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Meet the Women Leading LA’s Barbecue Revolution

From Chinese-American smoked meat mashups to brisket and ribs with a side of Southern comfort, female pitmasters are pushing barbecue boundaries in Los Angeles

A woman in a mask holding a large silver tray of barbecue and sides.
Winnie Yee-Lakhani of Smoke Queen BBQ
Wonho Frank Lee
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

There’s no such thing as the perfect bite of barbecue. The wide-ranging cuisine is known for its smoke, yes, but beyond that the use of sauces, particular proteins, and cooking vessels can shift from pitmaster to pitmaster — to say nothing of specific bites within a finished slab of meat. For pitmaster Rebecca King, often the best bites she sells are buried inside the middle of the muscle, far from the barky, firm edge. There, half a hand deep into a slow-cooked shoulder, is a fatty-edged, jiggly length of rich, pink meat that’s lightly scented of coriander, black pepper, mustard seed, and smoke. This is barbecue the Bad Jew way — pastrami pork, not beef.

King never really thought she’d become known for barbecue, let alone known for a particular style that she has come to call her own. “I was working in commercial real estate,” says King, keeping one eye on the dark offset smoker that holds her pork shoulders. The setup is ad hoc; the smoker, and its attached steel trailer, is tucked three parking lots deep behind rows of low office buildings in a South Bay business park. The only way to know she’s here is by smell. Minutes earlier, King was turning thick, wobbly basketball-sized hunks of pork by gloved hand, checking temps and peeling off bits of meat to test for flavor and fat rendering. “I just thought, ‘I wonder if anyone does pork pastrami.’ And there we go,” she says.

Most people don’t know King’s backstory, or where to find her cooking trailer; they know her through pop-ups, collaborations, and her eye-catching nom de Instagram, the Bad Jew. She first began her barbecue career on a whim, moving from avid restaurant fan with industry friends to tinkering with different pop-up ideas herself, all while working side gigs at restaurants like Pop’s Bagels and staging at Birdie G’s in Santa Monica in addition to her commission-based job in the real estate world.

A chef smiles at a wood smoker.
Rebecca King
Rebecca King

On the advice of a mutual friend, she eventually reached out cold to Danny Gordon of Flatpoint Barbecue for tips on how to smoke meat for an at-home party she was throwing. The professional relationship bloomed alongside King’s own barbecue perspective, which focuses on those slow-smoked pork shoulders (also known as pork butts or Boston butts) done in the style of traditional beef pastrami — certainly not kosher, but that’s the point.

Since that first chance outreach on social media, King has emerged as a regular fixture in LA’s booming barbecue scene. Her Bad Jew pop-ups, which began out of her East Hollywood home, have since become regular affairs around the city, with King selling pork pastrami plates and sandwiches, neo-Jewish sides like fermented cabbage, and desserts like babka at events and from inside Employees Only in West Hollywood. Her porkstrami is rooted in classic barbecue traditions (including the use of an offset smoker heated with wood) more akin to pulled pork than to old-school Jewish deli brisket, but with the brining and curing of pastrami and a shorter cook time that lets the meat hold at least some of its structure when cutting and serving.

More recently she’s taken over the Mar Vista space a couple of days a week to run Porcine LA as a place for her own further culinary experimentation (yes, there’s a pastrami-brined pork chop) and to showcase the work of other pop-ups. Each week, each cook, is an opportunity to get stronger at the craft.

“I think being interested in something makes you confident,” says King. “Asking questions, reading books. I’m so interested in learning about this food. It’s not even confidence, really, it’s excitement.”

Crusted pork shoulders on an offset smoker, being barbecued.
Porkstrami on the smoker
Farley Elliott

As a female pitmaster in Los Angeles, King is in small but impressive company, including Tracy Phillips, the daughter of the late Woody Phillips. Like many corners of the culinary world, barbecue is weighted with prominent, often aggressively bombastic men, though King says the LA scene has far less of the overall meat-smoking machismo than elsewhere. “Everyone’s been amazing,” she says. “Everyone wants to collaborate, to work together. In LA, a lot of barbecue people didn’t traditionally come from restaurants, so we don’t have that chef mentality of like, ‘don’t help them with this, don’t give them that.’ Maybe it’s because barbecue really does bring people together.”

Back at the smoker, King and her small crew of helpers turn out the pork butts onto a waiting table, wrap them quickly, and load them tightly into a container to be hauled off for future use. In her short time running the Bad Jew, King has seen her pork pastrami plated at Wexler’s Deli inside Grand Central Market, layered atop Thai-style tacos at Anajak in the Valley, and used as a centerpiece for Cambodian sandwiches at Lincoln Heights’ Gamboge.

