“My roots are Southern,” says Lonnie Edwards, the soft-spoken owner of RibTown BBQ, a busy parking lot setup in LA’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. Flanked by an intimidating-looking smoker wafting the scents of smoldering wood, beef ribs, and shimmering sausage links, the native Angeleno seems larger than life. Between the plumes of smoke, the bustling streets around his setup, and the numerous meats and sauces requiring attentive preparation, one would presume Edwards to be working with a sense of urgency and intensity. But when he breaks into his usual wide grin, it’s clear that Edwards has no use for a frantic or serious demeanor — not in his life, and certainly not in his barbecue: “Low and slow. Everything’s straightforward, nothing’s overly complex,” he says.
The 61-year-old has been cooking barbecue for decades, first as a hobby and more recently as a business. His smokers have quickly become an integral part of the ever-changing food scene in Jefferson Park (and South Los Angeles at large), a community that has endured redlining, government-sanctioned division and demolition, and — most recently — gentrification and redevelopment. Along with neighboring historic West Adams, the Jefferson Park area is today a hotbed of flipped houses, condo construction, and brand-new restaurants, putting Edwards and his RibTown operation at the center of one of the most rapidly changing neighborhoods in all of Los Angeles.
Edwards has been taking in the slow changes to the neighborhood for years as a resident and longtime youth football coach; he only began speeding up his own timeline, first as a backyard grill master and now as a restaurant owner, in the past several years. The timing has been fortuitous.
Recently, an emergent group of Black entrepreneurs, including Edwards, have begun to move the barbecue conversation back toward its Southern heart, without leaving the half-decade of Texas-focused dominance behind. Many are native Angelenos, some are first- or second-generation transplants from Louisiana or South Carolina families, locals who have found new reach using old smoker traditions and heritage recipes. Others, like the Wood Urban Kitchen, see barbecue as a jumping-off point for a whole new neighborhood vibe, complete with pulsing music and weekend hangouts for the next generation of Black Angelenos in changing Inglewood. But they’re not the first to define LA’s burgeoning barbecue scene.
There is a deep history behind the region’s smoked meat universe, built and codified in part through Black migration to the American West nearly a century ago. Families from states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee moved to the West Coast in droves during and after World War II in search of better working and living conditions, far from the Jim Crow laws and deep racial divisions that pervaded the American South for generations. When they arrived, of course, Black Southerners still faced segregation, harassment, and inequality at nearly every turn. Many families carried with them the cooking traditions and recipes of their former lives in the South, bonding in tightly knit communities over dishes as simple as oxtail and rib tips,