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Barbecue: Slow Cooker

Soul Belly by Anthony Mair
Photography by Anthony Mair
Photography by Anthony Mair

At SoulBelly BBQ, Bruce Kalman takes his sweet time with regional ’cue classics

Chef Bruce Kalman took a long and winding path to Las Vegas, with stints in Chicago, New York City, Santa Fe, Phoenix, and finally Los Angeles, where his career really took off. He cooked his way to fifth place on season 15 of Top Chef, where head judge Tom Colicchio lauded Kalman’s pasta skills. That only helped raise the profile of Kalman’s already renowned Pasadena restaurant, Union, acclaimed for its California twist on North Italian cuisine.

But Kalman didn’t bring his celebrated pasta dishes to Las Vegas. He brought barbecue.

“It’s really similar, actually,” Kalman explains. “In Italy and in barbecue, too, it’s all about tradition. The common denominator is soul. It’s soulful. It’s slow cooking a lot of times, in Italian food especially. The thing is when you go to Italy, they don’t stray from tradition.”

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Kalman aims to bring that respect for tradition to his latest venture, SoulBelly BBQ. Actually, make that traditions. Inspired by America’s diverse regional barbecue styles, Kalman’s take on barbecue is a greatest-hits package of sorts. His brisket is influenced by Central Texas; he cooks it simply with salt and pepper over post oak wood. “It’s a 20-hour process, a 10- to 12-hour cook and then a 10-hour rest. Going through R&D, we’ve tried it many different ways, and this is the way we nail it.”

The pork ribs — arguably the best in Las Vegas — take the diner toward Memphis. Kalman covers the meat with a dry rub of spices and some brown sugar. As it cooks, he slathers it repeatedly with sweet barbecue sauce, giving the meat a sticky, firm glaze. And SoulBelly’s pulled pork has the chef traveling by way of North Carolina with a dry rub and a Carolina red sauce laced with vinegar. But these wide-ranging regional approaches have one thing in common. “What is important to me is that the meat is beautiful and unctuous and perfectly executed.”

However, that doesn’t mean SoulBelly’s side dishes are an afterthought. “Our sides are pretty spectacular,” Kalman says. “I want them to be just as good as the meats. I don’t want any dead weight on the menu where people are just okay with it. If it’s not special to somebody, it’s not good enough.” One of the most popular sides is Gigi’s Green Chile Corn Casserole, based on his wife’s recipe. (She likes to say he “cheffed it up.”) His macaroni and cheese is also a must-have, as the chef showcases his famed pasta-making skills.

Friend and colleague Chef James Trees of Esther’s Kitchen seconds that opinion. “I think it’s really important to remember that Bruce can cook anything,” Trees says. “When you look at where most barbecue people fall down, it’s on the sides. And his barbecue is technically fantastic, but his sides are where his chef vibe comes through and pulls you in.”

Trees’ enthusiasm explains why he encouraged Kalman in the first place to give up the glamour of Los Angeles and set roots in Vegas. Kalman says, “He told me to move out here and said, ‘You know what’s missing out here? Great barbecue.’” Before the big move, Kalman tested the waters with a few pop-up dinners — first a pasta night at Bardot Brasserie with Chef Josh Smith, then a pizza party at Esther’s Kitchen — but barbecue was always the plan.

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As a pop-up, SoulBelly BBQ has taken its own long and winding path, with Kalman cooking out of Piero’s and Fergusons Downtown before he and his team set up their big boy smoker near HUDL Brewing Company on Main Street, serving brisket, pork ribs, and pulled pork. When his permanent space is complete — which should happen by the time you read this — it’ll  be a new home for a seasoned chef serving up the many flavors of traditional American barbecue.

SoulBelly BBQ
1327 S. Main Street