“It’s exciting that you don’t have to just be in Texas to get delicious smoked meat,” King says as she hands out bites of piping-hot pork. “You’re taking a piece of culture and you’re expanding it and changing it into the LA version. It’s still barbecue, it’s still offset smoking with wood, but this is different.”

Winnie Yee-Lakhani, the popular Smoke Queen from Orange County, sees a kinship with the Bad Jew in the pork belly char siu she smokes for her weekly pickups. As a Chinese-American woman, she’s far less represented in traditional barbecue circles, but that has allowed her to open up her playbook to new ideas — to push boundaries because she’s already seen by some as an outsider in a male-dominated world. “I just want to make barbecue and make people happy,” says Yee-Lakhani. “But it’s not just that. I want to marry the whole American style of smoking with Asian flavors. That’s a pure reflection of me.”

A female pitmaster in a blue mask cuts barbecue brisket in a kitchen.
Yee-Lakhani cutting brisket
Wonho Frank Lee
Holding a fatty piece of brisket as it bends over a hand.
Finished brisket
Wonho Frank Lee

Since the pandemic, Yee-Lakhani has been smoking quietly in Orange County for an ever-increasing Instagram clientele, using a 500-gallon offset smoker from SG Metalworks that requires a step stool for her to fully navigate. She loves the challenge, the small differences in each cook, and the chance to learn while bringing in folks who might otherwise be scared to dip their toes into the barbecue world. Her Instagram feed is a direct reflection of that bridge-building: There are the usual shots of butterflied brisket slices, rendered fat glistening in the sun, or hands holding up dry-rubbed racks of St. Louis-style ribs, all mixed in with mother-daughter bonding time over crispy-skinned pork and explainers on techniques for safely attaching and hauling around her giant smoker.

“I’m not oblivious to what I am or what I look like,” says Yee-Lakhani, “or how I don’t fit that typical pitmaster description. I feel like I need to embrace it, because I know there are a lot of women out there who love to smoke meat but feel the same way I felt when I got into the barbecue business.”

Yee-Lakhani admits that, like other female pitmasters around the country, she takes a fair bit of criticism (almost exclusively from men) in her direct messages and in the comment sections on TikTok when she shows off her cooks. It’s frustrating, but Yee-Lakhani (with more than a dozen years running restaurants in the Anaheim area) says it’s not a reason to slow down, or to change the way she cooks.

“The majority of people that I’ve met through barbecue, they’re very, very empowering,” she says. “But a lot of those haters are hiding behind their computer screens. They’re telling me I’m doing all this stuff wrong, and I’m just like fuck you, you go get a 500-gallon smoker and start smoking. ‘You’re starting the fire wrong, you’re doing this or that wrong. I’m from Texas, I know.’ I’m like, I don’t care. I’m not saying I’m from Texas. I’m not doing Texas style. I’m doing Winnie style.”

A long blade cuts char siu beef inside Smoke Queen BBQ 
Slicing char siu
Wonho Frank Lee

For Shalamar Lane, the tireless pitmaster and owner of My Father’s Barbeque in Carson, smoking meat on her own terms has always been a part of who she is. “I’ve been barbecuing my whole life,” says Lane. “This restaurant just kind of happened.”

The Carson native spent her childhood in backyards, lighting fires for her father’s cooks or watching her aunts turn meat. “It was just a natural thing,” she says. “All the women in my family cook, they all barbecue.” Lane would add the rubs to the ribs, or move things around to watch for flare-ups and too much smoke. It wasn’t a calling as much as it was part of everyday life. “My father barbecued three or four times a week,” she says. “That’s just what we did. It wasn’t my intention to get into this.”

Instead Lane took a circuitous route, first through culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and then as a stevedore (dock worker) at the port of Los Angeles. She would cater small events in her off time, and even played with the idea of opening a cigar lounge at one point, but smoked meat just kept finding its way into everything she did. Eventually, she decided to lean in, at least a little bit.

“I started to look at how the process actually worked,” says Lane of her early days of growing her small barbecue catering company Beautiful Bites into the kind of business that could sustain her and help her family. “It’s not like we’re throwing three slabs of ribs on [anymore]. After you mess up a couple times, you start to say, ‘Wait a minute, hold on, what am I doing wrong?’”

