Jiyeon Lee, a South Korean expat, doesn’t serve Korean barbecue at her Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta. She and her husband, the Texas-born Cody Taylor, serve American barbecue with Korean touches. Example: pungent gochujang-marinated pork, smoked over oak and hickory wood and served as a sandwich crowned with kimchi coleslaw.
In Austin, Miguel Vidal has mated the ingredients of his Mexican ancestry with those of his Texas upbringing at his celebrated Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ. Think house-made corn tortillas with smoked brisket, guacamole and tomato serrano salsa.
Ready or not, change has come to Barbecue Country. Often viewed in black and white, the world of slow-smoked Southern barbecue is being transformed by the immigrants of contemporary America.
“A lot of the cultures coming here have something they call barbecue,” says Thomas W. Hanchett, retired staff historian of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. “They are now becoming part of the South and using this language of barbecue. What had been foreign, international traditions are becoming American traditions.”
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Of course, from its earliest days, Southern barbecue has been a polyglot cuisine. Its origin combined Caribbean and Native American techniques of indirect smoking with European meats (pork and beef, mainly) and African American flavorings. More than a century ago, Mexicans in California and Texas contributed a style known as barbacoa in which cow heads are roasted in a pit in the ground. Germans are generally believed to have created the mustard sauce of South Carolina.
The German influence, along with Polish and Czech, is also big in Texas, where in the 1880s and 1890s those immigrants’ meat markets were the ones selling barbecue, says Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn.
Apparently, such culinary influences were not always appreciated. Vaughn emailed me a link to an archived copy of an 1875 front page of the Dallas Daily Herald that showed a strain of anti-immigration that persists through American life to this day. “A German sausage factory has been established in Austin,” one item in a column entitled “The Herald’s Compress” reads. “It may not be amiss to remind our city authorities that this is a splendid opportunity to dispose of our surplus dog crop.”
Objections aside, those immigrant groups affected barbecue culture all over the state. But in central Texas it became a signature barbecue style, characterized by slow-smoked beef and coarse-ground, spicy sausage.
Greeks have influenced American barbecue as well, with the most famous example being Charlie Vergos, a son of immigrants. He founded the famous Memphis barbecue restaurant Charlie Vergos Rendezvous where, in the late 1950s, he concocted a spice rub for pork ribs that combined Greek herbs, such as oregano, with traditional barbecue spices. Dabbed with vinegar while cooking, the creation became known as the Memphis “dry” ribs style, so called because they’re not sauced (or “wet”).
In its multicultural history, stretching back before the formation of the country, barbecue might be the one true indigenous American cuisine. Curiously, barbecue is viewed as unchanging. But, from the foods we smoke to the way we smoke them, barbecue is constantly evolving.
“What we think of as barbecue today would have been unrecognizable to eaters a century ago,” Robert Moss, author of “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution,” told First We Feast. “We don’t need to redefine barbecue in America; it’s already busy redefining itself, and the new flavors of immigrant communities are an important part of that evolution.”
Cultures around the world enjoy some kind of fire-cooking tradition. But for the most part, they’re different from what we’ve come to expect when we walk into a Southern barbecue restaurant. Korean barbecue is thin-sliced meats grilled quickly over a direct (typically, gas) fire, while the Indian tandoor uses a clay oven, and Sichuan duck is smoked over tea leaves, then frequently fried. Southern barbecue is big meats such as beef brisket, pork shoulder and ribs slow-smoked using an indirect fire of hardwoods.
Heirloom BBQ Market, opened in 2010, represents a melting-pot approach to barbecue. The brisket, for example, is injected with a Korean version of miso before bathing low and slow in smoke inside an all-wood cooker imported from Texas.
Drawing on the Korean little-plates tradition of fermented and pickled vegetables, Lee, who was a pop star in South Korea, saw an opportunity. “It’s a really good pairing with the heavy meat dishes, with all the pickles and vegetables,” she says. “At first, it was, ‘Is this a barbecue restaurant?’ But people in Atlanta, it’s a melting pot and very diverse, and people are open-minded about trying something new.”
