KG BBQ Brings Cairo’s Bright Mediterranean Flavors to Austin’s Barbecue Scene
Pitmaster Kareem El-Ghayesh’s first bite of Texan brisket turned into a decade-long obsession with barbecue. Now, his food truck serves up a surprising, singularly Egyptian take on the art of smoked meat
By Jillian Anthony
Photos courtesy of KG BBQ
Do you remember the first time you tasted barbecue? KG BBQ owner and pitmaster Kareem El-Ghayesh does. It was back in 2012 at Rudy’s Bar-B-Que in Austin, Texas, during his first visit to the United States.
“It was a life-changing experience,” El-Ghayesh, 35, says of the first time he tried brisket, a cut of meat that’s tough to find in his native Cairo, Egypt. “It was fascinating how these undesirable, tough cuts that are hard to cook are transformed with just salt, pepper and wood on a live fire.”
That first brisket fanned a flame in El-Ghayesh that would burn for the next decade— all the way up until the day he officially opened the doors of his KG BBQ food truck in October. The truck, open Thursday through Sunday at Oddwood Brewing in East Austin, serves up some traditional Texas barbecue trappings, including brisket and dill-packed potato salad, that are transformed with fresh and light Middle Eastern flavors like za’atar seasoning, pomegranate juice and tahini sauce. But it was a long and winding country road to get here.
When El-Ghayesh returned to Cairo after his first Austin visit, barbecue slowly became an obsession. He learned everything he could about the art of barbecue from books and YouTube videos until he finally quit his lackluster finance job (against the advice of everyone he knew) to come back to Austin in pursuit of the divine knowledge of smoked meats. He spent a month asking local pitmasters to take him under their wing, but everyone turned him down, until he finally got a yes for an unpaid position from pitmaster Bill Kerlin at Kerlin BBQ.
After he learned the ropes at Kerlin, he moved on to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, where he worked 60 hours a week while taking full-time culinary classes at Austin Community College. Over the years he added stints at Lamberts and Lone Star Meats, learning about butchering and how to make sausages and charcuteries. At the same time, El-Ghayesh built up several successful side hustles including well-attended pop-ups and private cooking classes, so he felt confident enough to quit his full-time job. Then, Covid hit.
“Overnight, I lost everything,” El-Ghayesh says. But even a global pandemic didn’t stop him from his quest. After working as a food delivery driver for eight months, he got a new gig at Interstellar BBQ. He craved a personal creative outlet, so he started hosting small groups of friends for a supper club where he served his guests “high-end Egyptian dining, with a little bit of barbecue.” Photos from the meals on his Instagram blew up, and he suddenly had plenty of inquiries from Austinities eager to try his unique take on barbecue. Based on the success of the supper club and subsequent pop-ups at events like the Hot Luck Festival, he decided to invest in his own custom smoker and food truck. KG BBQ finally opened its doors at Oddwood Brewing in October, 10 full years after that first bite of brisket.
“We paid our dues and respect the craft of Texas barbecue,” El-Ghayesh says, “so it’s a very familiar bite and look of a certain dish, but then you try it and you’re just so surprised by all the flavors.”
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The ketchup-based barbecue sauce is made with pomegranate juice and molasses, cinnamon, cumin and sumac, so the meat is doused in a dash of tangy sweetness. “I really care about how good the food looks,” El-Ghayesh says of his artfully plated, vivid dishes that break the mold of the traditional brown-and-white barbecue palette. Pomegranate seeds dust hearty Mediterranean rice bowls topped with cinnamon and candied almonds (our table’s favorite and the truck’s best-selling item) and shawarma wraps for pops of brightness and bursts of unexpected sweetness.
Meaty barbecue, traditionally a heavy meal packed with starches, is balanced out by vegetable- and vinegar-heavy sides, like the Egyptian Baladi (meaning “local”) salad with tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and pomegranate seeds. Drag peppery lamb chops and pitas through light tahini sauce, a zingy dill yoghurt sauce and refreshing mint and parsley chimichurri (my personal favorite). Round out your meal with oum ali, Egyptian bread pudding swimming in milk, or cardamom and pistachio nut pudding topped with creamy mascarpone.
My dining companion, who grew up eating rice pudding in El Salvador, ate a spoonful of KG BBQ’s version and said, “This just made me cry right now.” What more can a Texan ask for than a fresh take on barbecue that just might move you to tears?
KG BBQ is located at Oddwood Brewing at 3108 Manor Rd. KQ BBQ is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, visit kgbbq.com.