RIP Bigmista’s Barbecue: Famous Long Beach Pitmaster Moves On

Bigmista’s Barbecue’s Neil Strawder works the smokers on the last day of service at the Sammich Shop. Photo by Sarah Bennett

It seems cruel to lose one of Southern California’s best pitmasters just as barbecue season is heating up, but Bigmista’s Barbecue and Sammich Shop closed for good July 1 in the same manner as it lived—on its own damn terms.

Since 2004, Neil Strawder (a.k.a. Big Mista) has been a fixture in the California barbecue scene. He toted his custom bright-red smoker first to competitions (up to eight per year) and later to LA-area farmers’ markets (up to five days a week), where the onetime banker served tender brisket, peppery pastrami, toothsome ribs, aromatic turkey and more to consistently sold-out crowds.

Despite accolades from all of the top food critics in the city and desperate pleas for increased availability from far-flung customers, Strawder waited to open a brick-and-mortar, eventually settling not in any of the neighborhoods that originally built his popularity, but in Long Beach, where Strawder and his wife, Phyllis, lived.

The Sammich Shop opened in 2014, at the height of the local barbecue “moment.” It was a time when pitmasters realized you didn’t have to be a regional purist to smoke good meat and new ’cue concepts strode into areas previously underserved by Long Beach’s small but dedicated barbecue scene.

The brisket lunch combo at the Sammich Shop. Photo by Sarah Bennett

But even with an increased interest in the good low-and-slow, Strawder struggled to draw the farmers’ market crowds to a hidden strip mall off Los Coyotes Diagonal in East Long Beach. The food was the same, if not better than before, with a commercial smoker for more of the classics and a locals-only call list for specialties such as rib tips, pastrami and a sticky-sweet, bacon-like invention called “pig candy.”

A second location, called Bigmista’s Morning Wood, focused on sit-down service and meaty Southern-style breakfasts. It often found its 10 seats packed, with the next round of diners waiting outside to discover the Strawders’ creativity free from the confines of a barbecue joint.

Citing low profit margins, Bigmista’s Morning Wood quietly ceased service in February.

Meanwhile, the long lines and sell-out lunch rushes at the Sammich Shop became an exception, not the rule. By his own admission, Neil wasn’t the best at managing the shop or cordially dealing with customer complaints. Just last month, Phyllis announced the closure of the Sammich Shop on the company website.

“I know people want to know why, and the short answer is because we’re grown and we can,” she wrote, saying the couple is moving out of state and starting fresh—maybe in food, but maybe not. “The long answer may be a bit more complicated, but not much different.”

RIP, Bigmista’s Barbecue & Sammich Shop: 2014-18. Photo by Sarah Bennett

On the Sammich Shop’s last day, a line formed early and long. Most people seemed to be nearby residents, picking up by-the-pound pre-orders and reminiscing about all the quick lunches and weeknight dinners the shop had provided their families and friends. Many had been so loyal that they hadn’t considered trying Robert Earl’s, the expanding home of Texas-style barbecue in North Long Beach.

Neil rolled through the front door with a cart and some tongs to check on the sidewalk smokers, pushing past well wishers. As he flipped chicken breasts and rearranged racks one last time, he talked the changes he’s seen since he first started barbecuing 14 years ago and how he wished the crowds that have come in the past few weeks had been around more during the past four years. He sounded tired, but also happy to be leaving behind the intense hustle that running a daily operation entails.

Within an hour, the only items left were hot links, pulled brisket and a few sides. Just half an hour later, everything was gone except the pineapple coleslaw in the fridge and a few cans of Shasta soda.

For most of its existence, Bigmista’s Barbecue bucked traditions, rejected the norms and wrote its own recipe for success. The Strawders held fast to just one rule of barbecue: “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.

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