The future of Texas barbecue Is Asian

A new generation of pitmasters are remixing Texas barbecue with classic Asian dishes like curry and bánh mì—proving that barbecue, like Texas, has more than one flavor

Curry Boys BBQ dishes feature smoked barbecue and rich curries.

Courtesy of Curry Boys BBQ

Words by Mae Hamilton

Much like cowboy boots, the twang of a steel guitar, and tubing down an ice-cold Hill Country river in the middle of summer, barbecue is one of those things that’s intrinsically Texan. “Barbecue is naturally an extension of who you are,” says Don Nguyen, owner of Houston’s Khói Barbecue. “Just because you grew up here.”

The traditional principles of Central Texas barbecue (which have become synonymous with what people outside the state consider to be “Texas barbecue,” though each region of the state has its own distinct take on the tradition) are fairly straightforward. Tough cuts of meat—perhaps most famously, brisket—are coated with a dry rub consisting of only salt and pepper. Then, the meat is smoked anywhere from 12 to 24 hours over a low fire, typically fueled by post oak, though mesquite or hickory wood is not unheard of.

An Asian man in a black t-shirt that reads "The Strokes" stands behind a table with a whole barbecued pig on top.

Growing up in Texas, Don Nguyen of Khói Barbecue says barbecue is "naturally an extension of who you are."

Courtesy of Khói Barbecue

If done correctly, those chewy, sinewy cuts of meat transform into perfectly rendered, fall-apart-in-your-mouth delights. The hallmark of well-cooked barbecue, at least in Texas, means the meat should be so juicy and tender, the addition of sauce would be unnecessary (though you will find sauce on the table at most establishments, the most stalwart and traditional barbecue joints proudly offer their barbecue with absolutely no sauce, the idea being that it isn’t necessary). Serve it all up on a sheet of butcher paper with a few slices of Mrs. Baird’s bread, pickles, and onions, and you’re ready to go.

In recent years, however, a new generation of chefs have been shaking things up. Colloquially known as “New School” barbecue, pitmasters across the Lone Star State are reimagining what “Texas barbecue” really means. Often drawing on their multicultural backgrounds and upbringings, these chefs are serving classic Texas barbecue in fresh and unique ways, whether it be bánh mì stuffed with smoked whole-hog meat or perfectly smoked brisket paired with green Thai curry.

Perhaps one of the first restaurants to do it—and receive praise, recognition, and a James Beard Award nomination for doing so—was Blood Bros. BBQ in Houston. Founded in 2013 by brothers Robin and Terry Wong and their friend Quy Hoang (H-town’s first Vietnamese pitmaster) the Blood Brothers began serving up barbecue at pop-ups around the city before opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in December 2018. The menu changes daily, but diners can expect everything from classic brisket to smoked turkey bánh mì to dishes inspired by popular fast food chains like Luby’s and Taco Bell.

Three Asian men in shorts, t-shirts and baseball hats sit together on a restaurant counter, with an orange, blue an pink mural in the background.

From left, Terry Wong, Quy Hoang, and Robin Wong of Blood Bros. BBQ.

Courtesy of Blood Bros. BBQ

“Everybody's a lot more open minded now,” Terry says. “There were a few dishes that we did in the beginning when we opened that didn't stick. Nobody would even try them. Now, they sell great.”

Robin, Terry, and Hoang are all Houston natives and hail from the suburb of Alief. Houston has regularly made headlines for being the most diverse place in the United States, according to publications like The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. Alief is one of the most diverse neighborhoods within the city. It’s a fact that the Blood Brothers pride themselves on—and it’s reflected on the restaurant’s menu.

“We have Mediterranean stuff. Caribbean. The majority of things are going to be Asian, of course,” says Hoang. “But we just love the flavors that we grew up eating.”

Texas barbecue’s current golden age of smoked meat was sparked in no small part by (now) celebrity pitmaster Aaron Franklin, owner of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, who approached barbecue with an attitude that made it feel like a hip, modern art. Over the years, the restaurant has been praised by everyone from Anthony Bourdain to former president Barack Obama. Around 2013, Franklin (in partnership with Austin PBS) began uploading barbecue how-to videos on YouTube, making the art—which had been furtively guarded by old school pitmasters for generations—feel approachable, accessible, and perhaps most importantly, cool.

A plate of barbecued meat arranged on a red plate.

Don Nguyen of Khói Barbecue says the Internet and YouTube videos from pitmasters like Aaron Franklin made barbecuing feel less intimidating.

Courtesy of Khói Barbecue

For Khói Barbecue owner Nguyen, whose creative menu items such as whole hog garlic rice and brisket phở, can often spark hours-long lines of fervent diners, the Internet made barbecuing seem less intimidating. “I’m self-taught through YouTube,” he says. “Aaron Franklin's videos gave me the confidence to do my first brisket.”

