Spend any time scrolling through the Los Angeles barbecue scene on social media and you’ll find three common tableaus: One, a collection of glistening brisket shots, thickly sliced to show the peppery, smoke-blackened edges and wobbly, extra-tender interior. Two, slabs of pork ribs, layered in a stack or dangling from the end of a set of tongs, bendy but not broken. Three, heaving trays, complete with perfectly scooped sides ready to be consumed at an upcoming brewery night or weekend presale-only pop-up. For hundreds of backyard enthusiasts, underground pop-ups, and barbecue restaurants around Southern California, these vital food-envy-inducing shots amount to a modern business card, a connection point between seller and buyer.
Winnie Yee-Lakhani of Orange County’s Smoke Queen BBQ has those same photos on her Instagram page — plenty of them. But she’s also not afraid to highlight the hard stuff, the funny stuff, the silly stuff that makes up a life spent in front of a fire and a metal tube filled with meat. Earlier this summer, the weather was so hot during a cook that Yee-Lakhani’s two-ton smoker trailer actually sank into the softened asphalt, requiring tow straps and a helpful truck to extract it. Yee-Lakhani’s pervasively cool personality comes through as she casually films the whole affair, showing her TikTok and Instagram followers what it’s really like to be a five-foot-something emergent powerhouse on the greater Los Angeles barbecue scene. It’s not always perfectly filtered shots of brisket, but it’s always perfectly Winnie.
Ask Yee-Lakhani about her restaurant experience prior to Smoke Queen BBQ, and you won’t hear stories of small-town diners or apprenticeships at Michelin-star spots. “I dropped out of pastry school because it was boring,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “We were just making cakes and doughnuts.”
The Malaysia-born, Mandarin-speaking Yee-Lakhani took a circuitous route into cooking, starting from the business end and working her way into the kitchen as a franchisee of three national restaurant chains operating inside the Hilton hotel just next door to the Anaheim Convention Center. Because of the adjacent Disneyland and California Adventure theme parks, to say nothing of the nearby sports stadiums, that stretch of Anaheim pulls in some 25 million visitors a year — or at least it did, before the pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020. It was, up until that point, a stable but fairly achromatic life. “When you run a franchise, you have no room for your own creativity or input,” Yee-Lakhani says. “It’s very robotic.” That’s not very Winnie. Instead, in her off hours at home, she spent time smoking briskets and letting her mind burst with flavor possibilities — not just from the American barbecue lexicon, but across the Chinese-Malaysian-American rainbow.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the barbecue business,” she says. “I love barbecue, I love to eat. And I thought, ‘You know, I want to create something.’” And so, strangely enough, the pandemic became the perfect time for her to branch out. With storefronts closed, convention and Disneyland business dwindled to zero, and Yee-Lakhani’s internal tug to try something new, Smoke Queen was born. Her first Instagram post promoting the business — yes, it’s sliced brisket — landed in August 2020.
“I just had to roll with the punches and live week to week,” she says of her early pop-up days, with hours spent DMing Instagram influencers, Facebook food groups, and local barbecue-focused accounts to see who would be willing to come try her food for free. “Some days I would gain, like, two followers, but lose three. But you know, followers don’t equal money. It’s not like the more followers you have, the more money you’ll always make.”
Within weeks, the Smoke Queen BBQ Instagram feed began to naturally turn from the usual brisket shots to a more personal mix of lifestyle, family, meat, and memes. Longtime fans know that Yee-Lakhani’s first big offset smoker, a 500-gallon monster made by SG Metalworks (and the one that sunk into the asphalt in July), is named Drogon for the Game of Thrones dragon — and that she plans to add two more beasts to her stable in due time. Yee-Lakhani’s bio describes her as a “pit-madam,” not a pitmaster. Her favorite thermometer is pink (“Pink isn’t my favorite color but I love how girly it is! If it’s pink, I’m buying it!”), and her must-have cooking accessory is a pizza peel and a stepstool so she can reach the back of the smoker tank. In a video that plays under the Cyndi Lauper song Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Yee-Lakhani shows off her prized trailer valet, a wheeled metal contraption that allows her to rig up the Smoke Queen BBQ trailer to her truck without assistance.
But the most direct route to understanding Yee-Lakhani’s unexpected approach to barbecue is to try the food. Over the course of the pandemic, Smoke Queen BBQ has graduated from its backyard pop-up beginnings in Orange County to become a full-fledged restaurant cooking operation, using the shuttered franchise spaces inside the Anaheim Hilton to simmer sauces, work up big batches of sides, and individually wrap and pack the weekend’s orders. Yee-Lakhani still handles the deliveries herself, stuffing a family van with meals and dropping them off at designated mall parking lots across Orange and Los Angeles counties. Beef ribs are front and center alongside pork ribs, hot links, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese, but the longtimers know to score the coveted char siu pork belly and brisket baos first.
“I don’t want to take over the world… I just want to make barbecue and make people happy. Not just that, I want to marry the whole American style of smoking with Asian flavors,” says Yee-Lakhani. “That’s the direction I want to take this brand, because that’s a pure reflection of me.”
Yee-Lakhani isn’t the only self-described pit-madam cooking around Los Angeles these days, but she is perhaps the most vocal about where she fits (and where she chooses not to fit) within the barbecue world. “I’m not oblivious to what I am or what I look like or how I don’t fit that typical pitmaster description,” she adds. “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.”
Smoke Queen BBQ is ultimately a platform for Yee-Lakhani to be herself, to show off her skills as well as the world of failures, successes, and family help that really makes it all seem to run so smoothly. Just like in culinary school, she’s got little time for stuff that doesn’t stimulate her — or for the haters she eloquently thanks on Instagram for pushing her love of barbecue even further. There are a lot of (mostly older, mostly white) men who aren’t afraid to direct message her on Tiktok or Instagram, eager to offer suggestions for “better” smoking methods or critiques of cooks gone by. Sometimes they don’t like her smoked char siu pork belly or her brisket baos; sometimes they don’t like the way she drives her rig. Winnie keeps it cool, naturally, but don’t mistake her calmness for complacency.
“A lot of haters are hiding behind their computer screens,” says Yee-Lakhani. “I have a lot of haters on TikTok for some reason. 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.’”
With a little luck, that style will become permanent by the end of the year with a standalone Smoke Queen BBQ storefront in Orange County, though acquiring permits for offset smokers and open-air cooking is notoriously difficult in Southern California. Only Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano has managed to pull off all the permits and red tape so far, though others are trying, like AGL’s Craft Meats in South LA. If and when Yee-Lakhani’s restaurant actually opens, it would represent much more than just another place to get thick slices of glistening brisket and stacks of highly Instagrammable ribs. It would mean that she did it her way, as a part of — but not something subsumed by — a barbecue ecosystem that can seem so overwhelmingly similar at times.
It would mean that Yee-Lakhani would have made her dream come true, riding on the back of her Drogon smoker to become an important player in Southern California’s fast-moving barbecue world, the kind of pit-madam who proudly gets profiled in the New York Times. “Barbecue brings a lot of people together,” she says. “I want Smoke Queen to be all about the food, about the love for each other.” She’s already finding that her first instincts in those early days of her Instagram page were right: being herself is the best way to get what she wants.
Winnie Yee-Lakhani runs ongoing barbecue pop-ups under the name Smoke Queen BBQ, with delivery across Orange County and Los Angeles County. Smoke Queen BBQ will also appear at this year’s barbecue day at Smorgasburg in Downtown Los Angeles on August 29.