It’s too difficult to get good quality smoked brisket in California. Chalk it up to a lack of barbecue culture, which has been ingrained in other parts of the country like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and the Carolinas for generations. California’s own brand of ‘cue, known as Santa Maria-style, employs a direct heat source over cuts like tri-tip and ribs. It’s pretty good when it’s done well, but it’s rarely great outside of the Central Coast.
Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill, a relatively tame suburban restaurant with sixteen outlets serving around 60,000 diners a week across Southern California, doesn’t seem like the place for a well-made Texas-style brisket. But it’s become an unlikely destination for quality smoked meats under the guidance of one of its partners, Alejandro Benes, who helped introduce a more classic cuts like brisket and pulled pork to the direct-grill tri-tip and baby back ribs prepared at Wood Ranch.
In the sun-drenched Conejo Valley’s sleepy bedroom community of Westlake Village lies Wood Ranch’s corporate headquarters, on the second floor of a tree-laden office park. The bright but mostly unimpressive offices offer unobstructed views of the Santa Monica Mountains to the south, providing an ideal backdrop to the decidedly suburban operation.
Founded by Ofer Shemtov and Eric Anders 25 years ago, the longtime friends opened Wood Ranch in Moorpark with a design budget of $5,000. The kind of utilitarian, mildly rustic environs haven’t changed much over the years, and the plush vinyl banquettes at the restaurants seem inviting to the suburban clientele. With almost all of their locations on the outskirts of L.A., with a few like The Grove and Northridge more entrenched in the city, Wood Ranch BBQ is one of many corporate, but still locally-run, restaurant chains.
Shemtov and Anders had prior experience running restaurants in LA, but are admittedly “operations guys.” Anders, on what role Alejandro brings to the company, says “[he] complements us because he’s a real foodie guy.” Benes, who goes by Alex, attended culinary school and grew up eating barbecue in North Carolina, is a bit like the Johnny Ive of the company — proposing, testing, and perfecting new dishes before they get rolled out.
The idea for introducing more low-and-slow smoked meats was hatched in 2009, at the height of the meat revolution, when the likes of pork belly, burgers, and brisket were permeating the everyday diner’s consciousness. When asked why it took so long for a restaurant touting barbecue in its name to serve actual long-smoked meats, the trio basically said introducing smoked meats was more of a practical than a culinary solution. That’s because space on the wood-burning grill had been maxed out with tri-tip, baby-back ribs, and steaks.
But when Shemtov asked Benes about the feasibility of doing something more ambitious like Texas-style smoked brisket, Benes responded with a stern, “No, no, no. It’s too difficult to do brisket.” At least he was thinking it was going to be too difficult to do in an commercial setting across so many locations. Still, Benes smoked up two briskets and served it at Anders’ home, and everyone loved it. It was substantially smokier than the version they serve at Wood Ranch restaurants now, but the seed had been planted.
The testing process took an entire year, with Alejandro leaning on his background of growing up in North Carolina and years of living in Arlington, exposed to the glories of Carolina and Texas ‘cue. The challenge was how they would be able to take something that’s often served in tremendous quantities but only over a few hours at a place like Franklin Barbecue (which opens at 11 a.m. and often sells out just after lunch) to a full-service eatery with continuous operation from lunch through dinner, nearly 360 days a year.
It’s something few all-day barbecue restaurants have done with success. A recent visit to a more ambitious (and expensive) place like Maple Block Meat Co. in Culver City resulted in a relatively dry brisket, though it did sport a nice level of smokey flavor. Restaurants like Bludso’s Bar & Que do it with a bit more success on an evening-by-evening basis. But there are still very good barbecue places in Texas like Austin’s Cooper’s Old Time Pit BBQ that do an excellent brisket all day long, from lunch through dinner. It seemed like an insurmountable challenge to execute quality brisket across so many restaurants, but Wood Ranch has been attempting to master this, with mostly success.
Wood Ranch couldn’t go for the standard outdoor pit smokers with their limited kitchen areas, and opted for Southern Pride upright smokers, which sit underneath hoods to prevent too much smoke from permeating into the dining room. The whole briskets, sourced from Double R Ranch, a sustainable beef operation that features consistent marbling, go into the smoker for 14 to 16 hours overnight.
The cooking process starts at 7 p.m. and gets a first check at 8 a.m. the next day, to see if the seasonings have latched on and color of the bark looks right. Benes has written an in-house “bible” that instructs cooks to look for things like tenderness and color, with techniques to troubleshoot briskets that are underdone. While a classic Texas-style brisket employs just salt, pepper, smoke, and time, the ones Wood Ranch finishes use a spice mix of onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, mustard powder, salt, pepper, and a hint of sugar for a more rounded complexity.
What helps these briskets stay moist is a warm holding chamber, and a drenching of the “jus” that comes off the briskets before it gets served. The resultant product is gently smokey, with a good amount of tenderness and juiciness. The fat melts in the mouth while the seasonings don’t overwhelm the hit of smoke.
Brisket sales comprise about 5% of overall sales at Wood Ranch, making it one of the more successful menu introductions. And its usefulness goes beyond sliced brisket on a platter: it’s used in the sandwich, which draws heavily from the classic Langer’s #19 with crisp coleslaw, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese on a burger bun. The brisket is also a part of the ridiculous, over-the-top “ultimate” sandwich that contains pulled pork and kielbasa for a gout-inducing lunch.
Benes often pops into random outlets of Wood Ranch, occasionally tasting briskets and “86ing” (an industry term of removing something off a menu) them for the day because they’re not up to standard. While the brisket at Wood Ranch certainly won’t impress snobs or so-called “barbecue jihadists,” as Benes calls them, the idea is to start with a very good, sustainably-ranched product and introduce it to a wider market. A kind of rising tide that helps build a barbecue culture in California, beyond the Santa Maria-style diners are familiar with. The next project in development, which Benes thinks will be another hit on Wood Ranch menus: smoked turkey.
Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill has multiple locations across the L.A. area, including The Grove and Northridge.