6/25/2013 02:35:00 PM

Q&A: Neil Strawder on Bigmista's BBQ Brisket, Brick-and-Mortar, More

Strawder at the stand
If you've been to the Atwater Village Farmers' Market on Sundays, Century City on Thursdays, or until recently, Torrance, you've probably smelled the smoke and had some ribs, brisket, a pulled pork sandwich, or if you're lucky, pig candy from the Bigmista's Barbecue stand. Neil Strawder and wife Phyllis have been serving their 'cue professionally since 2009, after Neil caught the BBQ bug and decided to learn everything there was to know about smoking and grilling meats. With a new farmer's market added to the roster - Pershing Square on Wednesdays beginning July 10 - and a newly announced brick-and-mortar spot on the way, the Strawders have a lot in the works. Read on to learn about Bigmista's brisket secrets, new Downtown locations and more.

Zagat: When did you start barbecuing?
Neil Strawder: Before this I had many, many jobs, from bodyguard to a banker. I was working at Wells Fargo, and my wife and I were watching Alton Brown smoke a pork butt in a flower pot. And I thought, I can do that. I bought a little smoker for the balcony at our apartment, and...it was pretty awful. So I looked online to see how to BBQ, and I found this website called The BBQ Brethren, and they took me under their wing and taught me how to barbecue. Then I did some competitions and had some success, and after that, my wife said the competitions were getting too expensive. She said I was cutting into her shoe money. So she came up with the idea to go to a farmer's market on a Saturday, and we set up in Watts, where we got started. We said if it worked out to the point where I could quit my job, we’d make a go of it. And in February 2009 I quit my job, and she quit hers a year and a half after that. Now this is what we do full time, catering, the markets and competitions.

Z: What style is your barbecue?
NS: I’ve learned from people all over the country. I guess it’s close to a "competition style." That means it’s extraordinarily ordinary BBQ. You don’t want to offend anybody. So you want it to be intense but it can’t be anything exotic. Although now I add a few more flavors to make it unique, I experiment more. I have flavor in mine, there’s some Texas flavors, there’s some vinegar. I use some spices that pick up hints of the Caribbean. It’s not just one particular cut of meat.

Z: So what is your favorite cut of meat favorite to cook? Why?
NS: The brisket. I love cooking brisket. It presents the biggest challenge to get it done right. It’s a tough cut of meat, but when you do it right it can be something really beautiful. We’re doing pastrami now, too. Pastrami is basically smoked corned beef. When you get pastrami in a deli, they steam it after they smoke it. We just give it to you straight, so the texture is a bit different.

Z: And the biggest secret to a great brisket?
NS: Time. I can cook a brisket in four hours, and I can cook a brisket for 16 hours. They’ll both be good, but the texture will be different. I prefer the slow-cooked so all that connective tissue disintegrates. I like to call it unctuous. I’m just fond of that word. You know when it’s sticky and you have to lick your fingers when you eat it? I don’t even look at temperature anymore. When it’s cooked right, you take a toothpick, and if it slides in like a hot knife in cold butter, it's done. If there’s any resistance at all, cook it longer.

Z: Any particular wood for the smoker?
NS: Generally almond wood. It’s a lighter smoke. It’s a hard wood but more along the lines of pecan. There are a lot of almond farmers out there so it’s more widely available.

Z: What’s the most popular thing you sell at the stands?
NS: It varies from day to day. Most of the time I’d say the brisket. But what happens is the first person gets in line and orders something, and everyone else sees that and says, "That loooks goooood," and orders it. So it’s always different. Sometimes it’s the brisket. Sometimes it’s the ribs. Or the pulled pork. We just have a whole lot of good stuff.

Z: Do you think LA has enough BBQ? Any personal favorites?
NS: We have enough barbecue, we just don’t have enough good barbecue. If you’re not coming to see me because I’m not open every day, I send my friends to Bludso's or Smoke City. Those are the two that I really recommend. I’ve been to each several times. Kevin [Bludso] and I are friends, and people try to give us some rivalry. But we’re good friends.

Z: Do you think LA has a barbecue style?
NS: No. The only thing that you can really attribute to California is tri-tip, and that’s a Santa Maria thing, not really Los Angeles. But we’re such a diverse city, and barbecuers come from all over. They say they have Kansas City, Louisiana or North Carolina barbecue. It's just people from all over cooking great food. I don’t think that’s there’s one style that everyone does. And that’s a good thing.

Z: If we can’t make it to any of your market locations, what’s the best way to get Bigmista's?
NS: Well, we just signed a letter of intent for a brick-and-mortar at The Medallion in Downtown LA. It's a new apartment complex on Fourth and Main. They’re creating a bunch of different restaurants, a permanent farmer's market, different artisans, craft foodstuff, olive oils, dates and specialty items, things like that. We just met with the architect this morning, and we'll be one of the vendors in there.

Z: Congratulations! What's that mean for us fans?
NS: A full menu, an expanded menu. More stuff there than we do at the markets. All the traditional stuff, brisket and pulled pork, turkey and ribs. But now we'll do things like brisket chili fries, and we’ll have a breakfast menu. Things like pig candy pancakes. Fatty eggs Benedict made with smoked breakfast sausage that's wrapped in a bacon weave.

Z: Oh my. When?
NS: The owner wanted to get it open before stone fruit season because of the farmer's market, but he wants to have it all open at once. So now it's been pushed back. It looks like by the end of this year.

Z: Will you please save us some pig candy?
NS: Always!

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