Diego Velasco may be the executive chef for one of Orange County's hippest restaurant companies, the Memphis Group, but he first learned the art of Southern cooking when he was living in a trailer in Carbon Canyon. The trailer was in a parking lot halfway between Brea and Chino, next-door to the La Veta Roadhouse, a notorious biker bar where Diego had lied about his age—he was just 19 but claimed to be 23—to get his first job as a cook.
While working at the roadhouse, Velasco shared the trailer with members of the Rebels, a Southern rock band from New Orleans whose hopes to conquer the American West with hard-rock jams never took off. Velasco ended up touring with the band for a year, during which time he fell in love with Southern cooking. He took that love to San Francisco, where he studied soul food—a sprawling blend of Caribbean, French and African influences that runs the gamut from Cajun-spiced crawfish to pulled-pork sandwiches and collard greens—at the California Culinary Academy.
For the past 10 years, Velasco has fine-tuned his recipes for the Memphis Group, creating a uniquely contemporary twist on the classic Southern cuisine. He also got married and raised a family in a historic neighborhood of downtown Santa Ana, where he loves spending hot summer days in front of his barbecue.
I've known Velasco ever since I began eating at Memphis in Costa Mesa shortly after joining the Weekly. It's also where I met my wife, who used to wait tables there and who also has done public-relations work for the company. Velasco recently shared some tips on how to enjoy a summertime backyard barbecue, Memphis-style.
OC Weekly: First things first: Let's talk burgers. No barbecue is complete without burgers. How do you create a juicy, soulful burger?
Diego Velasco: You always start with good meat. At the restaurant, we use Angus ground chuck because it has the perfect ratio of lean meat to fat, so you get a nice juicy burger. If the meat is too lean, it won't have any flavor. You want to keep your burgers simple but interesting. Everything we do is made from scratch. We use our own homemade mayonnaise and aioli. Chipotle aioli is what we serve with our Soul Burger. My friends and I are also really into Argentinean barbecuing, and that calls for homemade chimichurri sauce—a mixture of olive oil, parsley, cilantro and garlic.
We also use homemade barbecue sauce made from ketchup, stewed tomatoes, fresh onions, brown sugar, and red and white vinegar. You don't want your barbecue sauce to be too sweet or have any smoke. If you want your meat smoky, then smoke the meat and then serve the sauce on the side.
Speaking of meat, what about ribs? You don't get much more Southern than that.
The Memphis-style rib is a baby-back rib—we don't serve them in Costa Mesa, but we do in Santa Ana. What we do is put on a dry rub, a proprietary spice blend we rub on the ribs, and smoke them five to six hours. You need a smoker—a standstill box that has an electrical element at the bottom—and you fill the canister with hickory wood. Then you smoke the ribs until they're so tender they fall off the bone. Those are great with a vinegary barbecue sauce served on the side.
How about crawfish? They're messy as hell but perfect for summer. What's your favorite way to serve them?
You want to have an old, well-seasoned pot. Put the pot directly on the barbecue and just load it up with coals so the heat stays for a while and gets the water boiling. I use chicken stock instead of water—it makes the crawfish richer and more flavorful. Throw in two to three large, halved white or brown onions—not peeled, just cut in half—and four heads of garlic with the top third cut off so the cloves are exposed. I throw some butter in there as well, along with red potatoes and corn on the cob. You can also add hot Louisiana sausage for added flavor.
What I learned from the guys I met from New Orleans is that you also want crawfish-boil seasoning. They have filtered bags of seasoning you can just drop in the pot; you can get them at regular supermarkets. It has peppercorns and coriander and peppers, and they call it Crab Boil. It's just got a great flavor. Old Bay seasoning is great for any kind of seafood: You just sprinkle it on like seasoned salt. You can use that if you don't have crab boil.
Does the same recipe work for boiling clams or other shellfish?
A clambake is the same general idea as a crawfish boil, but you don't want the recipe to be as spicy. Put a little white wine in the water and add clams, mussels, shrimps and whole lobsters sliced in half lengthwise. Stay with the smaller lobsters, no heavier than a pound or a one-and-a-quarter. If you have a pot to cover the entire top of the grill, do that and just keep adding coals on the side to keep it hot.
It's also easy to use those propane-powered stockpot burners. They sell them at Smart and Final and have two large burners side by side attached to a propane tank. It's basically an outdoor stove and gives you a lot more control over the heat so you don't have to keep adding coals. Use the same vegetables as you would for crawfish—garlic, corn and whole onions, and maybe some kielbasa sausage—anything that isn't too spicy.
If you have some vegetarian company or just want something light on the side, what would you recommend?
A classic caesar salad is always good for a barbecue. It's light and simple, and it goes really well with seafood. So does a Crab Louie salad. It's more old-school. Just mix iceberg lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and crab-leg meat with a Thousand Island dressing, either homemade or store-bought. You can make a cold grilled-vegetable salad with a mix of peppers, onions, zucchini and asparagus. Grill them ahead of time, cool them down, chop them up and serve them in a light vinaigrette of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a little hint of garlic. Then just shake it up, and serve with watercress or something like that on the side.
Did I say no summer barbecue is complete without burgers? I meant liquor.
At Memphis, two of our favorite beers were from New Orleans—Dixie and Blackened Voodoo—but we lost that source because [Hurricane] Katrina wiped out their facility. Now we serve Abita; it's from another New Orleans brewery and is dark like the Blackened Voodoo. If you're doing a clambake, white wine is excellent. We're also a big fan of mint juleps and mojitos.
But in the summer, there's an abundance of blackberries, which are great for margaritas. I like to muddle, so I put the syrup and lime juice and ice together and add two to three blackberries at a time and pound out the juice and make a mush. It's easy to make simple syrup and tastes better than store-bought lime juice. It's just equal parts boiling water and plain white sugar. You dissolve the sugar in the water and chill it, and that's your syrup.
What music goes great with a Southern-style summer barbecue?
It depends on the atmosphere you want. Jazz is usually a good bet—especially New Orleans jazz, although my friends and I are also really into French music, café-style music from the 1960s. Oh, yeah—and anything by Led Zeppelin.
Sample Velasco's fare at Memphis at the Santora, 201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 564-1064; memphiscafe.com.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).