Updated May 7, 2021 - 2:31 pm
More than a week before Soulbelly BBQ opens its doors to the public, the oak is already burning on its Main Street patio.
“That’s Big, and that’s Sexy,” says chef and owner Bruce Kalman, sharing his nicknames for the pair of 1,000-gallon propane tanks that have been converted into the restaurant’s smokers.
Kalman and his team have been firing wood in the 20-foot-long structures for five days, spraying them down with tallow (rendered beef fat) from time to time to season them. When Soulbelly opens to the public Wednesday, Big and Sexy will serve as the heart and soul of its culinary program.
The fact that he’s named his smokers is the first — but certainly not the last — indication of how personal Soulbelly is to Kalman.
As he shows off the space, the chef excitedly shares the stories behind feature after feature: the cooler where guests will help themselves to a beer or obscure soda brands; the mural of his young son enjoying brisket, painted above the main dining area; the chalkboard in restrooms meant to encourage guests to contribute graffiti to the decor.
The one that seems to resonate the most, however, is the concert stage in the back of the restaurant.
Meats meet music
“Being a musician my whole life, I’ve always wanted my own music venue,” Kalman says of his decision to partner with Utah’s WEBB Audio and local rehearsal studio Sonic Rodeo to create a top-notch stage and sound system. “(So), when I sound-checked it the other day, I got a little teary eyed.”
For Kalman, music and barbecue have always gone together. While he’s best known for the Italian cuisine he created at Pasadena’s UNION and L.A.’s Knead &Co. Pasta Bar + Market (as well as appearances on “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” “Knife Fight” and “Beat Bobby Flay”), his passion for smoking meat grew out of a friendship with rock star Dave Grohl.
After Kalman cooked for a party at the Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman’s studio, the pair reconnected a year later at an event organized by Grohl’s wife.
“I just started helping him do stuff, and the next thing you know, I was carving brisket next to him. He’s serving pulled pork, and I ended up being there most of the night. At the end of the night, he just gave me a hug, took my phone from me, put his phone number in my phone and was like, ‘I’m calling you tomorrow.’ The next thing I know, we’re doing parties.”
Kalman and Grohl have done barbecue events ever since. At one point, Kalman says, they toyed with the idea of partnering on a music venue that served barbecue, “until we were in John Tesar’s kitchen in Dallas, and (Grohl) saw what actually goes on in the restaurant business from behind the scenes.”
Kalman, who moved to Las Vegas from Los Angeles in February 2020, was not dissuaded.
“After so many years doing fine dining, or casual fine dining, I’m tired of that. I wanted to have a fun project that’s fun for me, fun for everybody to come to work every day, fun for everybody to come in and have a good time every day. So, I kind of dreamed this up.”
The chef’s barbecue blends elements of many styles, refusing to be tied to a single orthodoxy. The brisket draws on Texas traditions. The sauce is mostly Carolina red, with a mustard-based Carolina gold reserved for pigs-in-a-blanket bar bites made from locally sourced hot dogs. The beef ribs are “a play on pastrami.” And pork ribs “are more Memphis style.”
“The idea is to just celebrate barbecue and not get hung up on tradition and not get hung up on, ‘It has to be done this way!’ Because I don’t agree with that.”
Kalman decided on the Arts District location because he was inspired by the neighborhood and the neighbors.
“The chef community, at least right here, is awesome,” he says. “It’s tight, and it inspires me to just want to be a good person and support them.”
He collaborated with one of the two adjacent breweries, HUDL Brewing Company, staging a series of pop-ups on its patio as Soulbelly’s construction was underway. The combination proved so successful that HUDL has agreed to place Soulbelly menus on its tabletops when the barbecue spot opens, and they’re collaborating on a beer called Charred &Shifty (American red, brewed with whiskey barrel ashes in the mash). There’s even talk of playing the performances on Soulbelly’s stage over HUDL’s sound system.
Soulbelly will open daily from 11 a.m. until midnight, transitioning from a barbecue restaurant into a music venue on most nights.
“We’ll run our barbecue until we run out every day — we’re going to plan for that to be like 7 or 8 p.m. We’ll (also) have a bar menu that starts about 3, and it will have our smoked burger, our disco fries, Frito pie, our armadillo eggs, salt and vinegar chicharrones.
“I want to have a place that I would want to go and hang out at and be comfortable to be at all day.”