Love to barbecue? So does Neil Strawder. The man behind Bigmista's Barbecue turned his hobby professional several years ago, first joining the competition circuit, then selling his 'que to eager fans at various farmers markets. Last November, he opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in Long Beach, Bigmista's Barbecue & Sammich Shop, and is already getting ready to open a second location. Bigmista himself still has time to compete, and we caught up with him recently at the Ribs, Pigs & Watermelons Summer Festival at Huntington State Beach, where he shared some tips.
How do you barbecue in a heat wave? Have plenty of water!
What's most important when it comes to your 'que? Everyone always thinks it's your sauce or your rub. I want to smack them on the head and say, "No! It's fire safety." Especially in a heat wave and in a drought like we are. Always make sure you have a fire extinguisher and somewhere to put your hot ashes when you're done. Make sure you're not cooking on top of something flammable.
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How important is the rub or sauce, along with the quality of the meat? Quality of the meat always helps. But you can still take a bad cut and make it something really good. That's what BBQ is all about, turning a cheap cut into something great. Otherwise, rubs are more important than sauces. Sauces aren't necessary — they're something extra. You ought to be able to eat a piece of meat without any sauce. Even at our restaurant, we tell people we believe in our meat. We want you to taste it without any sauce to know we're not covering anything. Sauce is a condiment. Learn to make your meat correctly. It should be tender and juicy, and use a good rub, and you have something great.
How can you tell when the meat is done? The meat will tell you when it's done. I tell people to get a thermometer when you're first starting out. It's also a feel thing. When you stick that thermometer in, it should go in like a hot knife through butter. If there's any type of resistance, you need to cook it some more. And if you know you're going to be cooking a piece of meat that takes a long time, give yourself ample time so you're done before your guests arrive. You want to enjoy the party too.
Biggest pet peeve? There's a lot of people who still confuse grilling with barbecuing. "Oh, I'm going to go barbecue a steak." No you're not. You're going to grill a steak. Different cuts of meat have to be prepared differently. And some things you grill hot and fast: steaks, burgers, hot dogs, sausage. I do more BBQ than I do grilling, but I can grill. I eat a steak maybe once a year — but brisket all the time.