Like many other Portland pit masters, Kevin Koch opened Lawless Barbecue in an attempt to alleviate some homesickness. Koch moved from Kansas City to Portland around 13 years ago, working for the Italian restaurant group Buggati’s and other food service jobs around the area. But he longed for the Kansas City style of barbecue that he had grown up with: spare ribs, barbecue beans, pulled pork, and lots of barbecue sauce. Not finding in it in a town known for its Texas barbecue scene, he decided to make it himself via a small, takeout-and-delivery business he called Lawless Barbecue. Now, Lawless Barbecue has found a permanent home, serving nachos, barbecue, and banana pudding out of SE Division’s Little Beast Brewing — one of the city’s best breweries.
Lawless Barbecue began as a side project. Koch would spend his personal time, outside of his restaurant day job, tweaking and refining his recipes for smoked brisket, pork ribs, and pulled pork, but also sides like baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad. “I would pick an item, like a side or brisket, and I’d work on it, work on it, work on it until I perfected how I liked it then move on to the next thing,” he says.
It was during the pandemic that he took the next step, leaving Buggati’s and moving into a kitchen in a shared building downtown. Lawless Barbecue, named for his wife’s maiden name, opened in February of 2021 serving only takeout and delivery, with no dining space at all. After six months of building a dedicated following, Koch started looking for a more permanent kitchen — his preference was to find a place that was already established. “I wanted a partnership with a brewery,” he says. “Pairing one of the great breweries with great barbecue is something I hadn’t seen in Portland and is where I would want to go.”
As luck would have it, Little Beast Brewing was looking to switch up their kitchen. Owners Brenda Crow and Charles Porter opened their beer garden in 2018, in a craftsman-style home with a large covered patio and lawn formerly home to Lompoc Hedge House. There, they serve lagers, IPAs, and all manner of styles including saisons and farmhouse ales. While the couple originally had a menu of tavern food and charcuterie, they wanted to step back a bit and focus on the other aspects of the brewery, while letting someone helm the kitchen. The limited kitchen space meant that a barbecue concept — one that used smokers outdoors rather than ovens and stoves — would be a perfect match. When Koch was researching breweries online and saw that Little Beast was looking for a chef, the team met up and quickly realized they would be a perfect fit. Lawless Barbecue officially served its first platter yesterday, October 26.
The opening menu at Lawless features delicate, slow-smoked brisket and deliciously crispy burnt ends, tossed in a slightly sweet barbecue sauce. Despite the two cuts being more Texan in origin, the sauce adds a Midwestern touch; Kansas City barbecue is defined by the use of sauce more than any specific protein. Lawless’s juicy pulled pork is served with Kansas City sweet and Carolina Gold barbecue sauces, or as a sandwich topped with slaw. The pork ribs, too, are his own style: Koch doesn’t remove the cartilage-filled end, leading to a larger, meatier rib.
Koch says that one of his biggest barbecue pet peeves is when pitmasters ignore the sides, and that’s clear at Lawless. The baked beans are smoky and slightly sweet; the vinegar-based slaw is bright and crisp. Koch also offers a few creamy sides, like the potato salad and mac and cheese. He even makes his own pickles, and uses Little Beast’s IPA in the brine. For dessert, Koch tops banana pudding with mini Nilla wafers and pecans.
Lawless will be serving barbecue at Little Beast for dinner daily, with lunch service on Saturdays and Sundays.