In 2014, Lane passed by the shell of a former barbecue restaurant in Carson. It had been largely abandoned following the owner’s death, but still held its hulking smoker and full kitchen build-out inside. On a whim, and with family support, she opened My Father’s Barbeque — a nod to those backyard days of ribs, pulled pork, and hot links. Now, seven years in, she’s turning out some of the best barbecue in town, though the effects of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic still loom large over her business.

A female pitmaster opening a large door for a smoker to check ribs.
Lane checking ribs
Farley Elliott

As customers slowly return in larger numbers, so has Lane’s broad menu, which hovers around slow-smoked meats and Southern comfort food staples like potato salad with bacon, beans, collard greens, and sides of rice. The brisket is cut thinner than in Texas and is given a smear of sauce; the ribs are pink, smoky, and have just enough tug while still on the bone. There are fries loaded with brisket chunks and pulled pork sandwiches topped with macaroni and cheese, too, if you want it. Here, it’s her smoker, her rules — and besides, it’s all money in the door, offering a product she loves to a community that cares.

In the high-overhead world of barbecue, money really matters. Lane has a 4-year-old at home but still cooks all the meat herself; planned updates to the dining room (and the kitchen) have been on and off for more than a year. “It’s been really hard,” Lane says of the past 18 months. “Our gross receipts have dropped over 50 percent. Seeing so many places close [during the pandemic], you’re wondering if you’re making the wrong decision by staying open. You wonder: Am I next? Am I going to make it here?” A recent fellowship and grant sponsorship sponsored by Kingsford Charcoal under the title Preserve the Pit has certainly helped.

A stadium deal with the nearby Major League Soccer team the Los Angeles Galaxy has also (at least partially) shored up those feelings of dread, as overall business slowly creeps back to pre-COVID levels. “We’re constantly growing,” says Lane of her staff, as she tosses new wood chunks into the giant black smoker inside her storefront. “The journey has been challenging, but I love it.”

As a pop-up operator, King has faced fewer obstacles over the past year, but she still has the same high energy about the scene as Lane. She recently secured a deal to cook weekly for the long lines of Smorgasburg, the Downtown LA outdoor food bazaar, and has continued to hold her weekly pop-ups inside the closed Mar Vista as well. “I want to work with a co-packer,” says King with a smile. “I want pork pastrami to be in grocery stores, but I might have to change the name. I don’t know if Kroger would be into something with the Bad Jew name on it.”

A large steel smoker with open hole for loading wood into the fire.
My Father’s Barbeque smoker
Farley Elliott

The fact that she’s even thinking that far ahead speaks volumes about Los Angeles’s ascendant barbecue scene. A decade ago, seasoned smoked-meat veterans often struggled for citywide visibility and acceptance; now there are countless doorways for pitmasters beyond the old names like Phillips and Dr. Hogly Wogly’s. And while some of the newest and best pitmasters continue to chase the ever-elusive “authenticity” (particularly when it comes to the Texas style that has taken over the city), others are fostering inclusivity to make greater LA a smoked-meat city to be reckoned with nationally. The product made here, and the people behind it, don’t all look the same. “Everything that’s happening is just so cool, it’s so exciting,” says King. “There’s so much room for creativity.”

Without the ability to be creative, Yee-Lakhani — who proudly claims the title “pit-madam” on her Instagram page — isn’t sure she’d even be doing barbecue at a retail level. If it’s always about following the rules, she posits, then what’s the point?

“When I first started, I didn’t know anything about barbecue,” she says. “So what I knew, I learned online. And I would think, ‘Okay this is the proper way, this is not the proper way.’ But as I learn from doing it, and I have my experience with my pit, I realize, you know what? There’s no wrong or right way. Barbecue is just open-fire cooking, right? Humans have been cooking on an open fire since the beginning of time. I think to say you’re doing it wrong because you’re not doing it Kansas City style or whatever style, that’s not the right way to look at it.”

In Los Angeles, not hewing to a particular and dogmatic style is a feature, not a bug; just ask Roy Choi. Here, a chef’s personal perspective often takes precedence over the formal boundaries of cooking for a singular regional audience. Sauces, sausages, and spice rubs matter to LA’s smoked-meat scene not because they need to fit a rigid definition; they matter because they speak to the soul of the person doing the cooking. People like Yee-Lakhani, King, and Lane.

“There isn’t a lot of representation out there for women, and on top of that being Asian in America, doing barbecue,” Yee-Lakhani says. “We should embrace all cultures and all different types of barbecue. Men, women, young, old, whatever. We can all barbecue.”