There's no telling the distance some people will travel for food. That great steak? Maybe it was in New York, or Chicago. Tacos? Try Austin. Pizza? Phoenix, obviously. And in the time it takes you to meander up a few miles of windy asphalt to the Chantry Flats Public Recreation area above Arcadia, you could be enjoying one of the best pulled pork sandwiches Los Angeles County has to offer.
For anyone who's already made the trip, it's no surprise that this slice of the Angeles National Forest is a pristine reminder of how close nature really is to those of us normally locked to our computer screens. Up here in the Santa Anita Canyon, a 10-mile loop trail traverses mountainsides and crosses cresting waterfalls, opening occasionally into flat parcels of streamside land that serve as pack-in campgrounds. There are also a number of privately owned cabins and a full back country resort accessible only by trail, each a deep green reminder of the booming business that used to be The Great Outdoors.
Serving as lookout just above the trailhead sits the Adams Pack Station, one of only a handful still functioning in the American West today. For the deep woods cabin lovers and those booking a night at the resort, a team of working mules and donkeys depart from the pack station loaded up with all the necessary provisions to ensure a memorable evening under the stars. They also sell Angeles National Forest Adventure Passes, those hanging indicators that you love the outdoors and don't mind financially supporting it. But every third Sunday of the month, the pack station clears away the extra batteries and bandanas for sale, and switches into a cowboy-themed pulled pork sandwich extravaganza.
Walking up to the pack station on a sunshine-filled third Sunday, you immediately smell something is different. Mixing in with the rare fresh air and wispy wafts of native vegetation is the unmistakable scent of slowly cooking pork. Under a semi-permanent tent just off the front deck moves Eric, bustling around the small space in full cowboy regalia. There's the chaps, the hat, the pale ranchero shirt with the mother of pearl snaps and a sidearm that matches his mustache in manliness.
There are lots of reasons to trust an armed cowboy with your life. But with your lunch? If it's Eric, absolutely. After ordering and paying up on the deck (don't forget your bottle of cold Sierra Nevada), transfer your receipt to the man working the pork. If you choose to dawdle in front of the tent, you'll occasionally be rewarded with glimpses of the slowly stewing meat in action. The mixture is deeply orange from the liberal use of chili powder, and beautiful steam bubbles slowly escape from the top as heated coals maintain temperature below.
After a few minutes, a loud twang carrying your name will float across the open space, no doubt while you're engrossed in the scenery or chatting with a couple of donkeys hanging out nearby. Swing back for your heaping pulled pork sandwich and snag a table on the patio with your beverage to begin one of the better lunches you're likely to have this summer. The meat is incredibly tender, practically dissolving in your mouth if not for the French roll that surrounds it. The first bite has all of the deep, porky, mineral-y qualities that you'd expect from a chunk of hog slow cooked in cast iron. Add a little of the house-bottled sauce to bring on a burst of sweet and vinegar tang.
Like most forward-thinking men, Eric has somehow managed to save the best for last. Just when you think that there's no coleslaw, that sloppy anchor that helps any normal pulled pork concoction, you realize the true master's genius: it's underneath the pulled pork. Instead of a sandwich piled high with watery mayo and a few vegetable shreds, this sandwich gets you all the way there with the pork itself, then delivers the coleslaw in manageable bites from below, making it a highlight instead of a hindrance.
For anyone feeling the need for a touch more funk, crumbled blue cheese is available on request. It doesn't have the satisfying, melty combination properties of, say, provolone on a meatball sub, but your taste buds will still be delighted when they fall on the occasional bite with a perfect balance.
If you were lucky enough to grab a parking spot in the cramped Chantry Flats lot, beware your slightly groggy drive back down the swiveling hill. For the rest of us, a small hike to an improvised spot along the roadside gives time to work off the belly warmth and slow smile that has creeped onto your face. Not that this is a bad walk -- your view is a few thousand acres of largely untouched natural beauty. With the right client, this could make for one hell of a Sunday power lunch.
Adams Pack Station, at
Chantry Flats Recreation Area
[Photos by Hagop Kalaidjian]