An Axiom Kitchen Smoked Meats & BBQ pop-up typically looks something like this: Hunks of smoked beef ribs, thickly sliced brisket, and strips of tri-tip get slathered in herbed clarified butter before hitting a scorching-hot flat top for a finishing sear. Qiana and Ian Mafnas, the Black and Chamorro wife-and-husband team behind the Long Beach pop-up, rotate between helping patrons, leading service calls, and packaging to-go trays; the family unit is a well-oiled assembly line. Son Tai always has a spatula in hand, and daughter Dominique and younger son Robbie assemble platters. Ian mans the grill and Qiana handles the money and orders. Together they run a smooth operation, turning out some of the most interesting takes on Texas-style barbecue anywhere in Los Angeles County.
That wasn’t always the case for the Mafnases. Before Qiana and Ian found stability in a life of smoke and meat, they met more than a decade ago as addicts. “We knew the time wasn’t right and that we weren’t treating ourselves right — even though he’s been trying to marry me for a decade,” Qiana says with a laugh, noting the pair finally married last year. “So we had to separate to work on ourselves. When we became sober, we realized we had both entered into social services, working to help other people through their trauma.”
Reconnecting led them to seek a new path for themselves and their eight children, some of whom came from the foster system (another son, Noah, passed away in 2018 at the age of 18). Qiana has been in and out of the food industry since the age of 15, working everywhere from In-N-Out and Tender Greens to Musso & Frank’s and the now-shuttered Dialogue. The comfort with which she slid between food jobs led her to be comfortable with the idea of starting her own food business. Ian, meanwhile, fell headfirst into food with little experience: Tasting Texan-style smoked brisket for the first time in 2020, he began experimenting on his own.
“That combination of smoke, meat, and dry rub, man, it opened a beast in my belly,” Ian says. “There’s a discipline and learning process that comes with the pit. The constant adjusting of everything … That structure is precisely what I needed.”
Qiana and Ian had both been working in social services since 2014 but saw the potential for a new career path when Ian left his job in February 2022. Building from Qiana’s experience in restaurants and Ian’s growing curiosity in mastering smoked meats, the pair planned out a path for Axiom, a term meaning self-evident and truthful. The pop-up, in effect, gave the Mafnas family a shared sense of self-determination. “Ian had been practicing his smoking skills for almost a decade by this point, and I saw something [in him] that I don’t think he saw in himself,” Qiana said. “His mom saw it. And that grind of the work we were doing was no longer fulfilling; it was draining. We felt we earned the right to focus on ourselves and our children.”
Axiom was born in April 2022, with Ian on the meats and Qiana developing all the sauces and sides. (“He’s pure Texan [who] loves that dry rub, but I’m a saucy girl with no apologies,” she says.) Her two barbecue sauces — one filled with smoky Ancho chiles and the other honoring Kansas City with apple cider vinegar as its base — are just as layered with flavor as her sides: Think mac and cheese made with mascarpone, mild and sharp cheddar, and Monterey jack. Axiom’s corn is fried in butter before being tossed with bacon, green peppers, and onions, and its mashed potatoes are smoothed out with crème fraîche. Here the coleslaw is laced with coconut milk and pineapple, and the bourbon baked beans are layered with cumin and allspice, bacon, and ground sausage.
“Our recipes and processes are all axioms: We don’t cut corners or do things the easy way,” Ian says of the pop-up’s namesake. “We’ve never done anything the easy way because life is not easy... Do we want a brick-and-mortar? Hell yes, we want a brick-and-mortar. As far as we can take this, as long as it lifts us up and fulfills us, that’s where we want to go.”
Ian says he wants to achieve the highest level of smoking meats, citing Heritage, the famed San Juan Capistrano space that made California history by becoming the state’s first truly Texan-style barbecue joint with its smokers, as a model. Of course, the idea of offset smokers lining any space in Long Beach is uncertain due to legal issues surrounding their construction. For now, the Mafnases smoke at a private facility before the pop-ups, pulling meat out onto the flat-top for service. In time, they hope the events will pave the way to a more established operation. “We want to show not just ourselves, but our kids, that success is possible,” says Qiana. “What we’ve been through can’t be magically erased. But we’re here now, we’re together, and where we’re aiming to be in the future doesn’t have to be this dark space. It can be filled with light, fulfillment, and success.”
As the name implies, Axiom’s success has become self-evident. Word is out, and the family is cooking up more and more meat each weekend to match the demand. It’s hard work, Ian acknowledges as he hands out a tray filled with candied pork belly chunks. “We’ve worked our asses off, man,” he says. “And there have been a handful of times where I’ve truly wanted to throw in the towel. But these kids and that woman?” he says, pointing toward his wife and children, “They allow me to continue because we deserve success, we deserve stability. We deserve to be happy.”
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