu.
But I digress. And I stand astoundingly corrected. In Orange County, California, center of the world for barely breathing haute couture - Laguna Hills Mall is not even a mile away - sits "Lucille's BBQ." Despite today's international reputation for "light," "fusion" and organic foods that barely register with the digestive system the history of California cooking comes straight from the comfort cuisine and survival sustenance. From south of the border come tacos, gorditos and burritos while north of Fresno, 49er country, comes grilled meats over an open fire and washed down with pure spring water moonshine!
Lucille's is of the latter ancestry, originating in the kitchen of one Lucille Buchanan who came up at her grandmother's knee in Greenville, California, learning and perfecting the recipes patrons enjoy at a dozen restaurants around the state. My traveling companion and I found the one in Lake Forest while on our way south to San Diego and few road stops were ever worth the time as much as this place.
Never mind the atmosphere, which was typical for a barbecue restaurant with hard woods, nostalgic touches and oldies music. This place knows the money is in the meat and they do not disappoint. Whenever I try a new barbecue joint I go for the sampler plate, wanting to see how things go across the beef, pork and poultry groups. The combo platter was nearly a steal, plain and simple, with a smooth sauce that simply defied belief or expectation while the meats were fork tender and bone clean.
The one thing shared between this restaurant and other establishments right down to the hole-in-the-wall set-ups is "mopping." I don't know if it is a unique West Coast style but where the argument back east is between dry rub and wet sauces, the sauce is typically ladled, poured, infused, steeped or squirted on to the meat from bottles. Californians literally use a clean mop handle to brush paint the sauce over the meat before serving. The longer they use the mop the more saturated it becomes with sauce and the easier and faster it is to serve up one delectable plate after the other.
At first I thought Lucille's referred to a certain famous blues guitar since I'm from back east where the blues and barbecue go together like nothing else unless you add beer. After this meal I can easily believe and recall the glory days of northern California's gold rush but still wonder at the success of the place in Orange County! It's there and it's real so go and see for yourself if you want solid food in or near sexy Santa Ana.
And if you don't believe me, just have some guac with that heaping helping of ginger root and rosemary infused olive oil.