Great barbecue comes in all shapes and sizes. Just take a look around the world — it seems that each culture has its own form of barbecue that’s close to people’s hearts, whether its American backyard or a Brazilian churrascaria. The best part about eating barbecue in this country is how much the sauce and technique changes from region to region. When you add in the melting pot of different cultures and traditions from abroad, you suddenly have one of the most interesting cuisines in the world.
Enter Sweet Auburn BBQ, an Atlanta-based joint that started from a trailer and grew into two brick-and-mortar locations along with multiple food trucks. Helmed by brother-sister team Howard and Anita Hsu, the restaurant’s menu fuses classic Southern ingredients and techniques with the flavors of their Chinese-Malaysian heritage. We caught up with Howard to learn how they got started, why veggies are so important to his menu, and what’s next for the team.
You started Sweet Auburn out of a trailer. What made you want to turn this hobby into something much bigger?
Cooking has always been a huge part of my identity. Growing up, my siblings and I worked as servers and cooks in my parents’ restaurants throughout Atlanta. I like to think this is where cooking became my passion. It was only a matter of time before I chose a career in the culinary industry.
When my sister Anita and I were starting out, we spent entire weekends experimenting with barbecue recipes. After months of trial and error, we developed a line-up of barbecue dishes and took our Asian-inspired cuisine on the road. Once word got out and our business started growing, we realized that we needed a larger space, and we were grateful to join Sweet Auburn Curb Market near downtown Atlanta. Thus, the name “Sweet Auburn Barbecue” was born. We’ve since grown to multiple food trucks and a second, full-service restaurant location in Atlanta’s Poncey-Highlands neighborhood.
We know that great barbecue requires a lot of time and patience, but what other tips, tricks, or secrets can you offer to the at-home pitmaster?
You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to make a delicious barbecue dish — just patience and the will to learn from your mistakes. For at-home pitmasters looking to make delicious, high-quality barbecue, it’s important to keep the meat moist when smoking, be mindful of heat and maintain a constant temperature throughout the cooking cycle.
At Sweet Auburn, you have some unique menu items, like a Korean-style short rib sandwich and pimento cheese wontons. What advice can you give to the home chef who wants to experiment with fusion barbecue? Is it more about the sauces and seasonings or cooking method?
Sauces and seasonings are equally important when cooking a fusion barbecue dish. Because it’s easy to over-season, I always recommend familiarizing oneself with what flavors the ingredients bring out in each other when mixed together — is it sweet, savory, peppery? For a home chef just starting out, my best advice is to build upon the flavors you know. For example, at Sweet Auburn Barbecue, it’s important to me that we create dishes that marry the region of the South my team and I call home with my family’s Chinese-Malaysian heritage.
You also cater to vegetarians, which isn’t something you see often at a barbecue joint. Are there any veggie dishes on the menu that are a must-try? What meats would you pair them with, for the carnivores out there?
We’re lucky to be in the South, which supplies us with an endless assortment of local, delicious veggies no matter the time of year. At Sweet Auburn, we think it’s important to cater to the many tastes that make up our community, and we love the chance to showcase vegetables. Our “Eat Your Veggies Plate” is a favorite among vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. It gives guests the choice of four of our seasonally-driven vegetable sides, including green papaya Asian slaw, smoked corn salad, jerk-spiced collards, and more. For carnivores looking for the perfect vegetable to pair with their dish, our wok-fried green beans are an excellent choice.
What’s next for Sweet Auburn Barbecue? Any new dishes, meats or methods you’ve been working on and can’t wait to unveil?
We’re excited for what 2018 has in store for Sweet Auburn and are currently working on a house-made smoked sausage that’s expected to debut on our menu this spring.