In most of America, it’s barbecue season. And although Las Vegas’ summer heat doesn’t lend itself to spending hours next to a backyard smoker or grill, barbecue restaurants are thriving in the valley. It’s been a long time coming.
“Ten years ago we had this little burst of barbecue,” says Mike Minor, executive chef of Border Grill and BBQ Mexicana, who has lived in Las Vegas since 1983. “(But) it died off. And I think today it’s so great to see that everybody’s doing barbecue.”
But even as it thrives in the valley, many are still prone to ask: What, exactly, is Las Vegas barbecue?
Few American foods are as universally loved and as regionally specific as barbecue. Pitmasters from Memphis to Texas to St. Louis to the Carolinas pride themselves on the authenticity of their ’cue, despite the fact they’re all creating different dishes. So in a city of expatriates such as Las Vegas, the idea of “real barbecue” has been known to stir up both curiosity and conflict.
Perhaps the only thing that Las Vegans can agree on when it comes to local barbecue is that our valley does not have a traditional signature style.
“First of all, there is no Vegas style,” offers Steve Overlay, owner of Henderson’s Sin City Smokers and former president of the Nevada Barbecue Association. “There is not anything that started here. Everything has been taken from another region and another place, another idea.”
Overlay learned barbecue after moving to Las Vegas and accepting a job with the Memphis Championship Barbecue chain. It wasn’t just the restaurants’ style he absorbed as he traveled the country during his 13-year tenure with the company.
“Barbecue is different all across the country. So I just concentrate on what I think is good. Our pork is more of a Carolina style. Our sauce is probably more of a St. Louis style. Our spare ribs are more of a Texas style. Our hot links we get out of Chicago.”
That melting pot philosophy seems to be the common denominator among the restaurants that have emerged to shape the Las Vegas barbecue scene over the past several years. While other regions argue about whose traditions are better, pitmasters here pride themselves on borrowing from multiple sources.
“We’re from Arkansas, and we don’t have a style back home that’s Arkansas style barbecue,” says John Holland of Rollin’ Smoke Barbecue, despite the fact that its “Arkansas style” is now sold at four valley locations.
Rollin’ Smoke’s menu was actually born right here in Las Vegas in 2012, when he and his brother Dusty Ardoin decided to open a barbecue joint that drew on a variety of influences.
“We’ve got our beef ribs and our brisket, which are Texas style,” Ardoin explains of their menu. “Then we’ve got the vinegar sauce we stole from the Carolinas. We’ve got that nice dry rub from St. Louis, Missouri. We got the spice from South Louisiana. Where we lived (in Arkansas), we were centralized around all that. So we would pick up different things that we enjoyed.”
Survey other top barbecue spots in our valley, and you’ll hear similar stories.
Mike Ross says the “Las Vegas style” barbecue he’s been creating at Jessie Rae’s Barbecue since 2015 is meant to have hints of all regions, noting “Las Vegas has culture from everywhere, so that’s what I wanted to create with Las Vegas style barbecue.”
Even celebrity chef Michael Symon, who developed Mabel’s BBQ in Cleveland to reflect that midwestern city’s heritage, says that when he brought it to the Palms in December, he “wanted to make it unique to Vegas, so Vegas locals could connect to it.” As a result, his local spot boasts Vegas touches such as hatch chile barbecue sauce and rubs with southwestern flavors.
Minor developed what he calls Mexi-Cue while working at Border Grill. His creations mix the knowledge of Mexican spices he acquired working at that celebrity-chef-owned Mexican restaurant, his experiments smoking meats in his backyard, and his late-night munchies.
“To be very honest with you, hanging out and getting drunk at night and wanting to grab some grub, I landed on the California Burrito one time, where it had french fries and everything in it. And when I came back to work I would make that if I wanted to eat.”
Today at its Mandalay Bay and Las Vegas Ballpark locations, BBQ Mexicana’s signature item is a burnt ends burrito: smoked brisket, manchego cheese, chipotle cole slaw, fried potatoes and mole barbecue sauce, wrapped in a tortilla.
That’s not to say that there aren’t local spots that cater to traditionalists. Brian Buechner and Natalia Badzjo of Big B’s Texas Barbecue, which opened in early 2016, are so dedicated to authenticity that they drive to Texas several times a year to buy mesquite wood in the Rio Grande valley because desert mesquite has an oil content that “makes the meat bitter.” But Texas native Buechner never smoked meat professionally before moving to Las Vegas. And while he prides himself on the fact that his brisket (offered lean or wet) gets a thumbs-up from Texans who visit their store, he also admits to adding some Nevada touches to his menu.
“Tri-tip is a very West Coast kind of meat,” he offers as an example. “My family in Texas still doesn’t know what tri-tip is. (And) we do baby back ribs versus pork spare ribs.”
One thing all the pros seem to agree on is that barbecue is having a moment in the valley.
“It’s an exciting time for barbecue in Las Vegas right now,” Overlay says. “I’m watching people grow. I’m watching these new people open up. And you know what, there’s plenty of room for everybody. If you bring your A-game, the Vegas community will respond and they’ll support you.”