Playing With Fire: Barbecue in the East Bay
Savor the last month of summer with a celebration of global BBQ.
Roughly one million years ago, early man discovered the controlled use of fire, which led to the development of grilling. Ever since then, barbecue has been a universally beloved cooking method. Most countries around the world have unique barbecuing and grilling traditions that have been passed down through generations, from the low-and-slow techniques found in the United States to the inventive and adaptable creations of India, Korea, Mexico, and beyond. Join us in saluting the delicious heritage of international barbecue right here in the East Bay.
Red, White, and Brisket
American Barbecue proves that everything tastes better with a little tender loving care.
“Most everyone likes barbecue,” says Daniel Frengs, pitmaster and co-owner of Slow Hand BBQ. “It’s not very often that I meet someone who says, ‘No, I don’t like smoked meat. I can’t stand it.’”
Frengs himself loved barbecue so much that he decided to transform his hobby into a profession. He now operates two joints in Pleasant Hill and Martinez, so it’s safe to say he knows a few things about good ’cue.
The culinary tradition of cooking meat over low, indirect heat for hours on end, Frengs explains, is perhaps best represented in the southern United States, where four celebrated styles (Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas) reflect American barbecue’s distinctive regionality.
Travelers to North and South Carolina—likely the first players on the nation’s barbecue stage—will find a pork-heavy lineup with a focus on the tough shoulder cut. Texas blended styles from Europe and Mexico and applied the result to beef, honing in on classics like brisket and the coveted beef rib. Kansas City is all about the sauce (though some die-hards would argue against using a single drop), and Memphis is the Four Corners of barbecue, dishing out all varieties from the “barbecue belt” with flair.
“The first time I had legit brisket, I was blown away by what barbecue could be,” says Frengs, who ultimately fashioned his own style after Carolina and Texas traditions. He’s not the only one to do so; countries across the globe—including Australia, Great Britain, and Ireland—are also adopting American-style barbecue.
Frengs believes the real test for great barbecue is brisket and ribs, because those cuts spend hours upon hours in the smoker, allowing the pitmaster to develop nuanced flavors. “It’s a real labor of love and a huge amount of time to do it right and to do it well,” he says.
Since time is always a factor, Frengs claims you’ll never see barbecue joints pop up as frequently as burger restaurants. Happily, though, this allows for a few talented pitmasters to hone their craft—which means tastier food for us. slowhandbbq.com.
How Do You ’Cue?
Find out which region will best tantalize your taste buds with this quick guide to meat smoked the american way.
If beef is your thing… mosey on over to Texas.
The Lone Star State takes its ’cue seriously, keeping things slow and low with briskets (which take approximately an hour per pound to cook) and smoked beef ribs.
If you dig pork… pig out in the Carolinas.
North Carolina is broken up into three regions of pit cooking, all typically served with variations of a vinegar-based sauce, while South Carolina uses a “Carolina Gold” sauce derived from a mustard base.
If you like it saucy… Kansas City is for you.
After slow-smoking a variety of meats, including pork, beef, and lamb, KC barbecue adds a heavy pour of thick, tomato-based sauce on top and a helping of fries on the side.
If you crave it all… head to Memphis.
The versatile Bluff City is renowned for wet (sauced before and after cooking) or dry (dry-rubbed and smoked) ribs and pulled-pork sandwiches. You can even order pulled pork on salad, coleslaw, pizza, and more.
If you want something else … check out the rest.
Virginia’s barbecue uses an apple cider vinegar dressing. Saint Louis has its own way of cutting ribs, and Georgia likes sloppy-sweet coleslaw. California? Well, we are all about tri-tip—and, of course, grilled veggies.
Tradition, family, and the land itself come together to create authentic barbacoa.
Barbacoa stalls in Hidalgo, Mexico, begin prepping for the day’s meal long before the first customer arrives, with chefs coming in early to tend to the fruits of their labor, buried deep in the earth.
Jazmin Garcia, manager of La Casa de la Barbacoa (located within the La Cabaña nightclub in Concord), has many fond memories of wandering into Hidalgo’s center with her family on weekend mornings for a plate of barbacoa and a steaming bowl of consomé—a soup of chipotle-laced broth with garbanzo beans. This commonplace and modest meal is steeped in the rich cultural traditions of Hidalgo and passed down from generation to generation.
The chef-owner of La Casa and Garcia’s father, Enrique, has been eating and cooking barbacoa for most of his life and wanted to share his family’s customs with the East Bay community. “My dad learned to cook barbacoa when he was just 7 years old in Hidalgo,” Garcia says. “He’s here at the restaurant at 4 a.m., cooking the meat every weekend so it’s ready by the time we open at 7:30.”
Traditionally, a whole lamb is placed in a pit that’s heated from the bottom and lined with maguey (other-wise known as agave) leaves, before being covered and left to roast for eight hours. At La Casa, the process takes roughly four hours in an FDA-approved kitchen, “because it’s not really legal to dig a hole in the ground here,” Garcia explains with a laugh. Either way, the result is a simple yet flavorful pile of shredded, meaty goodness that’s been allowed to fully tenderize in its own juices.
Back in Hidalgo, the luscious lamb is eaten as a special meal after church or during large celebrations. “It’s tradition. You have to have it,” Garcia says. “If there’s a wedding or quinceañera, you know you’re going to have barbacoa. It’s what makes us hidalguenses.”
Fully embracing their cultural heritage is something Garcia and her family are extremely proud of and do very well—and it shows through the time, effort, generosity, and love that’s packed in every last bite of barbacoa. ( 925 ) 435-4317.
