On a recent Saturday afternoon, Aaron Stewart was posted up inside the Good Hop bottle shop in Oakland. His setup included all the familiar trappings of a mid-pandemic pop-up: a big stack of plastic takeout containers, a face mask close at hand. He offered COVID-conscious elbow bumps to customers he recognized.
Stewart spent the better part of the day tending to the meats in his East Oakland backyard smoker. When customers opened up their to-go box, they found the typical components of a classic two-way combo: a few meaty ribs, thick like bricks; slices of fatty brisket coated in dark, sweet barbecue sauce; and a couple of sides, including a mustardy, wonderfully balanced potato salad.
But Stewart’s concept, MexiQ, isn’t just barbecue, it’s Mexican barbecue — MexiQ. So there was also a jalapeno corn muffin with a bit of a kick and a small tub of Mexican rice. And underneath the deep, rewarding smokiness of the meat itself were hints of unexpected flavors — a whiff of tequila in the barbecue sauce, a tangy-sweet tamarind glaze on the ribs.
The food Stewart makes is not purely Mexican, but an expression of the flavors he grew up with as an Oakland native. His family was the only Black family on the block in his predominantly Latino East Oakland neighborhood — and as a kid he was sometimes made fun of, he recalls, for hanging out almost exclusively with his Mexican neighbors. “These are the people I grew up with,” Stewart says. “I’m not just a Black dude trying to throw barbecue on tacos.”
For the past three years, he’s grown his business, MexiQ, from a little-known pop-up taco stand run out of his driveway in Deep East Oakland, to a full-blown catering company and rising star of San Francisco’s La Cocina kitchen incubator program, to now, during these COVID-fueled times of social distancing, a weekly takeout staple for hundreds of loyal customers.
On the surface, Stewart’s foray into Mexican cooking might seem unlikely. Prior to starting MexiQ, he spent years working in Bay Area restaurants — including Brown Sugar Kitchen, the most recent and prominent of the bunch, back when the new-school soul food spot was still at its old West Oakland location. In 2016, he decided to go to culinary school to get a classical French training. But none of his professional experience as a chef, really, had been in cooking Mexican food.
For Stewart, though, it felt like a logical pivot. After he finished culinary school, he and his wife, Leida Venegas, who is Mexican, started talking about how they might create a new food business by combining their two backgrounds. As Venegas put it, “I know how to do my Mexican dishes, and you know how to smoke ribs.” The name, “MexiQ,” came before the food. Venegas gave him several months’ worth of intensive training in Mexican rice and bean cookery; the couple traveled to Mexico to taste the moles and different spices; and then, over the course of two and a half years, the two slowly figured out the rest.
Stewart, 38, explains that his love of Mexican food stretches back to his childhood in that largely Mexican East Oakland neighborhood where he grew up. And because Stewart’s father loved smoking meat, the same dynamic played out every time there was some kind of neighborhood get-together: “It was always my family — my father — doing barbecue, and my friends cooking Mexican food.”
Stewart says he’s always thinking about those roots. He still uses the time-weathered, 100-gallon drum smoker that his dad used for 30 years — “I know how to work it, I know where the hot spots are,” he says. He embraces the term “fusion” as a descriptor for his food, and while he doesn’t directly bring up the idea of appropriation, he’s very aware of how he might be perceived for coming at the cuisine as an outsider to the culture. “For this to really work, I had to have the true and honest respect from Mexican customers coming in,” he says. “I never want to take this and make it disrespectful.”
Stewart smokes his brisket for 20 hours and serves it sliced thick with a tequila barbecue sauce. His ribs offer just a hint of sweetness, thanks to a tamarind glaze. His smoked boneless chicken thighs are prepared one of two ways: either chopped up and tossed in barbecue sauce to be wrapped inside a burrito, or shredded and tossed in a chipotle tomato sauce — a take on chicken tinga with an extra layer of smoke added to the mix. “I make sure whatever I’m doing is a blend of the two [cuisines],” Stewart says. “Not just taking smoked meats and putting jalapenos on it.”
He serves tacos too — though not right now, during the coronavirus crisis, since they don’t lend themselves to being boxed up and sold off-site. But normally he piles those smoked meats onto corn tortillas and serves them with the same toppings you’d get at any reputable taqueria: just onions, cilantro, and salsa. Sometimes he’ll still serve his tostadas — Venegas’s favorite dish — as a meal kit. Venegas says they’re somewhat akin to the version Taco Bell sells, but loaded with fresh ingredients in addition to the smoked meat: “I can eat a whole bunch of them during a day and not get full.”
Like all food businesses, MexiQ has had to make adjustments during the pandemic — there used to be a more festive vibe, everyone hanging out in the driveway. Now, with the ongoing health crisis, even when Stewart has pop-ups in East Oakland, they’re more restrained affairs — everyone just picking up their takeout box and heading off. Still, Stewart says, the takeout business has been going well in the COVID-19 era — better than ever, in fact. The steady business gives him hope that maybe this really is the time for his take on Mexican-style barbecue to step onto a larger platform. “The end game,” Stewart says, “is to have a restaurant in Oakland.”
