Little Miss BBQ: The Way Meat Was Meant to Be Cooked
In a mere three months since its opening, people are crushing Little Miss BBQ, a meat palace that smokes with the best.
Barbecue engulfs you in the only great American debate ignored by both Fox and CNN.
The yelling over BBQ rivals those orange thugs in Northern Ireland describing the Pope. Reticent men will rise from their La-Z-Boys to challenge heresy.
The great divide comes over the sauce.
Most BBQ is nothing more than slowly smoked beef or pork. On this question, men of all backgrounds, from the educated to my family, pretty much agree. Sauce is another matter.
Briefly — and this is simplifying complexities more mysterious than the virgin birth — you have vinegar soaks in North Carolina, mustard washes in South Carolina, and assorted red toxins everywhere else until you get to Kansas City, where perfectly good cow and pig parts wallow in ketchup-based sacrileges.
I have read that German settlers in the Carolinas found the vinegar and mustard preparations too tart and sought to sweeten the meat with tomato-based concoctions that would devolve into BBQ sauces that begin with ketchup. You might be shocked to learn how many otherwise decent men admit that the first ingredient in their sauce is ketchup.
(Yes, yes . . . I know some of you artisanal pit masters prepare a tomato-based sauce from scratch without resorting to Heinz or Hunt's. Aren't you precious?)
As much as I admire the Germans — Goethe, Arendt, Krupp — their folk salutation "Use the can opener to get the sauerkraut" suggests culinary lumbering.
This is precisely the base of my suspicions, prejudices, and religious intolerance.
I am not at all surprised to learn that these particular immigrants bristled at Carolina BBQ and began us down the camino that culminated with ketchup.
The whole BBQ throwdown has found its way into the University of Mississippi at the Southern Foodways Alliance, where the discussion is based in history and culture and is mostly genteel. Poke around their charming website and you will find nearly 300 discussions such as "Ovens Are for Pies," "BBQ Legend and Good Man," and "Okracast! Women and BBQ."
Little Miss BBQ's Scott Holmes is a Tempe boy with no Southern roots to fall back upon. But his wife's parents, who reside in Austin, met him at the airport.
"They came with a cooler of beer. They then drove us to Salt Lick BBQ," Holmes says.
He was hooked.
He and the wife, Bekke, made their move.
Personally, I love all things Texas and have ambled around Big Bend, Marfa, El Paso, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Galveston, and even Lyle Lovett's God-forsaken turf.
But that whole Austin area was settled by Germans. They still celebrate Oktoberfest — west of Austin, in Fredericksburg — as though it's not another Budweiser holiday but, rather, a milieu where lederhosen are taken seriously.
All of which made me apprehensive as I approached the parking lot (which takes up about 80 percent of this Tempe-border luncheonette's square footage). I anticipated ketchup vats.
I was informed there was no food.
This is not what I want to hear when I have come to sample some nasty German BBQ sauce.
Little Miss had sold out of food.
Who sells out of food? Was this a food bank?
On a return visit, near 11 in the morning, there was a line of 30 or 40 people stretched out the door and into the parking lot. By the time we got inside, most of us were loose-jawed and wet in the mouth in anticipation.
When you are outside, in line, you mosey past an R & O smoker — custom-built, wood-fed — from Granbury, Texas.
This smoker is about large enough to land a predator drone and is a thing of immense beauty. It does not remind you of a cinderblock pit with an iron grill, let alone a hole in the ground — which is where this original discussion began some hundreds of years ago.
The smoker is an offset grill that pulls the smoke out of the fire box and over the meat. Scott's dad stands next to this metal altar and explains the workings to those in line who need religion.
In fact, you fool around with R & O and you might end up with a smoker that resembles a street rod in tangerine flake or candy apple red. That's one option, though you can get yours in black if you're worried about sneers from old-timers.
The thing about these R & O smokers is that they will hold a steady 250 degrees for an extended period of time. Really extended.
Scott smokes his meat for 11 hours, checking every 15 minutes or so to see whether the fire-box needs more oak.
With this extravagant investment in time, they can get only one serving per lunch.
Scott and Bekke prepare their meat with a dry rub of pepper, salt, cayenne, and garlic.
The results are startling. The brisket is that good.
You can also get ribs — pork, mostly, except Saturdays when beef is trotted out — as well as pulled pork, housemade sausage, and turkey.
Who the hell orders turkey? You don't find no Southern Baptists ordering the big bird.
On your first visit, get the two-meat plate until you figure out your obsession. Don't worry about prices. It's lunch. It's BBQ. You can afford it.
At Little Miss, they run out of food because when the day's brisket is gone, it's gone! They make only what you can consume. It's served fresh, never stored and reheated for the tardy.
The demand has been such that Scott has made drawings for another smoker that he will craft locally.
The meat does not arrive naked.
The sides offered are jalapeño cheddar grits, beans, potato salad, and cole slaw.
Let me tell you something: You pull out jalapeños and grits and you have selected two of my favorite things to put in my mouth. You can't muck that up with cheddar cheese.
But the focus in this restaurant is clearly upon the meat. Everything else is a second thought, and not well-thought-out at that.
Each of the sides is ordinary in the way that white bread at BBQ joints is customary and ordinary at the same time.
Naturally there are BBQ sauces, three of them, on each table: sweet, tangy-spicy, and mustard. Each one of them is so cloying with sugar that it obviously has been created for residents of Cincinnati, where folks think chili involves beans and pasta.
Cincinnati and these sauces? Dreadful!
And with smoked meat this good, the dry rub is sufficient unto itself.
With summer pounding its triple-digit heat, you might want to call your order in and get your BBQ to go. The neighborhood — home to car parts outlets and make-it-rain dance stages — does not have the inherent charm to make you linger.
You might wish the side dishes were less careless; you just have to forgive.
The hard, cold reality with Little Miss BBQ is that you must forgive a lot.
They run out of food. They make you stand in line. Most of the seating is in a parking lot. There is no beer. The side dishes are mop-ups. The sauces are German.
Blessed and full is he that forgives.
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