Texas’ #1 Smoked Meat Guru Takes on $175 Bel-Air Barbecue

Texas Monthly’s famed barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, heads west to see what happens when three of the planet’s premier pitmasters smoke out the city’s rich and famous

The backyard barbecue held at the Hotel Bel-Air on Wednesday night was a gathering conducted by three of the world’s culinary heavyweights. Francis Mallmann traveled from Argentina, and Adam Perry Lang from the considerably closer Manhattan Beach. Wolfgang Puck was the affable host. With such a collection of culinary talent, I hastily booked a ticket from my home in Dallas. I was coming for the food, and an eagerness to see a barbecue in the most upscale backyard one could choose. The decision was also fueled by a desire to snag an audience with Mallmann. The Argentine chef has been a leading figure in the push to render compatible the combination of fine dining and live-fire cooking. In short, Mallmann helped make cooking with fire cool again.

The chef trio’s orchestra of charred meat was performed while the well-heeled sipped sparkling rosé and cucumber-basil margaritas on the manicured lawn of the hotel grounds. Part of that lawn was sacrificial as beef fat dripped for hours from whole racks of prime rib, served at a perfect medium rare throughout the evening. Mallmann’s team had erected the canopy of rebar and hanging beef surrounded by fire. Lucky for the chefs assisting (L.A.’s own Ben Ford and Chad Colby among them), the meat required little attention because entering the ring of fire meant an unwelcome shower of meat juices. Such was their dedication to our dining pleasure.

With all the heavily seasoned and charred meats, a salt-crusted salmon from Mallmann’s team sounded like an underdog on the menu, but it made its mark. Sheets trays, each with two whole fish, were loaded down with a snowy-looking mound of salt. The trays were placed above a raging fire, and more trays full of flaming logs were piled atop. Mallmann calls this method of cooking infiernillo, or “little hell.” My singed arms that got too close to the fire during a photo attempt can attest to the relevancy of the name.

Adam Perry Lang chose to inhabit the backstage area where twin steel pits from Austin’s Aaron Franklin churned through pecan wood as its smoke bathed briskets, beef short ribs, and whole Wagyu beef tongues; the only exotic flair on the night’s menu. Lang served his barbecue from a perch behind a cutting block the size of a breakfast table. Thin slices of buttery beef rib were carved with a knife forged by Lang himself, which he has dubbed the “meatchete.”

Also on the block was the finest brisket I’ve eaten in California. When I first tasted Lang’s brisket at his Hollywood pop-up it felt like a work in progress, although with one heck of a head start, but his Texas-style techniques have all fallen into place. For now, though, you’ll have to seek out Lang’s special events, because the best brisket in California doesn’t have a restaurant just yet. “Soon” was Lang’s ever-patient answer to the dozens asking about any progress on the restaurant front.

As I literally pointed out the elements that make a fine slice of brisket to a friend, he asked me if it bugs my wife when I eat meat with my hands. I set the brisket back down on the white china to ponder that, while scanning the other tables where a flurry of knives and forks whittled through the beef, and the cloth napkins were considerably cleaner than mine. My brisket usually comes on butcher paper or Styrofoam in barbecue joints where eating with your hands isn’t questioned. It just tastes better that way, so I saved the utensils for the prime rib and lobster. Did I mention there was lobster?

On his home turf, Puck chose a role of deference. I guess it’s the only time that grilled lobster might be considered a third fiddle, but he left it to the pitmaster and the Argentine to wow guests like Jimmy Kimmel, Joel McHale, Nancy Silverton, and the hard-to-impress Thomas Keller himself.

Finding fault with any of the food served would be petty quibbling. It was a masterful meal—or rather three meals, and at $175 per ticket it needed to be. When Mallmann is involved, his cooking provides dinner and the show. That coupled with savagely devouring the best brisket in California made it more than worth it.

Daniel Vaughn is the barbecue editor at our sister publication, Texas Monthly. His first book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, was released in May 2013 by Ecco, Anthony Bourdain’s line of books.