GARDEN GROVE, Calif. ― When you think of Little Saigon and what it’s known for, sticky ribs and southern-style BBQ would most likely not make it to the top of ― or even on ― your list. Pho, yes; hu tieu and bun bo hue, sure. But BBQ? Try again.
The SmoKING Ribs is located at 14211 N. Euclid St. in Garden Grove.
That was the case until Kenny Tran came into town and started cranking out rack upon rack of juicy, tender, wood-smoked ribs and put BBQ on the map in Little Saigon. So sure of his recipe, he named the restaurant The SmoKING Ribs.
Tran’s love affair with BBQ began when most teenage boys were learning about cars and dating. Instead, Tran heard a calling for the grill, and his love for BBQ began with a chance encounter at the supermarket.
The commercial-sized, custom-built pit took two months to build and had to be assembled on site.(Photo: Thuy Phan/Nguoi Viet)
“When I was 14, my mom told me there were some beef ribs that were on sale at the local supermarket and so we went,” Tran, 40, said. “I stood in front of the meat section for 30 minutes just staring at the different cuts of meat, not knowing what they are. A … lady comes up to me, pats me on the back and says, ‘Just pick one rack. Pick one, boil it for 30 minutes, throw it on the grill, and slather your sauce on it.’ Then she gave me a hug and said, ‘That will get you started.’”
Beef brisket is sold by the pound and is juicy and tender. (Photo: Thuy Phan/Nguoi Viet)
Not knowing then how much of an impact those words would have, Tran said that one trip to the grocery store jump started his passion for grilling. Tran has been at it ever since, spending more than 16 years perfecting his recipes.
“The general consensus in California is, everyone loves a sweet rib,” Tran said. “This is all back yard, self-taught. I spent many Saturdays experimenting with different cuts of meat and temperatures. Everything is just trial and error. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. If it tastes good, then just eat it.”
Steam comes from the ribs that were pulled from the pit.(Photo: Thuy Phan/Nguoi Viet)
As a self-proclaimed “pit master,” Tran has spent countless hours stoking fires, experimenting and taking his recipes to competitions across the country. But the long hours and days of being away on the road, coupled with the back-breaking labor of loading, setting up, and cooking for the masses took its toll, and Tran longed for an avenue where he could share his ribs and still have time to come home and see his wife and kids. That’s when the idea to set down permanent roots ― and pit ― took hold.
“This was a niche that I saw no one had done in the Vietnamese community,” Tran said. “My whole family thought I was crazy to open up a BBQ restaurant in Bolsa, and I just did it anyways. I wasn’t afraid to learn. One foot forward, and we just ran with it.”
Kenny Tran, 40, opened up The SmoKING Ribs so that people can experience BBQ the way he eats BBQ. (Photo: Thuy Phan/Nguoi Viet)
In the few months since The SmoKING Ribs opened at 14211 N. Euclid St., the business has steadily increased, and lines form daily. Tran only makes a certain number of ribs and other smoked meats daily, insisting on serving them fresh. That means that once he runs out, that’s it for the day.
“Every weekend we make five to 10 more racks, but they always sell out,” he said. “When we opened the business, we didn’t realize people were going to call in and wait for pickup and to-go orders. All we counted on were diners. But the to-go has picked up substantially, and we’re doing pretty well with that.”
“We got the pork ribs, chicken wings and half a pound of brisket,” said Mark Simmons, who was trying out Tran’s restaurant for the first time with his wife, Sharon. “It was absolutely delicious ― very flavorful and not oily. Thumbs up for everything.”
Owner Kenny Tran serves his cornbread with blueberries.(Photo: Thuy Phan/Nguoi Viet)
Interestingly, when you think of a perfect rib, you imagine something that is melt-in-your-mouth tender, but Tran said that isn’t the correct way to eat it. He said he’s been trying to train people that “falling off the bone or having the bones slide out” is actually incorrect.
“You want to be able to bite into the rib and your teeth mark still leave an imprint or indentation on the piece of meat as you tug away from it,” Tran said.
However, since the public doesn’t care for that, Tran accommodates his customers by serving a St. Louis-style rib that is more soft and tender. His ribs aren’t particularly loaded with sauce; instead, he marinates them with a dry rub, smokes them, and finishes them off with a thin layer of BBQ sauce to get a nice glaze.
The SmoKING Ribs uses a combination of hickory, cherry and apple wood to smoke their meats. (Photo: Thuy Phan/Nguoi Viet)
BBQ sauce bottles are available on the tables for people to add more if they want, but beware, Tran’s Habanero sauce is very, very spicy.
Linda Nguyen, a Facebook user commented, “Oh my God their hot sauce is no joke!!! I need milk to cool down.”
Although Tran was born and raised in Southern California, his BBQ aesthetic belies his roots; one bite and you are no longer in a 40-seat-restaurant in Little Saigon but in the back yard, sipping lemonade and sweating from the humidity of the midday sun, somewhere in the deep South, licking your fingers from the sweet ribs that came fresh off your uncle’s grill.
The pulled pork sundae is one of Tran’s creation that consists of a waffle bowl, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, pulled pork and drizzled with BBQ sauce. (Photo: Thuy Phan/Nguoi Viet)
While many BBQ connoisseurs try to guess if there are Asian spices, such as star anise, in his rub, Tran said his recipe is “pretty traditional.” The secret is in the style, technique and blend of wood that he and his staff use to cook and smoke their meats.
“We use hickory, apple and cherry wood,” Tran said. “Hickory is a very dense log, and it creates a very deep flavor. Apple ― you can taste the subtle fruitiness of the apple. And the cherry is really light, but we use it for the color. Sometimes it’s a deep red, mahogany almost, and it looks appetizing. We eat with our eyes.”
The pork rack of ribs is one of the most popular items at The SmoKING Ribs. (Photo: Thuy Phan/Nguoi Viet)
The pit that the meat is cooked in at the restaurant was custom built and took two months to complete. It is the “heartbeat” of his restaurant, and Tran takes pride in allowing customers the ability to see their meat come off fresh from the pit.
In addition to the grilled meats, the restaurant serves sides that are French-infused, thanks to Tran’s time at the Academy of Art Culinaire. Among the sides: mashed potatoes with Swiss cheese and garlic butter folded in, and cornbread that is light, fluffy and studded with blueberries ― the latter a prime example of the little touches Tran adds to ensure his cuisine stands out.
“The mac and cheese is really good, and it’s something our sons would love eating,” Simmons said. “It’s surprising this is all cooked by an Asian chef, which is unusual. But it is absolutely delicious and a very pleasant surprise.”
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