Spiced to Thrill
Tandoor ovens demand the spotlight in any good Indian kitchen.
Created out of necessity, the tandoor oven is essential to Northern Indian cuisine and is the basis for the state of Punjab’s take on barbecue.
“Tandoor came into existence with the help of the ladies of the house,” says Max Singh, manager of Swad Indian Cuisine in Lafayette. “They had to feed big families and cook quickly. It was simply easier and faster [to use a tandoor].”
Made out of clay and traditionally heated by a charcoal-lit fire at the base (although some modern ovens use propane and coal for flavor), tandoors are responsible for some of the most iconic Punjabi dishes—including tandoori chicken and chicken tikka. But in its early days, the tandoor was almost exclusively used to cook naan and chapati flatbreads. It wasn’t until after the British colonization of India that the oven’s use changed.
“The British wanted a bit of a barbecue touch, basically, with Indian spices and flavors,” Singh explains. “We adapted it in our own way with the quick cooking of a tandoor.”
While domestically owned tandoors are a thing of the past, practically all commercial Indian restaurants have at least one oven cranked to 400°F for whipping up made-to-order naan and four-foot-long skewers of meat. Before they are cooked, most meats are bathed in yogurt and a rich blend of spices, including turmeric, paprika, and garam masala; that 24-hour marinade gives the protein its brilliant orange hue.
“Our barbecue is vertical, or diagonal rather,” Singh describes. “Cooking takes place throughout [the tandoor], and the kebabs never touch or come into contact with the fire or clay pot. It’s just like a kiln or convection oven.”
Inside the tandoor, meats, vegetables, flatbreads, and even cheeses are turned into wonderfully caramelized Indian barbecue. While you can attempt to replicate the same recipes in a conventional oven (see sidebar below), one thing is for certain: If the food is not cooked in a tandoor, you can’t call it true tandoori cooking. theswadindia.com.
No Tandoor, No Problem
It may not be true tandoori without a clay oven, but you can still enjoy the classic dish from the comfort of home.
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
- 32 ounces plain yogurt
- 8 ounces cream
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons ginger, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 5 pounds skinless chicken thighs and legs
In a small pan over medium heat, heat the oil before adding coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne, garam masala, and paprika, stirring often until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Let cool completely.
Whisk spice-and-oil mixture into yogurt and cream before adding garlic, ginger, and salt. Cut deep slashes in the chicken (to the bone) in three or four places on each piece, and marinate chicken for 24 hours in the refrigerator.
After chicken is finished marinating, heat tandoor (or grill) anywhere from 300°F to 400°F. Put chicken on metal skewers and place them in the tandoor, or place unskewered pieces directly on the grill, flipping occasionally. Cook slowly for 45 to 50 minutes. Let chicken rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Recipe courtesy of Swad Indian Cuisine.
Marinated in Community
An ancient Korean practice encourages friends and family to gather around the grill.
Thinly sliced strips of beef crackle on a blazing hot grill, while umami-packed banchan (side dishes of pickled vegetables and kimchi) collect in small bowls around the table. It’s not often that restaurant patrons get to grill their own food at their table, but Korean barbecue is an immersive experience best shared with loved ones.
“We take barbecue seriously,” says Chi Moon, co-owner of the Bowl’d restaurants in Alameda, Albany, and Oakland and daughter of Micha Oh, the woman behind the Alameda, Concord, and Oakland Ohgane eateries. “It’s a unique experience where cooking and eating take center stage.”
After adopting sophisticated cooking techniques from the Chinese, Koreans created their own style of barbecue using traditional ingredients. The act of sitting around a grill to cook meat together stems from an ancient tradition: Documents from the first century BCE detail how meat was barbecued, wrapped in vegetable leaves, and consumed for a nutritionally balanced meal. And though grills and cooking techniques have since advanced, the focus of Korean barbecue has not.
Whether you enjoy marinated or nonmarinated meats, Korean barbecue highlights delicious cuts that cook outrageously fast. Perhaps the most popular choice is bulgogi—thinly sliced beef steeped in soy sauce, sesame oil, spices, and garlic—followed by pork and uncured pork belly. When served as ssäm (a lettuce wrap of sorts), the protein is grilled, wrapped in a leafy vegetable, hit with a blast of flavor—such as gochujang (chili paste), deonjang (soy bean paste), scallions, or rice vinegar—and, of course, topped with kimchi.
Moon recommends loading up your ssäm to make “a huge wrap” before “stuffing it into your mouth and taking it in one bite.” Whatever you do, she adds, “No talking.”
But you don’t necessarily have to make ssäm to taste some really good Korean barbecue. All you need is a grill, plenty of meat, banchan, and a table full of friends and family.
If you’re hungry for more flame-kissed dishes, check out these other styles of barbecue found around the world.
The South American tradition of adobo varies from country to country, but it almost always refers to gathering around an open flame and grilling up huge pieces of meat.
Short for braaivleis, this meal of often-skewered meats is quintessential South African backyard barbecue.
A staple street food in China, these skewers of grilled meat, seafood, and even insects bring a whole new meaning to the concept of grab-and-go.
Famous for massive, meat-laden skewers carved table-side, Brazilian barbecue uses practically every protein under the sun, but the most prized cut is the picanha, or beef sirloin cap.
Rubbed with coconut water, milk, or soy sauce and stuffed with salt, lemongrass, batuan, and leeks, this whole, spit-roasted pig has been a staple in the Philippines for more than a century.