“There is a tremendous amount of work and collaboration in order to open a restaurant, especially here in California.”
It’s been a long while since we interviewed someone for OTL. Truth be told, we wanted (needed?) to change things up a bit. We were also waiting for the right subject to come along and share their story. We found that someone in Drew Brahs. We’ve been patiently following the story of Harper Barbecue for well over a year, and were excited to know the next step is around the corner.
Who are you?
My name is Andrew Taylor Brahs, but I go by Drew. I grew up in the Newport Mesa area, and currently live on the peninsula in Newport.
What do you currently do for work?
I am currently building smokers at my shop in Huntington Beach. We build everything from small backyard pits to large pits on trailers. We build offset smokers that are heavy on function, not finish; something that is more common in Texas than California.
What was there before Harper? How far along are you?
Our restaurant, Harper Barbecue, will be in Costa Mesa, right off of 17th and Newport Boulevard; a stone’s throw from The Crack Shack and the old Grants for Guns. The location was a metal machine shop built back in the 40s. It is made of cinder block with steel-divided lite windows, a rare, authentic gem in the busy and ever-changing area of Eastside Costa Mesa.
I come from a construction background, and will be doing a good portion of the build-out myself to ensure that the layout and aesthetics are both functional and streamlined. We are in plan check with the city, and should begin construction in the next few months. We will have several months of construction ahead of us, while we aim to maintain the building’s charm of a previous era.
What inspired the concept?
I spent quite a bit of time in the Austin area of Texas where I fell in love with the Central Texas style of barbecue. At that time, I had just completed several welding courses at OCC. No-one between here and Austin made smokers that resembled the bare bones workhorse and patina design of these pits that kick out a style of barbecue that is truly special, so I built one in my garage. The next week, someone bought it off my driveway, and we have been building pits ever since.
In the same theme as the pits we build, we wanted to bring this style barbecue to the area. My family has been involved in restaurants over the years, and this will be a family-owned and operated restaurant. Kind of a novelty, as we see so many large monopolies of eating establishments opening up in the Eastside Costa Mesa area.
How has building a business from the ground up been?
The pit building business was truly unintentional. It pretty much smacked me in the face. There is a large market of people in need of real offset smokers as the food trend of authentically cooked barbecue has finally spread to the SoCal area. We do no advertising, and are purely word of mouth and Instagram oriented. Some of our work can be found on our Instagram @harperbarbecue. Pits will be part of the restaurant, as we will have an inventory of backyard pits for sale.
Why did you name it Harper?
Harper was the original name of Costa Mesa before it changed its name in the early 1900s. In homage to the history of Costa Mesa, we decided to blend that history with the classic old building, combined with cooking in a time-worn style and tradition, and came up with Harper Barbecue. I was born and raised in the area, and wouldn’t think of doing it anywhere else. The location is classic and fits our food perfectly.
Let’s talk about the menu. Tell us about sides you plan to serve. Will there be beer?
The menu will be quite simple. All meat will be sold by weight, and sides will be a lighter twist on the traditional heavy barbecue sides. The food will be based heavily on Central Texas-style barbecue: brisket, beef ribs, pork spare ribs, pulled pork, chicken and house-made sausages. Although being based in Central Texas-style techniques, we will also offer a “Coastal Smokehouse” theme of smoked fish, seafood and game.
All beef will be prime or better with sprinklings of wagyu. All pork is heritage, chicken free-range, and fish wild. Rubs and seasonings will be very simple, and will take a [back] seat to the main seasoning — real wood. We will use 100% white oak or post oak. We will have beer and wine, and plan to have up to 20 beers on tap at any given time.
What is your restaurant industry experience? Have you ever competed in a barbecue competition?
I worked at Bear Flag Fish Market at the original location for over four years. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about seafood and how to develop a family atmosphere among employees. I have never done a barbecue competition, and probably never will. They are great for the overall expansion of barbecue, but Central Texas-style barbecue really does not have a place in the competitive environment due to the length of cook times and overall simplicity of rubs and seasonings.
Tell us about home life.
I have a longtime girlfriend named Lauren Pedersen, who owns Costa Mesa Ceramics Studio on the end of West 17th Street. The restaurant will benefit from Lauren’s eye for design. She also ran expo at Boathouse Collective for a few years, and she will keep us all in line (insert wink emoji here). We have a pit bull named Frank.
Where do you like to eat and drink?
My favorite spot in the area is Daydream Surf Shop. They have insane coffee and are good buddies. I also built their bar and did a few other construction projects for their shop. Living on the Peninsula, I’ve grown very fond of eating at the bar at Bluewater Grill and The Alley for a late night prime rib sandwich. But the beef stew at East Borough at The Camp is probably my favorite local dish. Rye Goods Bakery also gets an honorable mention, as their peach cobbler (and everything else they make) is mind blowing. And Gunwhale is my favorite brewery around.
Lastly, your advice for the home barbecue cook. What’s the best method for cooking the meat?
Biggest tips are you cannot rush barbecue, and wood is king. After cooking a brisket for 16 hours or so, it is very hard to wait another hour or two to let the meat rest, but it may be the most important part. Pellet smokers and charcoal are good because they are easy. But in my biased opinion, there is nothing close to an authentic wood offset smoker.
Follow Drew Brahs on Instagram @harperbarbecue.
A contributing writer for OC Weekly, Anne Marie freelances for multiple online and print publications, and guest judges for culinary competitions. A Bay Area transplant, she graduated with a degree in Hospitality Management from Cal Poly Pomona. Find her on Instagram as brekkiefan.