"Mumphis" ribs, Dhuaan BBQ Company Credit: Sheal Patel

Over the span of four years, Sheal Patel converted his entire family of lifelong vegetarians into meat eaters.

The now-34-year-old founder of the new Pilsen-based pop-up Dhuaan BBQ Company thinks he was first seduced by meat in grade school by the pepperoni on the cafeteria pizza at Kingsley Elementary in Naperville.

His mother—the cook in the family—originally hailed from the overwhelmingly vegetarian state of Gujarat in western India, and wasn’t thrilled by his new diet, but his parents didn’t discourage him either.

“My mom said ‘That’s fine if you like meat,’” he says. “‘That’s against our religion, but I’m not gonna bar you from eating it. But if you want to eat it you’re gonna have to learn how to cook it yourself.”

It was a present in fifth grade that solidified his destiny as a hardcore carnivore. “One of the best gifts I ever got as a child was a grill in the backyard,” he says. “That was my pathway to really discover meat, because my mom still wasn’t thrilled with raw meat in her own kitchen.”

On Fridays she typically cooked non-Indian vegetarian dinners—say, bean burritos or pasta. “That slowly became meat day,” he says. “I would give my mom my list of things I wanted from the supermarket, and Friday I would experiment in the kitchen for dinner.”

Patel became a student of global barbecue, from tabletop Korean, to Hong Kong-style siu mei, to the kebabs of the Indian subcontinent, but particularly to all the regional American styles of low-and-slow smoked meats. It wasn’t long before he was raiding his mother’s spice cabinet and applying garam masala and yogurt marinades to ribs, brisket, and chicken.

As an adult Patel went into finance, but always harbored a different ambition. “My creative outlet in life is completely food related,” he says. “I travel globally to find the best food. I love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. Whenever anyone asked ‘What’s your dream job?’ It’s always owning a restaurant.”

One Saturday in January he made a move, launching Dhuaan BBQ Company on Instagram, what he intended to be an exploratory pop-up offering racks of “Mumphis” ribs, rubbed in a tandoori spice blend, and glazed with a sweeter version of a tandoori marinade. Subsequent weekends he smoked tikka masala rubbed wings with butter chicken sauce, or “Tandoori Texas” rubbed chicken, smoked, pulled, and served by the pound with a Maggi-cumin barbecue sauce.

While there’s usually at least one low-and-slow smoked item on each Monday’s menu, Patel offers a few other Indian or Indian-ish street food mashups each week like beef or lamb frankie rolls, the Mumbai street food roti-egg wrap staple; or masala egg sliders, spicy garlic butter scrambles with cilantro, onion, and Amul cheese on pao bread, soft rolls baked by the Hoffman Estates outlet of the south Indian bakery chain Hot Breads.

The runaway best seller has been his Philly Masala, a gooey cheesesteak seasoned in the style of the famous seekh kebab from south Mumbai’s legendary Bademiya.

Patel says he’s gotten a bit of pushback in his DMs for describing Dhuaan, which is Hindi for “smoke,” as “Indian barbecue,” since the term frequently refers to pork (and beef) free-enterprises in areas with large Muslim concentrations. But he’s unmoved. “In America, barbecue is different everywhere,” he says. “To pair Indian spices with pork is just obvious to me.”

It hasn’t put a dent in a business that exploded out of the gate. Right now he’s maxed out at 50-70 orders each Saturday, and is trying to determine his next move, whether it’s a food truck, a ghost kitchen, or a brick and mortar. “We never saw this taking off the way it did.”

And he hasn’t flouted every dietary restriction. On the first Saturday of Lent, except for the cheesesteaks, he offered a mostly vegetarian menu that included a spicy Chicago-Mumbai mashup, a pepper and egg sandwich for “the large Indian-Christian community who’s looking for something Indian-flavored and different to eat during Lent.”  v