Andrew and Michelle Muñoz of Moo’s Craft Barbecue have gone from pop-ups in their East L.A. backyard to their insanely popular Smorgasburg tent, and they’re only getting started.
This is it. This is the moment when East L.A. backyard legend Andrew Muñoz of Moo’s Craft Barbecue establishes himself as one of the most formidable pitmasters in the country. He’s quit his job as a commercial insurance underwriter to focus on cooking the best Texas-style brisket and beef ribs Los Angeles has ever tasted. This meat is marvelously supple, moist, smoky, beefy, and fat-flecked, the kind of thing that’s achieved only through extraordinary skill combined with time and love.
Andrew’s wife, Michelle, says her primary job is still being the mother of their sons, who are 5 and 7. But she’s also a crucial part of Moo’s. Michelle, who was a cosmetologist before becoming a stay-at-home mom, is a great chef who deftly weaves in Mexican-American flavors when making verde pork sausages and Moo’s sides like esquites.
Moo’s has a tent every Sunday at downtown L.A.’s Smorgasburg food market, and the barbecue is so remarkable that there’s always a line until the meat is gone. Even when it’s cold and rainy, guests wait 30 to 45 minutes.
The Muñozes, who were born and raised in L.A., are looking for a standalone brick-and-mortar location where they can open a restaurant and park their 500-gallon offset smokers. They’d like to be in the Eastside or maybe downtown or possibly in the San Gabriel Valley, where they met as teenagers. They’d like to have their restaurant open later this year.
It’s important to understand the magnitude of what’s happening. Moo’s isn’t just serving Texas-style barbecue that’s considered good for L.A. or California. This food, including beef ribs that are on the level of what you get at Dallas standout Cattleack Barbecue, is comparable to the top-tier meat you’ll find in Texas. Don’t just take it from me (even though I lived the first two decades of my life in Texas and can tell you that Moo’s tastes like some of my happiest memories). Houston-based photographer Ben Sassani just Instagrammed a photo with a caption that read: “If @mooscraftbarbecue was in Texas, it’d be top 10. No argument.” The experts who quickly chimed in to agree included Robert Jacob Lerma, the king of Texas barbecue photographers.
This is a remarkable moment. Texas barbecue has become a cuisine with no borders. What state you’re in matters so much less than the quality of what you serve. From Matt’s BBQ in Portland to ZZQ in Richmond, Virginia, to James Beard Award semifinalist Billy Durney’s Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn, Texas barbecue has become a very serious and very good thing around the country.
Moo’s—which, remember, doesn’t even have a restaurant yet—deserves to be a big part of this conversation. Plus, items like Michelle’s verde sausages with fire-roasted poblanos and pepper jack put Moo’s right in the middle of another wonderful barbecue movement. That pork sausage is inspired by chile rellenos, which is one of Michelle’s favorite classic Mexican dishes. The sausage is also a nod to green chorizo, but it doesn’t crumble like chorizo. Michelle’s pork sausage has the texture of Texas sausage but a totally different flavor. Like 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, and even L.A. underground player Ragtop Fern’s, Moo’s is putting its own original Mexican-American spin on barbecue.
“That’s who we are,” Michelle says. “When we first started this, I wanted the experience when people came to our backyard to be like they’re coming into our home. What do we eat at home? What did we grow up eating?” So she decided to do an amped-up riff on street corn by making esquites with jalapeños and fresh herbs. She’s teased Andrew about how her verde sausage is more popular than his more traditional jalapeño-cheddar sausage made with brisket trimmings.
“All that we’re missing is tortillas,” Andrew says.
It turns out that this stuff has been in Andrew’s blood all along. His father’s parents met in El Paso, near the Texas-Mexico border. Tortillas are something the Muñozes plan to make at their future restaurant. Right now, the idea of having tortillas at Smorgasburg is daunting because Moo’s is in an outdoor space and “there’s so only so many we can do before they get hard and stale,” Andrew says.
