Smoker: Steel offset smoker and gas-fired rotisserie smoker
Wood: Red oak, pecan, apple, and mesquite charcoal
Kevin Bludso’s roots are in Compton, but he earned his barbecue chops in Corsicana, Texas. His great aunt, Willie Mae Fields, ran a semi-legal barbecue business at a local gas station on the weekends. Every summer, Kevin’s parents shipped him out of Compton to Corsicana to stay in the country with his aunt, and he gradually learned how to smoke a brisket.
Bludso was terminated after thirteen years as a corrections officer, and needed to find a new job. After a few years as a caterer, he opened Bludso’s (pronounced like “blood” instead of “blue”) in 2008. The praise came soon after. With appearances on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and accolades from the Steve Harvey show, Bludso’s BBQ is now L.A.’s best known barbecue joint. They also make the best brisket I’ve eaten in California.
Daniel Vaughn: Did you grow up here in Compton?
Kevin Bludso: I grew up here, but spent all my summers in Corsicana, Texas. I went to college in Dallas at Bishop College. I was going to go to SMU because my cousin, Bill Jones, was the top running back coming out of Corsicana back in them days. I played one year at Bishop and fell in love with it. I liked being a big fish in a small pond. I played defensive end there for four years.
DV: Did you think your future might be in football?
KB: A little, but when I got there, I mainly wanted to graduate. I enjoyed playing football, but I still think about it now. I tell my kids “Don’t get comfortable in what you do.” Going into my senior year, I had the chance to be all-NAIA. My coach came to me and told me if I wanted a shot at the NFL, I needed to move to linebacker. I told him “Coach, if it’s all up to me, I’m cool.” After the draft I got a call from the Oilers. I went down to Houston with the rookie free agents. The first thing they said was “Bludso. Linebackers.” Of course I was only there for one day. So I say “Don’t ever get comfortable. Always be open to change.” I got comfortable and didn’t give it a real shot. After all that, I love football, but I never thought I’d make a living playing football.
DV: What did you study at Bishop?
KB: Business. I graduated with a business degree, then went into law enforcement. I worked for the department of corrections for thirteen years. I was a corrections officer and a parole agent.
DV: Where was that?
KB: All in L.A. I thought I wanted to be a teacher when I was in college. I did one summer of student teaching and I realized I hated kids, so I couldn’t do that. The only reason I wanted to do it was for the summer vacations and the holidays
DV: I guess you shouldn’t go into teaching for the wrong reasons.
KB: That, and I didn’t want to go to prison for choking one of them out.
DV: What sent you to Corsicana?
KB: It was my granny, who was really my grandmother’s auntie. My mother and dad raised me out here, but my granny was my heart. She just passed away.
DV: What was her name?
KB: Willie Mae Fields. She was legendary in Corsicana.
DV: Who initiated you going to Corsicana?
KB: My mother, mainly. They sent me out there every summer.
DV: Did your mom grow up there?
KB: No. It was my dad’s family. He grew up in Corsicana until he was 12, then they moved to Bakersfield.
DV: How old were when you started going to Texas?
KB: Nine years old. My mom worked at the post office, but she was a Black Panther sympathizer and my father was LAPD. Imagine that. They were divorced, but it kept me out of trouble. My father said ever since I was a little boy, I would say I wanted to move to the country. I thank God that he gave me the opportunity of having both aspects of the country and the city, and I prefer the country. I prefer Corsicana. I love the people and the open country, and I can deal with the mosquitos. I loved it when granny was cooking brisket all night. I loved it. She was preparing me for something at the time, but I didn’t know what she was preparing me for. I would be out there when she was cooking brisket and ribs. I had to prep ribs when I got older and I hated it. I used to swear I wasn’t going into food service. She would tell me “You have to find something to go into on your own because you’re too much of an a**hole to work for anybody.”
DV: She knew you well.
KB: She knew me well. She smoked her weed and drank her cognac until the day she died. She was still threatening me until the end. She had been kicking my a** for forty years.
DV: What was her restaurant’s name.
KB: Little Rascals. It was right off the highway on 7th. She was only there on Fridays and Saturdays. It was an old gas station. She’d get out there with her pit and do her thing. She didn’t like people taking pictures of her because it was illegal for her to be out there. Now I wish we had some of those pictures.
DV: What was on the menu at Little Rascals?
KB: Back then just brisket, ribs, and hot links. She didn’t even do chicken.
DV: You said at the time helping with the barbecue felt like a pain. At what point did you want to get back into barbecue? Was there a turning point?
KB: After working for corrections, I was terminated. I had to fall back on what she would call my legal hustles. She would ask “what’s your legal hustle?” I used to DJ, and I used to cook. So I started back DJ’ing and catering. I started going to Texas in the summertime and cooking brisket. I knew I had it down because granny said that my brisket was the only one she wanted to eat. I came back to Compton and opened up Bludso’s in 2008.
DV: How has your barbecue changed since you were catering?