“Mexican barbecue,” as Stewart practices it, is a cuisine with a relatively short history — in part because Mexico doesn’t really have a longstanding tradition of smoking meat. According to Javier Cabral, the editor of LA Taco and a producer — and lead taco scout — for the Netflix series Taco Chronicles, the closest thing is probably barbacoa, the centuries-old method of slow-cooking meat from whose name the word “barbecue” originally derived.
Cabral points out that when lamb barbacoa is cooked in the Hidalgo style, wrapped in agave leaves and earth-roasted in a pit, the meat does wind up taking on a smoky flavor. (Cochinita pibil, the Mayan pit-roasted pork preparation found in the Yucatán, operates on a similar principle.) But no one would mistake a barbacoa restaurant, with its tacos loaded with tender roasted lamb or beef parts and its steaming bowls of consomé, with an American barbecue joint.
More recently, Cabral says, barbecue culture has taken root in parts of Mexico in a somewhat more unexpected way: Back in the ‘90s, the Big Green Egg — the Atlanta-based company that manufactures what is perhaps the most iconic, widely lauded charcoal grill/smoker — set up its factory in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, not far from the Texas border. As a result, Cabral says, those Big Green Eggs became a status symbol in the Monterrey area, and a new kind of Mexican smoking culture has emerged, fueled in part by the region’s proximity to Texas, that’s more similar to the American style: cuts of beef and pork cooked low and slow in a smoker.
In Northern California, the idea of combining Mexican flavors with American-style barbecue is a relative novelty. There is one fairly new, existing restaurant in Oakland’s heavily Latino Fruitvale neighborhood, Ruby Q Smoke Fusion, that offers diners the option of putting its American-style barbecue meats on a taco or a quesadilla. There are a couple of informal, Instagram-based businesses that, like Stewart, wield a smoker to put out their own take on Mexican barbecue — and, almost certainly, plenty of Mexican-American home grill masters who do the same. By and large, though, “Mexican barbecue” isn’t an established genre of cuisine in the Bay Area restaurant scene.
In a handful of other Mexican-American communities around the country, however, it’s more widespread — in Los Angeles, for instance, where so many of the Mexican food trends in the U.S. first gain a foothold before they spread elsewhere. Cabral says the first prominent example he became aware of was East LA BBQ Co., whose founder, David Marin, built up a huge following among SoCal-based Raiders fans for his smoked ribs with chipotle barbecue sauce and smoked lengua tacos starting in 2014. There has been a wave of so-called Chicano barbecue pop-ups that have cropped up in LA in the years since — a natural evolution of the city’s “backyard carne asada culture,” Cabral says, as home grill masters started experimenting with smokers. Meanwhile, in Texas, there’s a whole slew of next-generation Mexican-American food trucks and restaurants that are fusing together the region’s deep Tex-Mex and barbecue traditions. Valentina’s, in Austin, is probably the most prominent of these, with its pit-roasted barbacoa and its smoked brisket breakfast tacos. For now, in Oakland, MexiQ is still something of a first mover.
What all of these expressions of Mexican-American — or American-Mexican — barbecue have in common is that they seem to have developed organically out of the various ways that local Mexican food communities came into contact with American barbecue and adapted it to suit their needs. And ultimately, that’s the crux of Stewart’s story, too. There’s his marriage, of course, and his East Oakland upbringing. But maybe the most moving thing about MexiQ is the way that Stewart navigates that kind of cross-cultural dialogue on a daily basis.
“He’s a translator,” says Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, the immigrant- and POC-focused kitchen incubator program, which accepted Stewart’s application to join shortly before the start of the pandemic. “It’s dope. It’s the dream of a kitchen like La Cocina. People come in and get inspired by it and make new things.”
Stewart says that for many of his customers, his pop-up was their first encounter with Mexican-inspired barbecue — and, whether Black or Mexican themselves, they didn’t always know what to make of the concept. “In the beginning it was tough,” Venegas says. “People were reluctant to try food from a Black taquero.”
These days, though, Stewart says his customers cover the whole spectrum: Black, white, Asian, and Latino. People from his neighborhood, people from the suburbs, foreign tourists who found MexiQ on Yelp. And so, at his driveway pop-ups, Stewart becomes the intermediary for that experience. Black customers who come for the first time are usually expecting straight barbecue, he explains — some have never tried a tostada or a mole. Often, Stewart says, he’ll have Black customers who ask about the “jamaica” agua fresca he serves, pronouncing it like the name of the country. His response: “This is Mexican Kool Aid right here.”
Eventually, he gained a loyal following. Now, he says, he’ll have Black customers who would only ever order barbecue by the pound come back, and “want a tostada; they want that salsa I made last week.” Still, Stewart says, some of his favorite moments are the ones when he feels like he’s made a connection with older Mexican customers who order in Spanish and perhaps come expecting more traditional Mexican food. These are the customers who pepper Stewart with questions after they try his food: “How do you make your tostadas? How do you cook your beans? Who taught you to make mole?” Nothing is more gratifying, Stewart says, than when one of those customers tries his rice and gives their nod of approval.
“To have them say this is good — that’s the best thing I can get,” Stewart says.