Since opening in 2014, Little Miss BBQ has become known as the Valley's top spot for barbecue — and long lunchtime lines. Led by chef Scott Holmes and his wife, Bekke, along with Holmes' father, Denman, and brother-in-law, Quinton, the restaurant and its simple, homey atmosphere perfectly suit the spot's down-home eats.
On any given day, you can find diners queued up outside the tiny restaurant, waiting for plates piled high with what Holmes calls Central Texas-style 'cue. The menu includes slow-smoked fatty brisket that glistens in the midday sun, snappy house-made sausages, and pork ribs wearing a thick coat of black pepper bark.
In some ways, Holmes, a Valley native who grew up in Tempe, is an unlikely father for this local barbecue haven. He started his restaurant career by attending culinary school after graduating from high school and initially worked at Havana Cafe, the well-loved Cuban restaurant that closed in 2014. After growing unhappy with a cook's life, he left the restaurant business to hunker down with a more traditional career selling medical equipment.
The turning point came when Holmes married and traveled to Texas to visit Bekke's family. He remembers his in-laws met them at the airport with a cooler of beer and announced, "We're going to Salt Lick," a venerated barbecue restaurant in the heart of the smoked meat-rich region.
"I was enthralled with the place," Holmes says. "There was a big stone pit with fire and all this meat on it ... it was glorious."
When Holmes returned home, he bought a smoker and started cooking barbecue for fun. For the next four years, he cooked for friends and family, and after going to a barbecue competition, decided he could possibly be a contender. His wife agreed, and Holmes began to practice. For weeks on end, he would set up his cooler and smoker outside his home to practice his paces in preparation. In the end, Holmes says he did okay but not great at that first competition, and he spent the next five years competing in the Kansas City Barbeque Society circuit.
Eventually, Holmes' obsession gave way to a career goal as he and Bekke returned to Austin again and again to visit family and spend time checking out the barbecue scene.
"We were at John Mueller [Meat Co.], and I was watching this guy thinking, 'Man, that would be the coolest thing in Phoenix,'" Holmes says.
And just like that, the first hints of Little Miss BBQ began to arise.
Holmes' initial concept for a barbecue restaurant in Phoenix included a rented lot with a trailer and Port-a-Johns on the side. It was to be a casual spot with a dynamic, cheerful atmosphere, but Holmes says county permitting nearly laughed at the suggestion of portable toilets. He then decided to look for brick-and-mortar locations, and after a year and a half of searching, he found Little Miss BBQ's home on University Drive between 42nd and 44th streets.
If it seems an unlikely spot for a highly-respected barbecue restaurant, Holmes is adamant it's not.
"I thought it was in the middle of nowhere, but the airport is four minutes away," he says, adding that Arizona State University's Tempe campus is just three miles away and that downtown Phoenix can be reached by a short 10-minute drive.
Still, Holmes will admit he wasn't always so sure.
"When we signed the lease and got the keys, this place was a dump," he says, adding, "The first time I came I was on the verge of crying. I was like, 'What am I doing?' There were two strip clubs nearby. Why would anyone want to be here?"
Nevertheless, Holmes and his family did almost all the cleanup themselves, and before long, the doors to Little Miss BBQ opened.
Success was quick to follow. People from nearby offices would come to check the restaurant out, returning in following days with a larger group of co-workers, Holmes remembers. Visitors on layovers at the airport came to eat, and slowly but surely the lines outside of Little Miss BBQ began to grow. These days, the line can sometimes pile up to two and a half hours.
"It blows my mind," Holmes says, though he admits the pressure can also be stressful and humbling.
Holmes describes the barbecue as Central Texas style, smoked over white oak and pecan woods, with simple seasonings of salt, pepper, garlic, and cayenne. He uses prime brisket, which he says should be flat and perfectly thick all the way across.
"It's about getting the meat to shine," Holmes says. "What can we produce with good meat, seasonings, and technique?"
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The long lines may sound intimidating, but Holmes says patrons find ways to entertain each other during the wait. He says one-third to one-half of guests are repeat customers, and they can often be heard telling newcomers, "You've never had anything like this!" There's an electricity, and the wait is part of what makes going to Little Miss BBQ such an exciting experience.
Arizona diners may be notorious for disliking wait times, but many come out of the Little Miss BBQ experience saying they would have happily waited twice as long. The result brings Holmes and his family a great sense of pride.
"I love it," Holmes says. "I can work 80 to 90 hours a week and still come in every day. There's no place I'd rather be."