In the Multicultural Bay Area, There Are a Thousand Ways to Barbecue

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A whole roast pig on a rotisserie spit with an illustration of blue flames emerging from behind it. The text above reads, "BBQ in the Bay."
 (Photo by Kristen Murakoshi; design by Rebecca Kao)

KQED's BBQ in the Bay is a series of stories exploring the Bay Area's multicultural barbecue scene. New installments will post every day from June 28–July 1. 

I didn’t exactly grow up on barbecue. At least, not in a traditional sense.

For the first 20 or so years of my life, I thought of it mostly as a condiment—the sticky-sweet sauce that sometimes came slathered on chicken legs or a rack of baby back ribs. It was the verb I used when friends wanted to get together and throw a bunch of burgers and hot dogs on the grill. “Yo, let’s all meet up at Roosevelt Park to shoot hoops and barbecue.” It was a type of Korean food, maybe. 

But eventually, like nearly every other food-obsessed person in the Bay, I became conversant in Barbecue with a capital “B.” Was indoctrinated into the church of “low and slow.” Watched pitmasters pull wobbly, black-crusted briskets straight out of the smoker. Learned to ask for the sauce on the side. Pretended to know more than I did about what constitutes a proper smoke ring.

I even got pedantic about the topic in the way that only true barbecue geeks can. (“That’s not barbecue; that’s just grilling!” are words that may or may not have come out of my mouth.) And, lest I get mocked online by skeptical Texans or North Carolinians, I learned to preemptively say what I’d become convinced was an unvarnished truth—that the Bay Area really didn’t have much of a barbecue culture to speak of.


Lately, though, I’ve started to think about my early, “pre-enlightened” years in a different way. I remember how whenever I had friends over during the summertime when I was a kid, my dad would throw pork chops marinated in soy sauce and garlic on the grill. We would devour these juicy chops, not even bothering with a knife, with freshly buttered corn on the cob and heaping mounds of my mom’s peanut butter cold noodles on the side. I think about when I lived in Taiwan during my late 20s, and my coworkers invited me out to barbecue with them for the Mid-Autumn festival—how we crouched on the sidewalk and cooked meat skewers over charcoal on a makeshift grill grate set up on the rim of a car tire. Somehow, each skewer tasted better to me than the finest wagyu steak. 

More BBQ

I think about all the times I’ve waited in line for pernil at the local Puerto Rican restaurant, or the big plates of jerk chicken I’ve savored at my favorite Jamaican spot. And then I think about how all the different communities in the multicultural Bay Area gather and celebrate around a giant hunk of slow-cooked (or even not-so-slowly cooked!) meat. 

So, today KQED kicks off a new five-part series about barbecue. But it isn’t just about a specific cooking technique. Instead, the stories we publish this week will look at all of the different ways that a big, festive centerpiece to a meal—and all of the labor that goes into preparing it—help bring our Bay Area communities together. We’ll visit a Filipino lechon party and get a behind-the-scenes peek at an underground barbacoa operation. We’ll learn about Mongolian barbecue traditions that don’t have anything to do with buffet-style chain restaurants. And yes, we’ll talk classic brisket and ribs too, but from the perspective of the guy who builds the smokers, and from someone who competes on the amateur circuit.  

A man lifts up the lid of a pressure cooker to reveal lamb and cabbage inside.
Khorkhog, a Mongolian dish of pressure-cooked lamb, is just one of the many ways that barbecue helps different Bay Area communities come together. (Beth LaBerge)

Look: Even now, as we’re weighed down by the heaviness of each day’s horrifying news cycle, people are planning cookouts for this weekend. They’re making playlists and mixing spices for dry rubs. They’re selecting whole hogs and threading pieces of meat onto skewers. They’re going to build as big a fire as they need to. Because, especially now, everyone deserves the chance to cherish every last moment of joy with their people. Our hope is that this set of uniquely Bay Area barbecue stories provides inspiration for a few new ways to do just that.

Luke Tsai is KQED's food editor.