Big Iowa BBQ: Bringing a Taste of Iowa to Tokyo

By Haley Banwart 

Big Iowa BBQ offers a menu that’s both an homage to Iowa’s distinctive barbeque traditions and a celebration of Tokyo’s vibrant food scene. From pulled pork to slow-cooked ribs, each dish tells a story of friendship, authentic flavors and the unifying power of food. 

The smoky aroma of slow-cooked meats wafts through the narrow streets of Tokyo’s bustling Roppongi district, drawing curious patrons into a small, unassuming eatery. Inside, rustic wooden tables and Iowa-themed memorabilia transport diners to the heart of the Midwest. 

This isn’t just another trendy fusion restaurant; it’s a genuine American smokehouse. Welcome to Big Iowa BBQ, a unique dining experience bridging cultures and continents from Iowa farms to Japanese dinner tables. 

The State of Iowa Proclamation for Iowa Agriculture & BBQ Day in Japan. Pictured left to right: Nick Jones, CEO, Berkwood Farms; Mark Spencer, Owner, Big Iowa BBQ; Brad Frisvold, Marketing Manager, International Trade, Agriculture at Iowa Economic Development Authority; Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. 

A Pork-Inspired Partnership 

The story behind Big Iowa BBQ begins in Kofu, the capital of Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture and long-time sister city of Des Moines. The fellowship dates back to 1959, when Iowa farmers donated 36 breeding hogs and 100,000 bushels of corn to the Kofu area after a devastating typhoon destroyed the region's agriculture industry. 

Today, the international bond between the two communities lives on through cultural exchanges like Baconfest, an annual bacon festival celebrated both in Iowa and Japan. It was through the promotion of this pork-inspired event that a partnership was born between Nick Jones, CEO of Iowa-based Berkwood Farms, and Mark Spencer, a British restauranteur. 

Jones had years of experience overseeing pork supply chain operations. Spencer was an established restaurant owner in Tokyo. A fast friendship formed, and Jones invited Spencer to visit Iowa and experience the unique culinary dishes the Hawkeye State has to offer.

“We toured our way through cuisine at the Iowa State Fair and hit all the barbeque joints and microbreweries in the metro,” Jones shares. “By the end of the trip, Mark fell in love with Iowa — its food and friendly people — and he was all in on renovating one of his existing restaurants to an Iowa barbeque destination.” 

Flavorful Fusion of Cultures 

With support from several industry partners, the art of low-and-slow Iowa barbeque crossed continents to captivate a new audience in a city where culinary traditions from around the world converge. 

Chef Dominic Iannarelli of Splash Seafood Bar & Grill, Jethro’s BBQ and the new Prime & Providence steakhouse in the Des Moines metro, helped create the Big Iowa BBQ menu. Smokers and wood chips from Iowa were shipped to Tokyo to showcase the premium cuts of Iowa beef and Berkshire pork proudly served in the restaurant. 

“Our quality meat products complement the Japanese palate and have been well-received by the Japanese people, especially a younger generation that embraces American-style food,” Jones says. “It was an easy no-brainer to introduce our product through this market and allow patrons to try quality meat they might otherwise only find in high-end restaurants.”

A group representing Iowa with jackets and shirts showing the Iowa flag. Pictured left to right: Nick Jones, CEO, Berkwood Farms; Toshinao Watanabe, Deputy Director General for Technical Affairs, Agriculture Department of Yamanashi Prefecture Government; George Synan, Japan outreach & customer engagement at Berkwood Farms. 

The Berkshire Difference

Berkwood Farms is a coalition of more than 60 independent family farmers committed to producing the highest-quality Berkshire pork. Berkshire pork is the oldest breed of pork in existence today, known for its distinctive color and marbling. Each year, Berkwood Farms supplies Big Iowa BBQ with between 40,000 and 80,000 pounds of ribs, pork bellies, sausage and more. 

Savory side dishes like skillet mac and cheese, cornbread and coleslaw are also featured on the menu, but the cultural fusion doesn’t stop with the food. The décor at Big Iowa BBQ is a thoughtful collection of mementos from iconic Iowa points of interest, from Field of Dreams in Dyersville and Snake Alley in Burlington to the National Balloon Classic in Indianola. 

Diners are greeted by a cozy atmosphere with barnwood walls and American sports televised in the background. The cultural blend also extends to the drink menu, featuring Iowa craft beers alongside American classics. 

With no other eatery like it in the area and an ideal location near the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Meat Export Federation offices, Big Iowa BBQ has quickly become a must-visit for locals, tourists and trade delegations. 

Strengthening Trade Ties 

The collaboration between Big Iowa BBQ’s founders is more than a fusion of culinary traditions; it symbolizes the significant trade relationship between Iowa and Japan, which has long been a cornerstone of Iowa’s agricultural economy. 

Japan has consistently ranked among Iowa’s top ag trade partners. The state’s output, particularly in pork, beef, corn and soybeans, finds a ready market in Japan, where customers value the quality and consistency of products raised on Iowa farms. 

“A rise in socioeconomic status and the expansion of the middle class in Japan are enabling more individuals to allocate their disposable income toward purchasing premium meat cuts,” says Mike Anderson, executive director of the Iowa Beef Industry Council. “Grilling is becoming a popular new pastime and form of socializing among the Japanese people.” 

Anderson continues, “Additionally, Japan plays an important role in our export market by serving as a home for underused cuts, like beef round or chuck, or other meat varieties such as tongue, tripe and intestine. This adds tremendous value to the carcass by using parts that would otherwise be thrown away.” 

In 2023, Anderson traveled to Japan and South Korea on a 16-member trade mission trip led by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and coordinated with the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Stops included meat processing plants, restaurants, supermarkets and Big Iowa BBQ. 

Representatives of the Iowa delegation enjoyed a taste of home, sampling the familiar menu buffet-style. Members also participated in the tradition of adding a pin to their hometown on the large Iowa map displayed at the restaurant. 

Iowa Nice on an International Stage 

Big Iowa BBQ stands as a delicious symbol of the ongoing economic and cultural exchange between Iowa and Japan. The restaurant isn’t just a place to enjoy great food — it’s a testament to Iowa farmers and how agricultural trade can extend beyond communities to create meaningful shared experiences. 

“Seeing the Berkwood Farms logo on an international stage speaks volumes of the Iowa farmers who are so hardworking and humble in their efforts,” says Jones. “Big Iowa BBQ embodies the spirit of ‘Iowa nice’ and reflects everything Iowa stands for — its farmers, its people and its communities.” 

Iowa Trade Mission visiting Japan. Participants include Iowa companies involved in meat and food processing and representatives from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Beef Industry Council, Iowa Corn and Iowa Soybean Association.