Back in May, I spent a languid Saturday afternoon with Zain Shafi. We were taste-testing recipes for his new joint, Sabar BBQ, inspired by his Pakistani culture, that opened this fall in Fort Worth. I tried his ethereal seekh kebab sausage, a beef link spiced with freshly ground cumin, coriander, cardamom, and chiles. Seekh kebabs are traditionally made with minced beef and spices, hand-formed into cylinders around a skewer, and grilled. Let’s just say his sausage version made me question the very core of the centuries-old practice.
As we dug into cumin-crusted lamb ribs and fruit chaat (fruit salad dusted with black salt and other spices), Shafi talked about the challenges and joys of opening a barbecue business. As fellow South Asians, Muslims, Southerners, and Americans, we chuckled about the possibility of uncles and aunties cutting the long line or assuming a “friends and family” discount—two acts at odds with line culture and increasingly strained profit margins.
Jokes aside, I began wondering about the journeys of new Texan pitmasters who come from immigrant or minority backgrounds. There is often a real sense of fear of criticism from their families as well as a worry whether local communities will embrace new tastes.
But the experiences of these pitmasters, like Texas barbecue itself, aren’t monoliths. Each journey is as varied and nuanced as every brisket bark. And while there are some cultural challenges, I learned these entrepreneurs are more consumed with pushing the limits, both in what is considered barbecue and what they’re capable of.
Long ago, when I told my father I wanted to go to culinary school, he firmly reminded me about pursuing “the real job” after college, but meat and entrepreneurship are part of Shafi’s lineage. His grandparents opened one of the first halal meat markets in a London suburb in the 1950s, and later, his father and uncles started selling Western wear in Dallas, eventually transitioning to the furniture business. “My family isn’t the traditional family of ‘Be a doctor or engineer,’ ” Shafi says. “They always pushed us to be the best at what we want.”
But Kareem El-Ghayesh, the pitmaster at KG BBQ in Austin, did face a little family pressure when he moved from Egypt to Texas. El-Ghayesh left a successful career in corporate finance to pursue barbecue. He came to Austin to apprentice in 2016, initially on a six-month tourist visa, to gather enough skills to open a restaurant in Cairo. He hoped the time limit might mitigate his family’s concerns. “It wasn’t just leaving a stable job to move,” El-Ghayesh says. “But moving to another country to work in a kitchen? That can be looked down upon [in our culture].” But as he toiled without job security and earned a culinary degree from Austin Community College, his family stood proudly by his side.
Even with that support, he is proof that being nominated for a James Beard award doesn’t make one immune to their mom’s standards. Raised Muslim, he regularly hears pleas from his more religious mother to abstain from serving pork. In response to community demand (not just to please his mother), he’s planning to integrate halal meat soon.
Offering halal meat is another recent trend in the Texas barbecue world. Sabrina and CJ Henley, both Black Muslim Americans, exclusively sell halal meat at their Yearby’s Barbecue & Waterice in Pilot Point. Sabrina grew up in Philadelphia and missed the easy access to neighborhood halal spots, so the couple wanted to recreate that in Texas. (I’m still emotionally scarred from a childhood where my parents asked whether menu items had pork in them.) “It’s a little more expensive to serve halal meat, but it’s worth it to create a worry-free experience for every single diner,” CJ says. “Can you imagine the joy of not having to ask that question?” Now, CJ regularly packs frozen smoked brisket for Muslim customers taking his product to different parts of the world.
Smoke’N Ash BBQ in Arlington offers both halal and non-halal meat. Co-owner Fasicka Hicks grew up Orthodox Christian in Ethiopia, abstaining from pork, while her husband and other co-owner, Patrick Hicks, grew up Baptist in Texas and ate “everything from the pork feet to the chicken feet,” he says. “We have different religions [among our customers] and don’t want to give them something they’re not familiar with or worry about,” Fasicka says. Patrick jokes they’ve been a safe space for religious customers curious about trying pork without the judgment. At first, the Ethiopian dishes and the barbecue were served separately, but they soon fused after customers began demanding sliced brisket with a berbere-based sauce called awaze.
Selling a taste of home alongside a taste of Texas has also proven lucrative for Hong and Phong Tran, the brothers behind Brisket & Rice in Houston. They came with their parents and five other siblings from Vietnam as refugees in the late 1970s, eventually settling in Brenham. When a local news station ran a segment on the brothers, Vietnamese families from surrounding towns came to visit. Now, Hong estimates that 20 to 30 percent of their customers are from the broader Asian community. “It’s cool when the older grandmas come in and get your fried rice,” Hong says. “You’re staying true to your craft barbecue but the ones who don’t care about that are still picking up your fried rice trays for their families.”
The same seems true for Ram and Nidia Vargas of Vargas BBQ in Edinburg. Located near the border, the restaurant has comforting options like tacos, tortas, and fideo on the menu to lure in folks who might not be accustomed to classic smoked and sliced beef brisket. They’re also more sensitive to their customers’ financial needs, offering free kids’ meals and lower-priced shredded brisket. Even the bark gets a tweak. “Salt and pepper taste just fine, but it wasn’t the taste I grew up with,” Ram says, referring to the typical Texas brisket seasonings. “Once I added cumin, garlic, guajillo, the bark was better, more familiar.”
You could say these pitmasters represent the changing face of barbecue, and maybe they do when it comes to specific dishes, but the warmth and service that’s always been a part of Texas barbecue culture remain the same. Those same uncles and aunties I mentioned before are happy to patiently wait in line, and longtime barbecue fans are ready to embrace new flavors.
One of El-Ghayesh’s joys is explaining to customers that KG BBQ’s brisket sandwich doesn’t come on white bread, but on a house-baked pita, with tahini and pico de gallo instead of dill pickle chips and sliced raw onion. “Days later, they’ll have told others and come back with their friends,” he beams. Similarly, Hong Tran chuckles at how a few of his regulars—white Texan teens—will say things like, “ ‘I just gotta have that white rice with my brisket, bro,’ to each other,” he says. “Now it’s a part of their own childhoods, like mine. It’s wild.”