The Pitmaster on Harlem Road
When it comes to barbecue in Texas, there are as many talented pit masters as there are cords of wood awaiting smokers and live fires across the state. One such commander of the smoker is Ara Malekian, owner and operator of ARACAN mobile gourmet kitchen and forthcoming Harlem Road Barbecue based in Richmond, Texas. Malekian serves his own take on Texas ’cue based on years of observing, tasting, cooking and experimenting—plus a profound respect for his ingredients and sources.
Growing up in Switzerland, Malekian didn’t have the luxury of learning his craft from generations of family members, but starting at the age of 12 he began apprenticing in the commercial kitchen of a French chef during summer breaks from boarding school. Responsibilities grew from dishwasher to prep cook and eventually a spot on the line.
“There’s barbecue all over the world in different forms and shapes,” he says, noting that the equipment where he apprenticed was fueled primarily by burning wood. Along the way he learned the time-intensive art of sausage making and charcuterie from “this old German guy” and continues to draw on those skills in his business today.
The notion of a Swiss-born chef creating exceptional Texas barbecue may cause pause for some connoisseurs, but that pause lasts only as long as it takes them to sample a bite of his well-tended meat. That Malekian’s initiation into Texas-style cooking came from Dr. Hogly Wogly’s Tyler Texas BBQ in Los Angeles (which, according to its website, was started by a native Texan in 1969) lends yet another interesting twist on his journey from cross-country chef and restaurateur for the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Academy Awards dinners to Texas pit master.
After moving to the Lone Star State 12 years ago to be closer to family, he started cooking barbecue for himself and eventually settled on his current smoking methods and Armenian coffee sauce recipe. Note the singular “sauce,” because in the eyes of Malekian (and many others), “My barbecue doesn’t need sauce, but if you want it there’s only one kind.”
While he credits classical French training for the foundation of quality and consistency it provides in his cooking, such as understanding how meat develops a smoke ring or the way bark forms, he doesn’t try to make his food something it’s not.
“I’m very big on keeping true to the roots of whatever I’m cooking,” he says. “I try not to get too cute with my food, especially with barbecue. If you start getting too cute with it you’re going to ruin it.”
Such sentiments carry over into the meat itself as Malekian emphasizes the importance of selecting the right cut of meat for the job. “I think it’s a misnomer for people to use more expensive—like an Akaushi or a Wagyu—for a cut of brisket,” he says. “The technique of cooking barbecue at low temperatures for long periods of time was designed to use tough cuts of meat, to tenderize it. So if you use a really fatty or good cut of meat what happens is that technique wasn’t designed for that type of cut so it turns the meat into an unpleasant texture.”
In other words, a select- or choice-grade brisket will always come out better than a prime cut when cooked side by side. During his early research days, he also learned that unless meat is touched by vinegar at some point during the cooking process, it can’t be called barbecue. As such, he regularly sprays his meats with a combination of apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and water.
Despite embracing time-honored techniques, Malekian still finds individuality by using retired French oak red wine barrels for smoking: He says the wood burns clean and sweet, providing a much denser volume of smoke than traditional woods like post oak, hickory, alderwood or cherry. Meat includes locally sourced hogs from Black Hill Ranch, rabbits from Tejas Heritage, and 44 Farms brisket. Those products along with homemade sausage are smoked in custom-built vault-style cookers from Pit Maker. Not one to waste ingredients, Malekian prepares specials like duck gizzard chili and head cheese made from those Black Hill Ranch hogs, which he buys whole and cooks on a rotisserie.
Once Harlem Road Barbecue opens, diners will have access to daily selections from the smoker plus specials and desserts, such as Malekian’s signature butterscotch chocolate chip cookies. The 40-seat restaurant will offer a uniquely casual yet well-designed space full of reclaimed materials and fixtures built by Malekian himself.
“I’m very big about talking to my clients and seeing what their likes and dislikes are,” he says. “All I want to do is cook some really good, honest, great barbecue that people are gonna like.”
Visit harlemroadtexasbbq.com for directions and menu items to make you drool.