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Beloved SF Barbecue Star Dies of Cancer at Age 42

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Marvin Lau, co-founder of the Native Sons BBQ pop-up, was known for his Texas style brisket — and his great generosity and humility

Lau (left) stands in front of a smoker with his friend Harry Pali
Lau (left) stands in front of a smoker with his friend Harry Pali
Native Sons BBQ

Marvin Lau, the chef and co-founder of the Native Sons BBQ, one of the Bay Area’s most acclaimed barbecue pop-ups, died on July 5 after a decade-long battle with cancer. He was 42 years old.

A San Francisco native, Lau was born on January 10, 1978. He grew up in the Sunset and attended Lincoln High School. In 2014, he founded Native Sons with his longtime friend, and fellow SF native, Eldo Chan. The pop-up, which held regular events at various breweries all over the city, garnered a large following for its Central Texas style barbecue — a rarity in the Bay Area. At the peak of its popularity, from 2015 to 2018, Native Sons had regular pop-ups at many of the city’s prominent breweries, including Harmonic Brewing, Speakeasy, Triple Voodoo, and Seven Stills. Customers routinely arrived an hour and a half before the start of an event in order to beat the lines.

Writing for the SF Chronicle in 2016, food writer Omar Mamoon called Native Sons’ Central Texas-style barbecue pop-ups the “next best option” for San Franciscans who couldn’t make the pilgrimage out to Austin, Texas, giving particular praise to the brisket — “the Platonic ideal of a Central Texan smoked brisket: The meat is perfectly seasoned and cooked, tender on both the fatty and lean sides while maintaining a crust with a slight bite.” Regulars also knew to ask for the giant beef ribs when they were available — each rib, “in its full glory,” big enough to cover a man’s hand, according to a 2016 post on Chowhound.

Lau’s illness was always a part of the Native Sons BBQ story: He was first diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, a rare head and neck cancer, in 2010. As he told the Chron, he started the pop-up in the fall of 2014 — quitting his day job as a software tester to do so — after the cancer went into remission, in large part because he felt like it was “now or never.” As Chan tells Eater, “I think the question of his mortality was definitely a driving force for Marvin — the pace and the force he worked at.”

Lau (center) and Chan slicing up brisket during a photo shoot
Lau (center) and Chan slicing up brisket during a photo shoot
Ryo Sakai

Basil Lau, Marvin’s older brother by a year, says Lau was always very “mechanically talented” — and deeply passionate about everything he took up, whether it was cars, computers, kayaking, or cooking. And, when it came to barbecue, Chan says, “There was this kind of drive and push for perfection that Marvin had. You were either along for the ride or you stepped aside.”

Chan explains that he and Lau had met in the late 90s, and the two connected over their mutual love of food. “Marvin was like five foot two, pretty quiet, but when he spoke it had weight,” Chan recalls. “We were those guys who would show up at your barbecue, whether it was at Golden Gate Park or at somebody’s house, and somehow elbow our way in and take over.”

When it came time to start their own business, Chan says they were cognizant of the fact that it was fairly unusual for two Asian Americans to be doing barbecue in San Francisco. Tommy Cleary, the chef of Hina Yakitori and an Asian American himself, admits that he was skeptical at first for that precise reason: “An Asian dude making Texas brisket? No way.” But when Cleary tried Lau’s food he declared it the best barbecue he’d ever had in California.

“[Lau] had no ego at all and was very soft spoken,” Cleary says. “He didn’t need to say much because his food did all the talking.”

What struck Adolfo Liu, a partner at Hina Yakitori and another longtime Native Sons devotee, was how Lau would just give away portions of brisket that didn’t live up to his very high standards. “It showed how much honor he had for his craft,” Liu says. “You don’t really see people like that anymore.”

In 2018, Lau’s cancer metastasized again, and his health soon deteriorated to the point where he wasn’t able to continue the pop-ups, only hosting a small handful of events after the summer of that year. The last official Native Sons pop-up took place in April of 2019. Still, even during those difficult years, Lau’s passion for barbecue never faded.

Matt Horn, the chef and founder of Horn Barbecue, West Oakland’s forthcoming Texas-influenced barbecue joint, met Lau during Horn Barbecue’s early pop-up days and connected with him over their mutual passion for smoking meat. One night, late in 2017, Lau texted him out of the blue at around 1 a.m. and asked if he was cooking — and then showed up in person, a little while later, with coffee in tow, as well as fish that he grilled up on the spot for Horn and his hungry, tired crew.

“He showed me love and kindness,” Horn says. “He would just come out, no matter the time of the night. He wanted to be near the fire and be near barbecue.”

Lau (left) and Matt Horn share a joyful moment in front of the smoker during a barbecue event
Lau (left) and Matt Horn share a joyful moment during a barbecue event
Matt Horn

Even as Lau’s illness intensified in this past year, to the point where he had to put Native Sons on hold, he would still routinely come to help out at Horn Barbecue events, Horn says. “Me and Marvin are not blood related, but we are part of the same community. You have two people coming from two different cultures, two different backgrounds, and barbecue being that unifier that brings us together,” Horn says.

As for the future of Native Sons BBQ, Chan says it’s too early to say if the pop-up will ever be resurrected in any form. “Marvin definitely said to me, Native Sons needs to keep going even when I’m gone. He vocalized that.” At the same time, Chan says, it feels like the business ought to just be a part of his friend’s legacy: “I don’t know if Native Sons BBQ is Native Sons BBQ without Marv.”

  • How Adversity Helped Launch Native Sons BBQ in San Francisco [SFC]