Authentic southern American barbecue comes to Hong Kong
Two venues are bringing different American barbecue styles to Central, writes Bernice Chan
JUST OFF ABERDEEN Street on Kau U Fong is 85 South, where an American pair pride themselves on bringing North Carolina barbecue, known as the "Cradle of 'cue", to Hong Kong.
Daven Patel and Thomas Easterling refer to themselves as "pit masters", or experts in barbecue - North Carolina barbecue, that is. Before meeting each other more than a year ago, they roasted pork for several hours on their respective balconies and, through word of mouth, barbecue obsessives would congregate at their doors.
It was Easterling's wife who introduced the two, and they discovered they grew up in the same area of North Carolina and went to nearby schools; their mutual love of barbecue sealed the friendship.
Without much restaurant experience, the two quickly learned how difficult it was to find a location, then source a smoker and the meat, which they eventually imported from North Carolina.
"We tried pork from Australia, Brazil, Japan and China. The pork from Japan was too expensive, and the meat from China had a different smell and taste to what we were used to and weren't as juicy so we went back to North Carolina," says Patel.
Easterling explains the history of barbecue in North Carolina began on the large plantations. "They would roast an entire pig in a pit and the plantation owner would supervise it the whole day while the workers were out in the tobacco or cotton fields," he says. "By evening the pig was finished and it was a feast for the workers."
The barbecue was for special occasions and Easterling learned the art from his grandfather, who learned from his grandfather, and so on.
"You have to get the temperature just right. It's very labour intensive because you have to constantly watch the pit, so that's why these people are called pit masters, or barbecue chefs," he says.
The actual process takes 24 hours and involves marinating the meat overnight and adding a dry rub before putting it in a smoker with hickory wood chips to cook for 12 to 14 hours. There's what they call the "rough chop" that consists of different pieces that are typically made of the darker, outer parts of the pork, and which have a smoky flavour, while the "fine chop" is the inside tender meat. At 85 South, they don't barbecue the whole pig, but use boneless pork shoulder for the pulled pork, as well as full racks of ribs.
Patel and Easterling are very picky about their barbecue. The style made in North Carolina focuses on the quality of the meat, which is rubbed with a dry spice mixture before being roasted in an enclosed commercial smoker over hickory wood chips, to the point where it is so tender that diners can pull it apart.
While the focus is firmly on the pulled pork and ribs at 85 South, the sides and sauces complement the meal. There are three sauces to choose from as well as 85 South's own "slaw" - coleslaw that isn't doused in mayonnaise, but made with tomato, vinegar and pepper for a tangy taste.
Diners can also enjoy home-made sweet tea and lemonade, and sodas, as well as a concoction of Jim Beam and Dr Pepper for an extra kick.
The Roundhouse Taproom on Peel Street offers craft beers, and managing director Thomas Lau, who is a beer aficionado and judges competitions, felt barbecue dishes would be a good accompaniment. He recruited chef Austin Fry, from Austin, Texas - to create Texas-style barbecue dishes.
"We use oak wood because I like the flavour - it's spicy. We only use salt and pepper because we want to focus on the meat and don't want to mask it with too much seasoning," Fry says.
Previously at Brickhouse in Lan Kwai Fong, and now chef at Salon No 10, an upscale New American restaurant on Arbuthnot Road, Fry admits that barbecue is not really a "cheffy" thing to do. His approach is the same as with baking, which requires precision, and where variables such as humidity, ingredients, timing and temperature can make all the difference to the product.
"The place is casual with no frills, and the potato salad is my mum's recipe," Fry says. "We could have gone all gourmet, but people are interested in authenticity, and, for our American customers, it's nostalgia."
When he was 14 years old, Fry worked for a car mechanic who was also a pit master. He didn't have his own restaurant, but every Friday there would be a barbecue for his customers.
It was there that Fry learned how to barbecue, not on a grill, but in a giant pit made with large oil drums welded together. "We'd start the smoker the night before, and get up at 5am to start preparing the brisket and chicken. Barbecue requires patience and beer," he says.
He says that Austin is the place for barbecue, and that pit masters there have become celebrities on food shows.
The Roundhouse menu is straightforward, with beef brisket, pulled pork made from pork rump, home-made sausages, and pork ribs, cooked in an enclosed smoker with oak wood chips. The meats can be complemented with Texas-style beans (pinto beans with dried chillies), potato salad and deep-fried pickles. Dessert is a choice of either banana cream pie or pecan pie.
The casual restaurant offers 25 craft beers on tap from the US, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Japan, and three of them are changed weekly on the iPad menus to keep things fresh. Lau hopes to get more people interested in craft beers by offering half-pint glasses so they can sample more.
Battle of the barbecue
6-10 Kau U Fong, Central, tel: 2337 2078, 85south.hk
The Roundhouse - Taproom
62 Peel Street, SoHo, tel: 2366 4880, roundhouse.com.hk