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Big Pink: Serving Up American BBQ and Other Big Flavors in an Intimate Space



Big Pink is delicious and different. Housed in what was a Japanese restaurant, it offers American brisket smoked on site as well as flavor-packed small plates that are delicious twists on traditional favorites.  There are uniquely refreshing beverage options. All of this is served by a welcoming team amidst music selections curated by owner Niko Smirnoff.


Niko, an owner of Sai Kung’s Momentai and Mong Kok’s Graceland, had been thinking about small, intimate spaces for a new restaurant when this location on Tai Ping Shan Street in Sheung Wan became available.  Having lived in Japan for three years and wanting to create a place that would be “very authentically itself,” he “jumped” on the space before he had the actual concept down. The idea for Big Pink came to him, his wife Ellen, and his mom Pam, after “a lot of brainstorming,” he says. “Barbecue seemed like a good idea for a small space. … [It’s] something new. There’s not a lot of it that’s accessible in Hong Kong,” he adds. 


Music is a big part of Niko’s life. The name Big Pink itself is an ode to music history. Big Pink is the nickname of the pink house in Woodstock, New York, used by The Band (formerly known as the Hawks), who accompanied Bob Dylan on his 1966 world tour (and on his 1974 tour). Dylan even made some recordings in the basement and did the cover art for The Band’s album, Music from Big Pink. Niko was “really into” The Band when he was in high school.


Big Pink the restaurant cleverly retains some of the Sheung Wan space’s Japanese restaurant roots, which are then combined with more Southern traditional elements. It all works together seamlessly just as the menu does. 


Chef Algene Briones, a master at barbecue, developed all of Big Pink’s “straight up barbecue offerings.”  Niko and Algene have known each other and worked together for years. As a high schooler, Niko used to eat at the restaurant in Sai Kung where Algene was cooking Texas barbecue, and later Algene became the chef at Momentai.


Chef Algene smokes the American brisket for 12 hours so it is crusty on the outside, tender, and jam-packed with flavor. He offers it in a sandwich or in two platter sizes with pickled onions, pickles, bbq sauce and brioche-like bread browned in the Salamander oven. The ribs he makes are extremely popular and those too are offered in a sandwich (deboned) or as a more traditional bone-in rack platter. On any given day, the ribs or the brisket sell out. For those who prefer poultry, Chef Algene has two offerings-- a smoked turkey platter and a Thanksgiving Dip.


In addition to those smoked items, Big Pink offers small plates created by Vinny Lauria of Fini’s and Frank’s fame. Niko admiringly notes that Vinny can make “small amounts of food pop with flavor.” The dishes we tried comfortably serve at least two people. 


The “Savoury Brussel Sprouts” taste as if they are prepared with bacon, but they’re not. it’s the house-made smoked tomato vinaigrette--the tomatoes are smoked on site in the smoker—along with crispy garlic, coriander, and colatura (an Italian version of fish sauce made with anchovies) working their magic.


Very refreshing and quick to disappear every day, the “Potato Salad” has a Japanese flair to it. Potato salad has long been popular in Japan at izakayas and on home menus. It is of course a staple of Southern cuisine. As is Japanese tradition, Big Pink’s features vegetables in addition to the potatoes. Here, big hunks of potatoes, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers, carrot, onion, and dill all happily mix with Japan’s favorite KEWPIE mayo to create, as Niko says, a potato salad that’s “the best of both worlds.”


The menu’s “Honey Butter Corn Ribs”, with chili honey butter and coriander, are delicious and easier to manage than traditional corn on the cob.


Also on the menu is a “Burnt Ends Wedge Salad.” A twist on the traditional wedge, the burnt ends replace the usual bacon. Burnt ends started their culinary history in the USA as the bits of brisket that were thrown away and have since evolved into a culinary art form of their own. 


The small plates menu also offers a “Fries n Gravy” that is a nod to the famous Canadian favorite Poutine. There is even a “Tuna Tartare” featuring the smoked tomatoes.


To wash it all down diners are spoiled for choice. There’s the unique craft cider from Oregon’s 2 Towns Ciderhouse.  Niko, a self-described “cider enthusiast” is Hong Kong’s only distributor of 2 Towns. There are also crafted “Highballs” and beers from Hong Kong’s Black Kite brewery.


For a special non-alcoholic beverage, try the homemade pink lemonade.  The “pink” is actually a watermelon syrup that Niko and Ellen make, after a lot of research and experimentation, from fresh watermelon. It adds a touch of delightful watermelon sweetness to the freshly squeezed lemons without veering into the cloyingly sweet candy lane. 


Niko’s mom Pam, a retired international school teacher with a degree in art, did much of Big pink’s design, which Niko describes as “humble and feminine.” 


Highlights include pink paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and a photo of Big Pink the house.  The crockery itself is left over from the Japanese restaurant, and this too compliments the menu, since pottery has a long tradition in the Southern USA. The striking lemon-slice mosaic Pam and Ellen created is a nod to the lemonade.


Big Pink, which opened in mid-March, already has a loyal following. Shlok, a frequent diner and a devoted fan of Graceland, is happy to have Big Pink close by to where he lives. He lovingly recounts his first experience at Graceland 18 months ago. He says the Nashville Chicken Sandwich he ate there was “spectacular. It was so spicy. I was crying and eating and having a great time.” 


He comes to Big Pink about once a week when he’s in Hong Kong. He’s a fan of the menu and the changing weekly specials. The day we chatted with Shlok the special was a smoked meatball sub. Another time, it was hangar steak. 


For Shlok, it’s all about the food, but his lunch companion complimented Niko’s curated playlist. She liked it so much that she was “Shazaming” the music to identify the songs.  


Niko, whose music interest is rooted in the 1960s and 70s, has curated 15 playlists for use in the three restaurants. He first discovered his passion for music when he and his mom moved from Portland, Oregon, where he had lived all his life, to Fukuoka, Japan. He was 12 at the time. Not finding a lot of opportunities to engage in his hobbies, he “fell into music.” On his own he studied music history and music theory. He also learned to play the guitar, the bass, the trumpet, and the sitar, and still owns quite a collection of instruments.


Talking with him, you are struck by how much he has accomplished at such a young age. Niko used all his savings to open Momentai when he was only 21.  In addition to his determination and hands on approach, it is clear that family, friendship, and highlighting the contributions of others are key parts of his ethic.  He is quick to point out that Algene and Ellen “are the heart of the place [Pig Pink].” 


Niko and Ellen are a team that complement each other’s strengths well. In fact, it’s Ellen who drew us in when we first came across the restaurant while wandering through Sheung Wan.  On any given day, one of the three --Algene, Ellen, or Niko--is at Big Pink, and staff or a chef from Graceland will rotate in as well. Everyone is incredibly welcoming, friendly, and customer-focused. We noticed that some folks had come in both to eat and to visit with the team. 


Niko is always “trying to do new things.”  Exploring regional styles and food history is one focus. Niko has also been planning weekend specials for Big Pink. (Graceland and Momentai have weekly specials and sometimes menu takeovers.)  He’s also thinking about new events generally, noting that one of the most popular events at Graceland was a Denny’s-like menu of pancakes and sandwiches. (Denny’s is a famous American chain diner restaurant.)  “The best events are rooted in nostalgia,” he says. 


Based on our experience, there are going to be a lot of great memories created at Big Pink.


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'Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.' – Sylvia Plath

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