KB: Not much, really. I was using this Klose pit here in catering, and I still use it.
DV: What’s on the menu here?
KB: Brisket, ribs, chicken, pulled pork, hot links, we make our own chicken sausage and beef sausage.
DV: They don’t have much homemade sausage around here.
KB: Not really. California gets a bad rap for barbecue, but back in the seventies and eighties you had all kind of black barbecue establishments in L.A. Those guys were from everywhere – Mississippi, Memphis, Texas – so California had more different types of barbecue stands back in those days than any other state.
DV: Would you say your barbecue now is a mix of influences?
KB: Nah. It’s all Texas, well except the chicken sausage. The brisket and chicken are just salt and pepper. The ribs get a simple rub. How you like that chicken sausage?
DV: It’s really moist. Is there pork fat in there, or just chicken?
KB: Just chicken. Maybe we gotta bring some to Texas.
DV: How have you expanded since you opened?
KB: We started with the Klose pit, then we have this one [pointing to the Ole Hickory], then we got the Bewley. This was my granny’s original pit [pointing to the Klose], a guy refurbished it for me.
DV: These ribs taste different than the Bludso’s Bar-n-Que in L.A.
KB: We make our rub here, but we have it commercially made for them because they don’t know the recipe. It’s a little spicier there, but we’re working on it.
DV: There’s a whole different feel to it as well in Hollywood.
KB: Well, you know, it’s upscale barbecue.
DV: Is it odd to you that you own one of the whitest barbecue joints in all of L.A.?
KB: Well, we’re in Atlanta, and we’re about to be in Australia too. It’s cool. You’ve got to do business with the right people. Everyone’s got their own taste in barbecue, and that’s fine. Just don’t do bad barbecue. I was just talking to a guy in Corsicana telling him to make good barbecue, he might have to throw some stuff away. You only have one try to make a first impression.
DV: That’s the hardest thing to teach anyone, but then it’s also hard to do if you’re cooking three briskets and you have to sell it all to be able to buy tomorrow’s briskets.
KB: You’re right, but if you sell it out, then people want to come back for more.
DV: Do you always barbecue when you go back to Corsicana?
KB: Not always. I go to relax. I went back for my granny’s funeral in January, and that’s the last time I’ve been. This is the longest I’ve gone in a while without being back in Texas. When I’m there I like to try new things. I don’t do that here. When I’m in Texas, I’m at the seasoning aisle at H-E-B all day, but I barely shop when I’m here. I rarely go to restaurants when I’m here, but when I go to Texas next time I’ll be there for a month. I’m going to San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. I want to go by my boy’s place Virgie’s in Houston.
DV: What else is on your Texas barbecue wish list?
KB: I want to go to Franklin, and I want to wait in the line. I want to try Black’s, Kreuz, and Sonny Bryan’s.
DV: [Eating the brisket] Do you wrap this at all?
KB: Not at all. We put them on the Ole Hickory at 240 and they’re good.
DV: I like the fat that you leave on here.
KB: That was from my granny she told me not to cut the fat off that brisket.
DV: What do you smoke with?
KB: The brisket is pecan and red oak. The ribs are pecan, red oak, and apple.
DV: What about the mesquite charcoal over there?
KB: We start it with the charcoal as the base, then add the wood.
DV: How many briskets are you going through?
KB: It was about fifty briskets a day before the Fourth. It mellows out a bit after the Fourth. On the weekends we can go through sixty briskets.
DV: You’re still a young barbecue joint, but you’ve gotten plenty of accolades. How did they start to roll in?
KB: When we opened in 2008 I put some stuff on Chowhound, just throwing it out there under an anonymous name. That got us started, then Jonathan Gold ranked us as one of the 99 essential restaurants in L.A. Then Zagat rated us and the L.A. Bludso’s #1 and #2 best barbecue in L.A. People love the story, and love hearing about Texas. It’s the time for foodies. Yelp and social media, they run it. When I first opened, my goal was to be mentioned with the local joints around here. Now I see my name in USA Today mentioned with legendary places. That’s special.
DV: In Gold’s review of Bludso’s Bar-n-Que in 2013, he said barbecue was going to be the cupcake of 2013. Two years later, I guess that hasn’t been the case.
KB: Yes, but he’s been good to us. For a time we had the wrong pitmaster up there, but we got that worked out.
DV: Do you still have fun cooking barbecue?
KB: I do. I don’t do as much as I used to. When anybody calls in sick, I get down in there, but that’s the funniest part. I have more fun when I’m in Texas cooking barbecue than I do when I’m here. I still enjoy getting up at 4:00 in the morning getting the brisket on in Texas. I still enjoy it here, but it’s my work. I barely eat the barbecue here anymore. I sample. Still, nobody can work the kitchen the way I can. It’s like Kung Fu. I used to prep ribs with my uncle – cut the top, cut the flap, you know. I couldn’t keep up with him. Then one day I beat him. I said “I got your a**! What do I do now?” He said “You must leave.” I was going to get that tattoo. “You must leave.”