He’s already talked to Esaul Ramos at 2M about how to keep tortillas warm and fresh. Andrew, who remembers being starstruck when he first met Aaron Franklin, loves the fact that he’s part of a community of barbecue pros who are always pushing one another to try harder, to be better, to build this culture. He often texts with many Texas-based pitmasters. He’s in touch daily with California barbecue friends like Burt Bakman of L.A.’s Trudy’s Underground Barbecue and Slab, and Matt Horn of Oakland’s Horn Barbecue. Horn once stayed at Andrew and Michelle’s backhouse and used Andrew’s smoker for an L.A. pop-up.
During Horn’s visit, Andrew realized that he didn’t have to cook overnight for once, so he actually went to bed at a normal hour. But now that Andrew’s doing barbecue full-time, between Smorgasburg and private events, he’s cooking more than he ever has. He’ll do test cooks to experiment with things like how he splits the California white oak he burns. He’ll pay close attention to how the changes he makes affect the bark on his brisket and the flavor of the meat.
“I think even before I was going to Texas, I just always liked meat and barbecue,” Andrew says. “My father-in-law, he was a big carnivore. He always told me, ‘When you go to Texas, try to find good barbecue. I heard it’s really good out there.’”
When Andrew went to Dallas for his medical-malpractice insurance job, he immediately went to look for barbecue after his broker meetings and other work were done. It was hit-or-miss at first, but then a co-worker took him to Lockhart Smokehouse in the Bishop Arts District.
“It just changed my world,” Andrew says. “I couldn’t believe how good it was. So then I went back.”
He returned to Dallas for work a lot and also tried Pecan Lodge and Cattleack. He would excitedly text Michelle photos and bring meat home to her. Then he started thinking about how to recreate these flavors in his backyard. He got a big propane grill, which was terrible, so he returned it within two weeks. Then he bought a Weber. Then he built a vertical smoker. He spent a year-and-a-half cooking pork butts and spare ribs before he was confident enough to try beef.
His territory at work expanded to Houston, so he got to eat at spots like Tejas, Killen’s, and CorkScrew. Michelle, sensing her husband’s passion, told Andrew they should go to Austin together. So they did.
“The first place I tried was La Barbecue, and I was like, ‘I fucking get it,’” Michelle says.
It was the same kind of feeling that Andrew had at Lockhart Smokehouse.
“The big beef rib and the sausages and the ribs, it’s like nothing I had ever experienced in Los Angeles,” Michelle says.
By this point, Andrew had been bringing his own spare ribs and briskets to birthday parties or when he got invited to watch boxing matches or MMA fights at someone’s house. In February 2017, Moo’s Craft Barbecue did its first popup in Andrew and Michelle’s backyard. They were nervous that nobody would come, but social-media buzz made Moo’s an instant success.
“It was so cool,” Michelle says. “Those DMs started coming in. People showed up.”
They quickly sold out of four briskets and maybe six to eight racks of ribs. Michelle made agua frescas (something she plans to do again when Moo’s has a restaurant), potato salad, coleslaw, and chili beans. All that sold out too.
They started having regular backyard pop-ups that attracted hundreds of people. Then Moo’s did a pop-up at Indie Brewing Company in Boyle Heights, and the line was down the street. Andrew and Michelle, who were high school sweethearts who met when he was a junior and she was a freshman in Montebello, started to realize that this might become more than their family hobby.
They had pop-ups at other breweries. There was a two-hour line when Moo’s participated in Smorgasburg’s annual barbecue day. Smorgasburg general manager Zach Brooks encouraged Andrew to quit his job and do Moo’s full-time. Andrew quit in October. In January, Moo’s started coming to Smorgasburg every single week.
“We have a lot of great barbecue at Smorgasburg,” Brooks says. “There’s Black Sugar with pork ribs and pulled pork. Stoked does Santa Maria-style tri-tip. Ugly Drum does pastrami that’s clearly a hybrid of barbecue and deli pastrami. But we’ve never had that hard-core Texas-style brisket vendor and we’ve always wanted that.”
