Thursday, May 30, 2024

Long Beach BBQ Festival: Brother’s Keepers BBQ is a story of rebuilding for one’s self and family

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As the 2nd annual Long Beach BBQ Festival approaches its day of taking over Shoreline Aquatic Park on May 25, Longbeachize and Brian Addison have partnered with the festival to highlight some the local talent being featured at the festival. Today, we feature Brother’s Keeper BBQ, a Long Beach-based barbecue popup that is about one man returning to the wood-burnin’ world of smoked meats to better connect with himself and his family.

The story of Brother’s Keeper is an entirely Long Beach one that spans many years

Brother’s Keeper—originally called Mac & Mo Smoke as he was with his then-business partner, Brandon McIntosh, at the time—was formally birthed in Long Beach in 2018 though it goes back many years before that with owner Maurice “Mo” Stewart.

Mo was the original barbecue popup at Trademark Brewing, long before the place became a staple for everything from mini-festivals to a staple for the Cambodian New Year celebration—and Casa De Luxe on Retro Row before the smoke began interfering with the patronage. (Which isn’t necessarily the worst thing that could be said to a pitmaster.)

And this exploration of barbecue stems from the place where most cooks’ and chefs’ love of food stems from: the family kitchen.

“I was born and raised in L.A. but my grandma and grandpa are from Pennsylvania, with my grandma doing the cooking and my grandma doing the grilling,” Mo said. “So our barbecue was definitely a bit more Carolina with the sauce on nearly every meat—but that’s where I learned to love cooking. And I would say it was about 2016, I started smoking smoking meats”

Brother’s Keeper BBQ uses Central Texas-style smokin’ to fuel its inspiration

After dabbling in the restaurant business after attending CSULB, he handed himself an offset smoker stick burner with the half grill, experimenting with various types of wood and meats in the hopes that he can join the long lineage of humans who have mastered the art of smoking proteins.

“It was an instant love: As a beer lover”—you will typically always find Mo clad in some local, independent brewery swag, be it Green Cheek or RIIP, Beachwood or ISM—”and there is something almost spiritual about standing outside, with a beer, smoking food for your family.”

That “spiritual” part is no small comment: Mo explores the style of Central Texan barbecue, where low-and-slow Texan barbecue itself was birthed amid the flat and practically barren open space of the state—and for those that have experienced these massively popular, some outright legendary barbecue joints in the middle of nowhere evoke something more than folks just preparing you food.

Even more, at its roots, Central Texan barbecue has very simple beginnings, with a dry rub usually consisting of just salt and pepper—though of course, has evolved to many pitmasters creating their own proprietary rubs. Smoked over wood that varies as much as the meats themselves do—though mesquite, pecan, or oak wood dominate—this is where the meat-on-butcher-paper began. And it is where Stewart himself draws inspiration.

“I use white oak from The Woodshed [in Orange County] and aim for that low-and-slow,” Mo said.

The return of Brother’s Keeper BBQ is about self-determination during struggle

Amid Stewart’s masterful stack of smoked chicken wings, bowls of salty’n’sweet pork belly burnt ends, and likely the best gouda mac’n’cheese to meet the stomachs of Long Beach, as with all food, sits a story that isn’t picture perfect.

For Stewart, the world of professional experience has been anything but fun across the past few years: Shortly before the pandemic, he was laid off from his job at a prominent Orange County restaurant after raising concerns via email—only to find himself laid off again this past year.

“When we first started Brother’s Keeper, we were following the footsteps of Danny [Castillo of Heritage in San Juan Capistrano],” Stewart said, noting when he was with his former partner. “And even though things were picking up across those first few years, we were never really able to dive into full time. When I couldn’t, Brandon could; when he couldn’t, I could—and it was hard to find help.”

The loneliness of a running a food business by one’s self can be alarmingly detrimental; when you’re doing it on the side because of a more permanent job, even more so. And when you lose that permanent job, the pejoratively tinged question of “What am I doing?” can be frighteningly loud.

“I have a family—three daughters and a fiancée,” Stewart said. “And there’s this mixture of anger and frustration when you don’t have that stability but bringing Brother’s Keeper back has also been really inspirational for me. There’s purpose in food and, as I keep going into this festival with Qi and Ian [Mafnas, organizers of the festival and owners of Axiom Kitchen], I’ve found that there’s worth in what I do. So this is both for myself and my family.”

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Turns out, Stewart had a keeper all along: himself, his talent, and his community.

So what is the Long Beach BBQ Festival?

In its second year and headed by husband-and-wife team Qiana and Ian Mafnas of Axiom Kitchen, the Long Beach BBQ Festival is a celebration of SoCal’s growing barbecue renaissance. And its lineup of barbecue and food vendors is wildly cool:

  • Axiom Kitchen
  • Big Brian’s Meats
  • Brother’s Keeper BBQ 
  • El Guero y La Flaca
  • Full Send BBQ
  • Good Smoke Better Eats
  • High Roller BBQ 
  • OSO Good BBQ
  • Good Smoke Better Eats
  • Fat Boys BBQ LA
  • Good Smoke Better Eats
  • Fat Boys BBQ
  • Janer Family BBQ
  • Smoked n’ Blazed BBQ
  • Smoked and Salted BBQ
  • Magilla’s BBQ
  • Just Wright BBQ
  • Robert Earl’s BBQ
  • Midway City BBQ
  • Rib Bones BBQ
  • PS Smoked Meats
  • Mussels and Pearls
  • Chaudown Kitchen
  • Chef T “The Rising Phoenix”
  • Smokestack Lightnin BBQ
  • Watson’s Pizza

And, of course, there will be live music, with the lineup including:

  • Indica Roots 
  • Makenna
  • Phoenyx & Co.
  • Gil T
  • Dead Ringer
  • Ms. B Royal

The 2nd annual Long Beach BBQ Festival takes place at Shoreline Aquatic Park, located at 200 Aquarium Way, on Saturday, May 25, from noon to 9PM. For tickets, click here.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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