Some barbecue restaurateurs see their establishments as a vehicle to introduce people to dishes and flavors they may not have tried before. Founded by Andrew Ho, Sean Wen, and Andrew Samia in 2020, Curry Boys BBQ operates out of a tiny, neon pink house in San Antonio’s hip North St. Mary’s district. The menu at the restaurant combines expertly smoked barbecue with rich curries—and it works beautifully. In 2024, Curry Boys BBQ became a James Beard award semi-finalist.

“A little education goes a long way,” Wen says. “You get people to want things that they've never had before—that’s how you expand someone's palate.”

Purists may dismiss New School and Asian American barbecue as just another fusion food fad, but what’s happening here is so much more than that. The evolution of barbecue is a reflection of the state’s fast-changing demographics. Texas is the second most diverse state in the nation, after California, and, according to the Texas Tribune, Asian Texans are the state’s most quickly growing population.

Two Asian men and a white man stand together, dressed in black, with trees and buildings in the background.

From left, Andrew Ho, Sean Wen and Andrew Samia of Curry Boys BBQ.

Courtesy of Curry Boys BBQ

And Texas barbecue itself is already an amalgamation of all the different cultures and ethnicities that have touched the state previously. For example, before the arrival of European colonists, Indigenous peoples smoked meats as a way to preserve food. When the Spanish arrived in the late 1600s, they brought livestock like lambs, goats, and, most significantly, cattle to the area. Black Americans introduced whole hog barbecue to the scene, while German and Czech immigrants, who began arriving in droves to Texas in the mid-twentieth century, showed up with the all-important sausage. Asian American barbecue is simply the newest chapter in the story of Texas barbecue.

“The more diverse people you get cooking barbecue and adding their own personal twist to it, it creates the perfect storm to make some really unique food options,” Wen says.

However, Nguyen is quick to point out that Asian American barbecue chefs have been involved in barbecue for years already, but just weren’t as well-recognized. For example, Salt Lick BBQ, arguably one of the most famous ‘cue joints in the Lone Star State, was co-founded by husband and wife team Thurman and Hisako Roberts. Hisako, who passed away in 2018, was born in Hawai'i and was of Japanese descent. One of the most memorable (and unusual) things about Salt Lick is their mustard-based barbecue sauce. Texas barbecue sauces tend to be tomato-based—mustard is more commonly found accompanying Carolina-style barbecue. However, some speculate that the spicy twang in the Salt Lick BBQ’s secret, signature barbecue sauce is actually Japanese powdered mustard, which is normally served with dishes like tonkatsu. When asked in a 1988 interview with The New York Times, Hisako only said that, “There is a touch of the Oriental in it.”

An Asian man stands in a room with a large grill with rows of meats on top.

Quy Hoang of Blood Bros. BBQ at the grill.

Courtesy of Blood Bros. BBQ

For Nguyen, he sees the art of barbecue as a meaningful way to tell the oft-overlooked story of Asian Texans. For example, Texas is home to one of the largest populations of Asian Americans in the country.

“I came over to the States, when I was 5,” he says. “I was born in Vietnam. Food was what kept [my family] together. I grew up with a lot of barbecue and Vietnamese foods, and I felt both together could be really delicious. I thought that [making barbecue] was a good way to break down stereotypes and tell our story as Vietnamese Americans.’”

For the Blood Brothers, who’ve expanded their barbecue empire with an outpost in Las Vegas and a recently opened bakeshop called LuLoo's Day & Night, the future of Texas barbecue is already expanding beyond the Asian American community. To them, the future of the scene will encompass cultures from all across the world—to every immigrant community that calls Texas home.

“These days, there's Tex Mex, Egyptian, and Ethiopian barbecue,” Robin says. “Sometimes new pitmasters will come up to us and say ‘Yeah, man, it's not going over very well with our customers. What do we do?’ And we tell them, ‘Just stick with it. If it’s good they’ll catch on.’ It’s all about courage—having the courage to do what you love.”

A pair of hands hold up a Vietnamese sandwich with a large piece of barbecued meat on top, with a blurred-out sign that reads "Blood Bros" in the backgrounds.

Blood Bros. BBQ's menu changes daily but often feature dishes such as bánh mì sandwiches with smoked meats.

Courtesy of Blood Bros. BBQ

Published on July 2, 2024

Words by Mae Hamilton

Mae Hamilton is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who covers arts, culture, and all the things that make travel beautiful. She’s well versed in the art of storytelling in its many forms, be it a long form feature, podcast episode, or Instagram reel. Her work has appeared in AFAR, Variety, the Austin Chronicle, and Character Media.