A Birmingham Barbecue Legacy Crafted by Father and Son
For Sam Nakos, barbecue has always been a family thing. His father, Demetrious “Demetri” Nakos got started in the barbecue business in the 1950s, and founded his own restaurant—what became the aptly-named Demetri’s BBQ—in Birmingham in 1961. Sam started bussing tables there when he was 8 years old, and while his two brothers found employment outside the restaurant industry, Sam has stayed on at Demetri’s ever since.
Over the last half century, Demetri and now Sam have helped define the sweet, tomato-based flavors of Birmingham barbecue. Yet to look at their family history, the Nakoses have far closer ties to the slow-roasted meats, fresh vegetables, and oregano-infused flavors of the Greek Isles than they do to traditional Southern fare. Theirs is a story of the American dream, written in smoke and sauce.
Demetri first came to the U.S. in 1950 from the small Greek island of Corfu. He had fought in World War II against Hitler and Mussolini, and then against the communists in the ensuing Greek Civil War. Following a decade of conflict, Demetri embraced the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, where his uncle was already living. He made a home for himself just northwest of downtown Birmingham, in Ensley.
In a city where so many found work in iron and steel, Demetri, and many other Greek immigrants like him, made a living making good food in the Magic City. Sam explained that his father applied his understanding of food to his new environment. Demetri’s uncle already had a beer and barbecue joint, and there Demetri learned to adapt his skills and serve up smoked meat rather than the roasted flavors he grew up with. Success soon followed.
Demetri opened his first restaurant, El Rancho, in 1961 and 12 years later changed locations and names, establishing Demetri’s BBQ in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood in 1973. In the early 1980s, Sam joined his father full-time at the restaurant and the two worked there together for 22 years.
Demetri passed away in 2002, during a visit to his native-Greece. When the news came, Sam kept the restaurant running until it’s normal closing time—an homage of sorts to his father’s dedication and work ethic.
During their time together at the restaurant, Demetri and Sam helped build the restaurant into a pillar of Birmingham barbecue. “We’re part of history—part of shaping and forming the Birmingham barbecue tradition,” Sam says.
Their sauce—a recipe first crafted by father and now carefully guarded by son—has the delicate combination of spicy and sweet flavors that define central Alabama barbecue. Tomato based, sweet, with a bite of spice at the finish, it stands in contrast to the vinegary flavors that northern Alabama is known for.
Today, Sam continues much of his father’s legacy. For him the highlight of carrying on the Demetri’s BBQ tradition is the people. When asked what his favorite part of the business is, Sam responds without hesitation, “It’s always the people. Customers are wonderful, and when you eat together, a special bond forms.”
The restaurant continues to carry much of the character Demetri first instilled in the place. The chalkboard menus and brick walls they started with have come to define the atmosphere of a barbecue joint. That doesn’t mean Demetri’s lacks a nod to the family’s Greek heritage. Each table bears a bottle of Demetri’s Greek seasoning, which Sam describes as his dad’s own chef’s spice. Its bright green label serves as a subtle nod to the immigrant story behind Demetri’s BBQ success.