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BBQ in the belly of The Beast

The scent of cherry and oak wood smoke is obvious when you enter Area15 during the early afternoon hours, but also easy to miss. The entire complex seems designed to induce a mild case of sensory overload.

So amid the fluorescent neon and shiny chrome brilliance, the fanciful sculptures and the oversize dune buggy, visitors could be excused for not noticing the delicious scent of smoke as they make their way to explore a surrealistic supermarket or throw axes at targets. When mealtime rolls around, however, anyone venturing into celebrity chef Todd English’s newest Las Vegas venture, The Beast, should pay close attention to its origin: a 400-pound smoker from Texas’ J&R Manufacturing.

“We call her Little Pepper,” The Beast’s Joe Woodel says. He has another, less family-friendly nickname he uses on days when the temperamental smoker isn’t behaving, but he thinks better of sharing it with the public.

“We won’t talk about that,” he says with a chuckle. He’d much rather talk about the food coming out of this admittedly small commercial smoker — and with good reason.

RELATED: Tips for home cooks to have a smokin’ barbecue season

With no native barbecue traditions of its own, the Las Vegas scene has long been relegated to a handful of quality suburban outposts that blend styles from across the country. And despite a pair of new barbecue spots in the burgeoning Arts District, and a permanent barbecue truck stationed in front of Circa, the cuisine has generally not fared well in our valley’s tourist corridors. That may explain why it is just one of more than a half-dozen concepts that English and his team offer at The Beast.

“This is like six restaurants in one,” Woodel explains of The Beast. “We’ve got hot wings, burgers, pizza. We have lobster rolls. But we still try to push the boundary (with the barbecue).”

To push those boundaries, English and The Beast’s executive chef Sani Hebaj have tapped not one, but two acclaimed pitmasters. Each has mastered multiple styles of American smoking and traveled the world as an ambassador for the cuisine.

Woodel was born in New Jersey and raised in Tennessee. After attending culinary school in Chicago and creating refined cuisine in the kitchen of Art Smith and Oprah Winfrey’s Table Fifty-Two, he turned to barbecue as a hobby when carpal tunnel surgery nearly ended his culinary career. He later operated Chicago’s first licensed barbecue food truck, before being recruited to open a pair of barbecue restaurants near Munich. When the COVID pandemic shut them down, the pitmaster set his sights on Las Vegas.

“Where are the megaplaces that people in America want to go to?” Woodel asked himself, before answering his own question. “Vegas is definitely in the top five.”

At his side by the smoker, loading in briskets and ribs in the evenings, and pulling them out the next morning, is Orelle Young.

“I’ve been essentially barbecuing my whole life,” says Young, whose earliest exposure to cuisine came from his Memphis-born father. He didn’t develop a real interest in professional barbecue, however, until 2007, when he studied Texas-style smoking at New York City’s Hill Country Barbecue Market.

“And before I knew it, the right people ate my food, and I moved to London to open a similar concept,” he says of his first overseas venture, which was followed by a stint preparing barbecue in Dubai.

Their combined experiences allow the team to mix and match styles of barbecue at The Beast, picking and choosing their favorite aspects of each.

“That’s the lucky part of being here in Vegas: There are no rules,” Woodel says. “So I can steal, or borrow, the foundations of North Carolina barbecue and use that in our pulled pork. I might not chop it, but I’ll pull it and use the vinegar sauce and the mustard sauce. Our St. Louis ribs do not have any sauce on them until they come right out to the table, and you can order them dry if you want. Texas has a staple here as well, with our beef rib and our brisket — salt and pepper, put it on the beef, put it in the smoker, and shut up.”

When it comes to the meat, Woodel and Young say their boss, English, leaves them mostly to their own devices. He does, however, push them to use their smoker in unexpected ways.

“Carrot ribs,” Young offers as an example. “It’s something that Todd wanted to put on the menu and have it look awesome. And guess what? It kind of tastes awesome, I’ve got to admit.”

English has also asked the team to create other vegan-friendly dishes, including smoked sweet potatoes, and to use the smoker to create syrups for The Beast’s mixologists. And Woodel says they never know what he might ask them to create next.

“Todd just comes in and says, ‘Hey man, check this out. I was in Singapore and I took a picture of this plate. Make that.’ Then he puts his phone in his pocket and walks away.”

It’s a level of creativity that the pair hope will help The Beast’s barbecue program shine as more than just one small aspect of Area15’s food hall.

“I want to be a big name in the Vegas barbecue scene,” Woodel says bluntly. “I want to be one of the top three guys, so they say, ‘Hey if you’re in town, you gotta go try this barbecue.’ I have a long way to go, but I’m willing to put in the hours to bang it out.”

There’s no cover to enter Area15, and visit The Beast, on most days. On those rare evenings when there is a charge (such as this Saturday at 9 p.m.), it’s waived for customers with a reservation at the restaurant.

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter and Instagram.

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