Taylor said Heirloom experienced some initial resistance from barbecue purists but overcame it with glowing press attention. He says the idea behind what appears exotic is actually simple. “We decided to just go with what we brought from our house, ingredient-wise and feeling-wise,” Taylor says. “Just be yourself. That’s what barbecue is all about.”
While the fusion trend inhabits a small corner of the barbecue firmament, similar cultural mash-ups are occurring nationwide. At Kimchi Smoke in northern New Jersey, owner Robert Cho, a Korean American, smokes the kimchi that tops the smoked pork, which he piles onto a flour tortilla. He calls the creation a Korean Redneck Taco. In Charlotte, the husband-and-wife team of Tim Chun and Lisa Kamura at the Seoul Food Meat Co. turn out meats marinated in Korean flavorings and served with pickled radish and sides of Sriracha cracklins, ramen mac-and-cheese and soy-pickled deviled eggs.
At the food truck Honky Tonk Kid BBQ in Waco, Texas, David Gorham serves a rotating menu of “global fusion,” which combines traditionally smoked Texas meats with an international flair. Its recently concluded Italian menu featured a smoked meatball sub with a fire-roasted marinara sauce, plus side dishes such as citrus and fennel coleslaw.
“I just want to introduce people to different flavors and different cultures,” Gorham says. “I just want people to know there are other flavors out there, and we can all get together, and that’s what barbecue should be.”
In New York, Hometown Barbecue offers a lamb belly banh mi alongside traditional pulled pork sandwiches, Izzy’s Smokehouse and Main House BBQ serve kosher barbecue (beef, chicken; no pork), and pastrami is on barbecue menus all over town.
“We have so many great barbecue restaurants that they have to distinguish themselves,” says Eater critic Robert Sietsema. “We have a universal constituency that loves sweet and sour flavors. The flavor palette is being preserved with a smokiness that people long for.”
In Texas, smoked meats such as brisket and pork are finding their way into tacos instead of the more traditional white bread. “Whether serving [barbecue] as tacos rather than sandwiches or with beans and rice and stuff like pico de gallo as a garnish instead of pickles and onions, we’re seeing the Mexican influence a lot more,” Vaughn says.
In Southern California, pastrami tacos have long been a thing. But recently, restaurants have emerged that specialize in a form of lamb barbacoa popular around Mexico City.
In Mexico, a wood fire burns hot and long in a hole in the ground, and the retained heat cooks marinated lamb. At his two Aqui Es Texcoco restaurants – one outside San Diego, the other in Los Angeles – Francisco “Paco” Perez simulates the process using a gas oven and, to provide a semblance of smoke and a hint of bitterness, maguey leaves, which smolder. He seasons the meat traditionally, with chili de arbol, guajillo, onions and garlic.
“People want to know traditional dishes,” says Perez, who is originally from Guadalajara and began cooking the dish at a restaurant in Tijuana owned by his mother. “I think my food represents my culture, and so I want to introduce Americans to that.”
Barbecue has functioned the other way as well – as a cuisine that immigrants and their descendants use as an entry point to claim America. Chinese American Robin Wong and his brother Terry, who grew up in a diverse Houston suburb called Alief, operate barbecue pop-ups in Houston with a Vietnamese childhood friend named Quy Hoang. Although they sometimes experiment with Asian flavors, to Wong, barbecue is a unifying food in a diverse world. “Our normal menu is straight Texas barbecue,” he says.
Tyson Ho, a Chinese American, smokes classic Carolina whole hog in his Brooklyn restaurant, Arrogant Swine. “This is my tiny part of preserving American history and creating my spot in the American story,” Ho says. “When you grow up neither white nor black in the U.S., it is hard to find a piece of America that is yours. It is hard to find something that you’re heir to. So, cooking barbecue is my way of grabbing hold and saying, ‘This is mine.’ ”