Great barbecue, like the right song or smell, can collapse the years and reduce you to a kid again.
Great barbecue is food at its exospheric potential, food as good as food can be. Great barbecue, like the right song or smell, can collapse the years and reduce you to a kid again.
The word “barbecue” means to cook meat with smoke. People have barbecued since long before history began. Cultures of barbecue have thrived across the steady slide of time and the borders that over time we have drawn across the world.
The word “barbecue” evolved from the Spanish word “barbacoa.” According to esteemed food writer Harold McGee, “barbacoa” comes from a Tainos word meaning “a framework of green sticks suspended on a corner post, on which meat, fish, and other foods were laid and cooked in the open over fire and coals.”
American barbecue has Caribbean and African roots. Slaves captured from these lands smoked meat in young America, using smoke to tenderize throwaway cuts. Smoking meat spread to the Carolinas and Memphis and Texas and afar. Barbecue evolved to jigsaw with local food ways: beef and oak in Texas, hickory in Tennessee, pork in Carolina.
The evolution of barbecue continues through the present. You can see and taste this firsthand right here in metro Phoenix, thanks to our trove of spots thoughtfully smoking meat.
After having eaten widely, gratefully, and aggressively through our barbecue scene for the past year, I have things to say about Phoenix barbecue. And I am going to confine those things to a list — a list of the 10 best barbecue joints in town.
You might ask: Ah, but what metrics did you use? Here is my answer: none.
Barbecue is poetry, not prose — art, not science. What we are going to do here, rather than create categories and tally numbers, is take a journey to the ashy heart of Phoenix barbecue, a journey with hunger in our stomachs and curiosity in our souls. The way I eventually arrived at my 10 best was simple: These were the 10 places that made me happiest.
My list has been divided into three tiers. The middle tier (tier 2) represents a leap up in quality from the lower tier (tier 3). All three tiers contain great barbecue. But the most earthshaking barbecue in town, you may want to know, lives in the top tier (tier 1).
For this list, I considered the Salt River Valley from end to end. The top 10 spots come from six towns, one up north in Cave Creek, another down southeast in San Tan Valley. A truly incredible four of the top 10 have opened in the last year or so.
So here’s the list. Hope you have fun eating through.
Naked BBQ a.k.a. NakedQ 10240 North 90th Street, Scottsdale “Naked” is barbecue jargon for “without sauce.” Naked is how owner Oren Hartman serves his meat — sauceless, minimally spiced, and in a restrained manner that lets delicately smoked meat whisper beautiful things to you.
He makes his brisket in the Central Texas style, meaning with mild woods, Spartan rubs, no sauce, and wrapped during the terminal phase of cooking to lock in moisture. Even his “spicy” barbecue sauce, a barely perceptible head nod to Arizona, has a glancing note of heat that stays out of the meat’s way as much as possible. As in the Lone Star State, sliced brisket comes on a square of butcher paper. It’s one of the best briskets in the Valley. The silky slices are light on smoke, huge on primal flavor.
Hartman takes a more complex approach to other meats. This is reflected in his pulled pork, encrusted with a rub composed of some 12 spices, prepared in a more North Carolinian style, and perhaps best enjoyed with his vinegar-based sauce done in the North Carolina tradition. The pork here is good. The links are strong. But given one or two meat choices, you would be wise to stick with beef.
As specials, Hartman smokes prime rib and beef short ribs. The beef short ribs are where his style really sings. These cartoonish bricks of meat have Neolithic bone handles jutting from masses of burnished flesh. The slabs, much fattier than humble brisket, wallop you with a heady beef flavor of another time. You think back to Stone Age humans, but no way did people back then eat so royally.