Kareem El-Ghayesh is the owner and pitmaster of Austin’s KG BBQ, but he had never heard of brisket when he first visited the city in 2012. The native of Cairo, Egypt, was 25 years old then and visiting family in Cincinnati, Ohio, on his first trip to the States. He decided to fly to Texas for a weekend to see a friend, who took him to a Rudy’s Bar-B-Q. El-Ghayesh was unaware that Texas was known for barbecue, but he was mesmerized by the show they made of cutting the meat in front of the customer. “This is something I had never seen, never smelled, and never tasted before,” he said.
After his trip abroad, El-Ghayesh returned to his finance job in Cairo, but the memory of Texas barbecue lingered. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially the brisket,” he said. He ordered the Franklin Barbecue cookbook and went searching for a smoker. The best option he could find was a Weber Kettle grill at high-end grocery store Gourmet Egypt. At the meat counter he asked for a brisket, describing the cut to the confused employees who were unfamiliar with it. They summoned the head butcher, a man named Ahmed Elgazaar, whose last name translates to “the butcher.” He understood the request and cut brisket for El-Ghayesh, then asked him what he planned to do with it. El-Ghayesh told him about his plans to re-create Texas barbecue, and Elgazaar—now a family friend—became his brisket supplier in Cairo.
El-Ghayesh practiced on that grill, but the beef was far leaner than the American beef used by the Texan pitmasters from whom he was learning virtually. Egyptian beef is also sold fresh—very fresh. El-Ghayesh explained that meat is considered too old to sell five days after the animal is slaughtered. Here in the U.S., it’s common, and even preferred by some, to smoke brisket that’s been wet-aging in its Cryovac package for weeks. El-Ghayesh bought a vacuum sealer so he could mimic the practice in his home refrigerator, and he even toyed with dry-aging on a rack in the fridge. After much practice, he felt confident enough to serve his barbecue at a supper club he hosted in Cairo in March of 2015. It continued every Saturday for six months, and El-Ghayesh was seriously considering a change in profession.
“I never had the intention of leaving Cairo,” El-Ghayesh said. He thought running a barbecue joint in his hometown was his future. There was no one else in the city serving Texas-style barbecue at the time (Longhorn Texas BBQ opened in Cairo in 2020). His late father had encouraged his cooking skills until his passing in 2012, and El-Ghayesh likes to think he would have supported his desire to pursue barbecue, but the rest of his family did not. “Working in a kitchen is looked down upon,” he said. Still, his supper clubs were a success, so he saved enough vacation time to return to Texas for a full month to explore his options. He took off all of October to eat as much barbecue as he could, and to hopefully secure a position in one of those pit rooms for the following year.
The rejections piled up. El-Ghayesh doesn’t remember the exact number, but he got a “no” from at least fifteen joints before Bill Kerlin, of the now-closed Kerlin BBQ, agreed to teach him in return for free labor. “I was so thrilled,” El-Ghayesh said. He went home, quit his job, and returned to Austin in February. What he expected would be a six-month stay has turned into six years. “I fell in love with Texas,” he explained.
While monitoring Kerlin’s barbecue pits, El-Ghayesh also pursued a culinary degree at Austin Community College. After a three-month stint with Kerlin, he worked for other area joints like Rollin Smoke, Interstellar BBQ, and the late Freedmen’s. At Salt & Time, he learned charcuterie and sausage-making, and he picked up valuable skills in the kitchen at Lamberts. On his first day there, when he was supposed to be learning how to slice barbecue, El-Ghayesh was moved to a different position. “I was cutting and the grill cook walked out, and the chef was like, ‘You. On the grill, now,’ ” he recalled. He later moved to the sauté station, which he described as “the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life.”
All those positions helped El-Ghayesh hone the skills needed to run his own operation, but he found his cooking philosophy—blending Texas barbecue and Egyptian cooking—at Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ. He recalls owner Miguel Vidal as being the toughest manager he worked for in the culinary world, but also the most influential. “Working there was why I decided to do this fusion,” El-Ghayesh said.
