This Welsh Seaside Restaurant Is Trying to Make Better Barbecue Than Texas
Four years ago, Shauna Guinn and Samantha Evans embarked on a barbecuing odyssey around America. After mastering the meat techniques of Nashville, Kansas, and of course Austin, they opened Hang Fire Southern Kitchen in Barry.
"Welcome to sunny Barry-bados," Shauna Guinn of American barbecue restaurant Hang Fire Southern Kitchen, greets me.
While this small Welsh coastal town isn't quite on a par with the tropical Caribbean island, the sun is in fact blazing out of a clear blue sky. An hour later on this March morning, and it'll be the first time I sit outside without a coat on all year. Is it always this bright in Barry?
"Always! We call it the 'Welsh Riviera,'" Guinn says. I don't even think she's joking.
Wales might seem like an unlikely place for a female couple cooking Americana barbecue to thrive but then again, this is a country that saw smoke and coal power not just ovens, but an entire industrial revolution.
Hang Fire Southern Kitchen began four years ago when Guinn and her partner Samantha Evans jacked in their full-time jobs to go on a barbecuing odyssey around the States. Armed only with a passion for meat, they hoped to mop up everything they could about barbecue cuisine—much like the white sandwich bread under a slice of juicy Texan brisket—and bring it back to Wales.
The pair's trip through America took them to Nashville, where they cooked for Dolly Parton and her band ("She's coming to Cardiff on tour soon, so we're hoping to get her down her to Barry," adds Guinn), followed by stops in Louisiana, Kansas, North and South Carolina, and of course, Texas. If America's barbecue masters underestimated Guinn and Evans as women, the pair simply used this to their advantage.
"There were definitely some people on our travels who didn't know what to make of us," says Guinn. "But they also just didn't see us as a threat, which was great because they shared so many secrets. They thought, 'You girls are gonna learn what we do and take it back over there? Yeah, good luck with that!'"
Back home, Guinn and Evans wasted no time in putting these barbecue secrets to good use, establishing their southern kitchen as the first pop-up restaurant in Cardiff. They served American-style smoked wings and ribs from disused pub kitchens and food markets, and picked up a BBC award for street food. With a growing cult following, a bricks-and-mortar restaurant became inevitable and earlier this year, the Hang Fire restaurant officially opened in Barry.
"We're the only women in Britain doing what we do," Guinn says. "If you think about the meat industry, it's almost all male-dominated. We didn't meet a single other woman in six months of travelling around America learning how to make this food."
I ask Guinn why American barbecue seems to be the preserve of men.
"There's a hierarchy in America barbecue, with the grandfather and his barbecue pit. There are sons at the age of 50 who still aren't allowed anywhere near it," she says. "If the younger men aren't allowed at the pit, then the women certainly aren't. Historically there's always been a relationship between men and meat—that whole hunter-gatherer thing. So meat is a feminist issue!"
As I chat with Guinn in Hang Fire's Grade II-listed restaurant (formerly the old pumping station at Barry docks in the 1880s, when the town was the largest coal exporting port in the country), Evans is in the kitchen cooking up a monster plate of St Louis ribs. They soon appear in front of me, meat falling off the bone, ready to be dunked in house-made sauces: mustard, espresso, and barbecue.
"All our meat is from the vale of Glamorgan, apart from the ribs you're eating now," Guinn explains. "The cornerstone of the American barbecue is ribs. In this country, because all the pigs are fed on grass, they never bulk up which is why normally they're not fat and juicy. But we use Iberico or Duroc pigs from Spain. Just look at all that meat on them."
Well, all the meat that was on them, five minutes ago.
"We make everything in-house," adds Guinn. "Sausages, burgers, sauces, sides—plus all the rubs for the meat. We're still learning every day, I think every piece of meat is different and it's a combination of art and science to cook it perfectly."
After preparing the meat for cooking, the low and slow process of smoking begins. Starting out with a single smoker, Guinn and Evans now have four on the premises, plus an Argentinian parrilla and a one-tonne grill they call Lemmy ("because he's 940 kilos of heavy metal"), for which a huge hole had to be cut in the floor of the restaurant, allowing it to be lowered into the kitchen.
Cooking a pork shoulder can take 24 hours, brisket 12 hours, and those ribs a good eight hours, so the smokers are cranking constantly.
"Then, we burn different woods for different meats," explains Guinn. "For pork ribs, we'd use a fruit wood like apple wood or cherry, then for brisket, it would be oak or mesquite to be more pungent. You haven't lived until you've had brisket coming straight out of the smoker—that was the holy grail for us."
The pair first discovered this holy grail at America's meat mecca: Franklin Barbecue in Austin.
"Our barbecue hero is Aaron Franklin—we met him as we queued from 7 AM in the morning," says Shauna. "The line is brilliant, because it has a real buzz about it. I just love the fact you've got someone who has made it their lifelong ambition to dedicate himself to one cut of meat."
Franklin had one piece of advice to offer the pair: "He said, 'Girls, if you do American barbecue, you'll never make any money.'" remembers Guinn. "He was right—if you source and buy the best quality meat and spend all day putting it through that low and slow technical process, and then still have to sell it at a good price point, you won't make any money."
The pair recently paid homage their barbecuing hero by brewing a beer with the nearby Waen Brewery, naming it the Austin Aaron IPA. They even sent a bottle to the man himself.
As we chat before Hang Fire opens for service, a steady stream of locals peer through the restaurant's door, trying to get an early lunch. Guinn tells me that Barry is the fifth biggest town in Wales and while the population has grown (building work is currently under way for 6,000 new homes across from the piazza where Hang Fire sits), the leisure and restaurant trade is yet to catch up.
"There's way more to Barry than people think," Guinn says, comparing it to the regeneration of fellow seaside town Margate over on the Kent coast. In fact, similar to the retro theme park Dreamland, which relaunched there last year, Barry's fun fair is set for revival in the coming months. From Hang Fire's window, you can make out the beginnings of a ferris wheel.
And as London sees an exodus of cash-strapped young people pushed out from the city, Wales and places like the slightly rough-around-the-edges Barry (just over two hours away from the capital via train) are hoping to entice people to a new way of life.
"When we announced we were opening our restaurant, everyone expected us to open in Cardiff," says Guinn. "But when they come to Barry, they say, 'Oh, I get it.' It still has a real sense of community, it doesn't feel like a city."
And before people start decrying the "hipster gentrification" of the area, Guinn explains: "You can see from the menu that we like to keep things cheap—we've even had a few people saying we're too cheap. We make everything ourselves and that's how we keep the prices down. I think that's what's made us successful."
Guinn and Evans also aim to emulate Franklin's made-to-order method of barbecuing: when the last of the brisket and ribs are done for the day, Hang Fire shuts up shop.
"We have to educate people that with this sort of cooking, when it's gone, it's gone," says Guinn. "That's quite an unusual thing for people to get their heads around in the concept of a restaurant."
Building on the success of Hangfire, she and Evans plan to release a barbecuing cookbook in America later on this year—but isn't this like selling tea to China, or pizza back to the Italians?
"There's always trends that flip back and forth between both countries," reasons Guinn. "But this must be one of the only books in existence where two British women have gone and taken someone's national cuisine, brought it back, reinterpreted, and sold it back to them."
It remains to be seen whether queues of smoked meat fans will begin forming at 7 AM along the docks of Barry, too.
For more culinary crossovers, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, running every day this week on MUNCHIES.