I know what you’re thinking. Yes, the Veterans Affairs campus is the last place I would have thought of to enjoy delicious barbeque while listening to a local jazz band. But following a recommendation from a former co-worker, a few Fridays ago my boyfriend and I found ourselves with trays in hand, waiting in a small line at the Veteran’s Village Diner on the VA campus in Westwood. And here’s the kicker: they smoke their own chicken and ribs.
I knew the barbeque would be good even before I had my first messy bite. As we walked toward building 306, I spotted the two horizontal capsule-like smokers on the perimeter of the large outdoor patio. Manned by barbeque guru Earnest "Pork Chop" Phillips every Friday, the smokers slowly complete the cooking of the ribs and chicken as well as infuse them with a char-like, smoky flavor. The heat is controlled by manually opening and closing the lids, a skill which Pork Chop has delightfully mastered, considering his 35 years experience with everything barbeque. The fall-off-the-bone ribs and crisp-skinned chicken are then slathered with a tangy house-made (yes, house-made) barbeque sauce in the kitchen before brought to the cafeteria line for service. For $6.50 each, we enjoyed our choice of ribs or chicken, two sides, cornbread and a piece of cake. Oh, and the sides are all house-made as well, from rich, comforting macaroni-n-cheese to tender collard greens and tangy potato salad.
My first experience at the Veteran's Village Diner, building 306, was impressive to say the least. That's why I had to return the following Friday; I wanted to get a better gist of the entire picture. What made my dining experience so great at such an unlikely place? On my second visit I enjoyed the pleasure of sitting down with Pork Chop to talk a little barbeque. And you don't even have to say too many words to talk barbeque with Pork Chop. I wouldn't be surprised if he had barbeque sauce running through his veins. His passion was evident in everything he said.
I asked him to tell me a little bit about the smokers, and he invited me over to get a closer look. "These are cast iron," he mentioned as he lifted the lid, causing a waft of smoke before exposing the near-done legs, thighs and breasts. He opened the smaller off-set firebox on the side of the smoker, where he was holding a few racks of ribs wrapped in foil for those who prefer no sauce. It wasn't long before he started mentioning everything he loves to cook on the grill -- lamb chops (his favorite, especially with applewood or walnut), goat, duck, all kinds of fowl. "If you can kill it, I can grill it," he quipped, and I laughed. He then told me that a few months ago he prepared a whole pig, "with the apple in its mouth and everything." Now I was really impressed. Soon we got to talking about curing hams, another of Pork Chop's passions. When asked if he brines the hams, he replied "What's that? Some modern chef thing?" Pork Chop prefers the meticulous, week-long process of sugar-curing.
Pork Chop, a veteran, is a graduate of the culinary arts program which is part of the job training offered by New Directions, Inc, a non-profit founded by three formerly homeless veterans in 1988. The culinary arts certification program, in partnership with the Los Angeles Trade Technical College, spans 4 months and allows graduates to train on site before receiving job placement. New Directions' headquarters and rehab center are located on the Westwood VA campus, a short walk from the Veteran's Village Diner. Pork Chop cooks for several hundred patrons a day at the rehab center, while sharing his barbeque expertise at the Village Diner every Friday. He is one of only nine employees between both kitchens, where a hefty amount of home-made food is prepared daily. I was able speak with New Directions' Executive Chef Sahina Dizon who manages the food services at the rehab center and the Village Diner.
"It's a spot now," she remarked as she filled me in on where the Village Diner is now compared to where it was (or wasn't) before it's re-opening in August of 2003. Prior to this date the diner was shut down for a few years -- it was run-down and abandoned. It took $16,000 to get the diner up and running on the right track. Although it's still a "work in progress," as Chef Dizon puts it, the diner has seen a 12% increase in sales since its re-opening.
Jacob Zuniga, a culinary school graduate and seasoned professional cook, creates menu items daily at the Village Diner. He told me, "This is the first time people like coming [to the diner]." He then asked me "you see all these scrubs here?" I looked around and noticed several doctors and nurses with trays, ribs and chicken in hand. Building 500, where the VA hospital is located on the campus, has their own food service and dining facilities. But many of the building 500 employees make the trek over to the Village Diner at building 306 daily.
Both Dizon and Zuniga take pride in making everything from scratch, using no commercial product. Zuniga was quick to tell me about the roasted tomato soup on the menu that day; slow-roasted tomatoes, charred and peeled, then pureed. I can see myself coming back for the mac-n-cheese complete with "lots of cheese, butter and roux," along with some of Pork Chop's signature ribs and chicken (and hopefully a lesson or two from him on how to sugar-cure the perfect ham).
The Veteran's Village Diner is located on the north side of the VA campus in Westwood between Pershing and Grant. The diner is open Monday through Friday from 7 am to 3 pm. Local jazz (or sometimes salsa and merengue, says Zuniga) supplements the barbeque the last Friday afternoon of every month. New Directions offers catering service as well. Follow the signs, your nose or the scrubs to building 306.
Photo by Kristin Franklin.