Hearkening back to his early days of cooking in Cairo, El-Ghayesh began a weekly underground supper club last year focused on Egyptian food. It brought lots of media interest and helped him land a spot at Aaron Franklin’s Hot Luck festival on Memorial Day weekend, exactly ten years after El-Ghayesh’s first visit to Texas. The attention also helped him fund KG BBQ, which first opened as a pop-up inside Oddwood Brewing, then as a food truck parked outside the brewery in October.
The menu has plenty of familiar options, like smoked brisket and jalapeño sausage. In preparing these items, El-Ghayesh sticks with the traditional Texas flavors of salt, pepper, and oak smoke. He shows off his charcuterie skill with the juicy sausage, which is full of flavor and has a mild heat. The slices of fatty brisket I ate were tender and well seasoned, but the bark was inexplicably trimmed off. El-Ghayesh said it was a mistake, and it was really the only oversight of an otherwise exciting experience.
There was plenty of bark on the chunks of brisket tucked inside the warm pita bread of the brisket shawarma. El-Ghayesh calls the dish “the OG of the fusion” he’s trying to create. It’s topped with baladi salad (also available as a side dish), which is a mixture of diced tomato, cucumber, red onion, mint, and white vinegar. El-Ghayesh joked that his heavy hand with vinegar is the secret to most of his dishes, including the tahini sauce. “Tahini sauce is the national barbecue condiment of Egypt,” he said, adding, “When I tried it with brisket, it was like, ‘Damn, this tastes so familiar.’ ” It’s a simple mix of tahini (a sesame-seed paste common in Mediterranean cooking), vinegar, salt, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne powder, and enough water to thin the sauce out to the proper consistency. It’s a great complement to the brisket in the shawarma, but add some of the house-made yogurt garlic sauce too.
KG BBQ also offers a more classic barbecue sauce, but it has a unique sweetness and tang from pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses. It’s great as a dip for the lamb chops, which are smoked to a perfect medium rare and sprinkled with za’atar seasoning (a blend of sesame seeds, sumac, coriander, and cumin). Or spoon on some of the minty chimichurri, which El-Ghayesh said pairs especially well with the smoked lamb belly (it wasn’t available during my visit). I tried all the sauces, with much success, on the simple smoked chicken thighs, alongside a garnish of pickled white onions seasoned with sumac.
As we savored scoops of the pink potato salad flavored with pureed beets and dill, my dining companions and I agreed this was unlike any barbecue tray we’d eaten before, in Texas or elsewhere. The fusion of flavors comes through especially well on the pork ribs. They’re seasoned heavily with the house rub of coriander, oregano, fenugreek, salt, and black pepper before being glazed with pomegranate molasses and finished with a dusting of za’atar just before serving. It was like a smoked Texas sparerib and a Memphis dry-rub rib had married inside an Egyptian spice market.
KG BBQ’s brisket rice bowl was created when El-Ghayesh piled some leftovers together for a staff meal. For the base, he used a side of the Mediterranean rice that comes topped with pistachios, cashews, almonds, golden raisins, and pomegranate seeds. To that he added cubed brisket, the baladi salad, and some tahini sauce. It’s a dish that’s as colorful as it is filling, and it has become the food truck’s best-selling item.
Banana pudding is a comforting way to end a barbecue meal, but please take a chance on the pistachio rice pudding. El-Ghayesh uses whole pistachios along with a pistachio butter similar to Nutella. The rice pudding is topped with cardamom-infused mascarpone whipped cream and halvah, which is a sweetened tahini paste. It’s excellent, but it’s definitely not light.
At KG BBQ, El-Ghayesh shows what can happen when you substitute the grilled meats of Egyptian cuisine with the smoked meats of Texas barbecue. “It’s a mix of the things I’ve learned here and the things I grew up eating,” he explained. The baladi salad is the only item that “will taste as it does in Egypt,” he said. The rest show enough balance that you can recognize both cuisines. As El-Ghayesh saw at Valentina’s, and as I reported last year from the Ethiopian-Texan smokehouse Smoke’N Ash BBQ, there’s a path toward greater barbecue exploration that’s still rooted in classic Texas technique. This tray just happens to come with a warm pita instead of white bread or a tortilla.