After all, New York’s Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue started at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn before opening restaurants all over New York and beyond.
“I’ve always wanted Moo’s because it’s this great L.A. family,” Brooks says. “They’re doing perfect barbecue, and you can just feel their East L.A. roots in the barbecue and in the business itself. Inside their tent, it’s like their whole family."
On a cold and rainy February Sunday at Smorgasburg, Andrew steps out of the tent so he can finish preparing sausages in his double 500-gallon smoker. He’s wearing a Brisket Cartel hat as he tries to avoid puddles while shoveling wood out of a fire box and into the smoker. He humbly confesses that he stepped into a lot of water that day.
Andrew’s dad, Harvey, is also by the smoker while Andrew’s cousin, Denise, works inside the tent with Michelle. It’s raining pretty hard, but there are more than 20 people in line.
A week earlier, the weather was even worse. It poured during Super Bowl weekend, and the Smorgasburg site was flooded. Around 8:45 on Saturday night, the Muñozes saw an e-mail from Brooks: Smorgasburg had to be canceled on Super Bowl Sunday.
This could have been a disaster. Moo’s had already pre-sold 17 whole briskets and increased their volume of meat for the weekend. Plus, they had made food for a baby shower that was also canceled because of the rain, so they had twice as much esquites as usual. Michelle reached out to Cindi Thompson of Crafted Kitchen, a venue in the Arts District where Moo’s does its prep.
“Right away, like a boss, she was just, ‘Come do your pop-up here,’” Michelle says. “‘‘Do whatever you’ve got to do. Consider my home your home.’”
Moo’s posted on Instagram and got in touch with everybody who pre-ordered. Andrew and Michelle started selling meat at Crafted Kitchen at 11 a.m. on Sunday. By 2 p.m., everything was sold out: 37 briskets, 72 beef ribs, 40 racks of spare ribs, 80 pounds of sausage, six pork butts, six turkey breasts, and all of Michelle’s sides.
So this is it now for Andrew and Michelle. They know the demand is there. They know they can handle their cooking and sell all their product even when the circumstances are terrible. Things should only get busier in the spring and summer. The Muñozes, who were referred to a real estate broker by their restaurateur friend Briana Valdez of HomeState, want to let it be known that they’re ready to do big food festivals and maybe even take Moo’s on the road for special events while they’re also working toward opening a restaurant.
On Mondays, when Andrew and Michelle are still recovering from Smorgasburg, their sons get off from school early at 1 p.m. Monday is also when Moo’s gets its brisket delivery for the week. Trimming the meat is exhausting work. Andrew feels it in his joints every week.
But knowing that he’s doing this for his family—and with his family—makes everything worthwhile. He and Michelle have been together for almost 22 years. They got married in 2007. In 2011, they bought a house, which is where Andrew started messing around with barbecue. This is the exact opposite of an overnight success story, even though the recent rise of Moo’s in L.A. has resembled a rocket.
That’s the thing about barbecue. It might seem glamorous and sexy and trendy in 2019, but this is food that takes time. It’s food that’s about late-night effort and enduring days when it’s raining so hard that the water is coming at you sideways. It’s about making adjustments because you care enough to push harder during a situation when other people might just give up.
The great part about having a small family business is that you’re always with your family. Andrew and Michelle take a break during the week for a CorePower Yoga class in downtown L.A.
“We’ll sneak that in and stretch our muscles out,” Andrew says. “That’s kind of what keeps us balanced.”
Andrew says it’s nice to do this in the middle of a weekday, when CorePower Yoga isn’t crowded. He laughs as he jokes about how people with office jobs are “suckers.” He sounds like a man who’s enjoying his newfound freedom while also being more motivated than ever. This is it. This is what it’s like to be in control of your own blazing future.