Welcome to Smoke Rings, a series about the Valley of the Sun's barbecue scene. The goal of this series is to pin down a "Phoenix-style" barbecue, if there is one. Regardless of whether we have a style, a barbecue boom has taken the Valley this decade. Here, we outline the 'cue scene in ash and sauce and gnawed ribs. So bring your appetite, curiosity, and open mind as we chomp our way to answers.
West Alley BBQ & Smokehouse in Chandler plates a meat about as common in Phoenix barbecue as smoked unicorn: baby back ribs.
St. Louis-style ribs get all the love here, with baby back – shorter, curvier, and cut from near the pig’s spine – relegated to the dustbin of exhausted Chili’s commercials. How did this St. Louis takeover happen? West Alley’s baby back ribs melt like hot butter. They gleam with a yellowish hue soaked with the dark reds of barbecue sauce. The bone starts to jiggle right when you touch.
These baby back ribs are one of the better bites of ‘cue you’ll find in the Valley.
“It’s a meatier cut, says Bardo Brantley, who owns West Alley with his son, Christian. “In the South, it has always been baby back.”
The Brantleys opened West Alley in downtown Chandler in December. The location is West Alley's second. Four years ago, the father-son duo opened its popular first location in their native Jackson, Tennessee. They settled on the Valley for their second outpost while in town for Chandler’s Great American BBQ & Beer Festival in early 2017. Bardo has a background in construction. His team built West Alley down to the pits where smoke master Jim Dandy works his country magic to create Tennessee-style barbecue.
The metro Phoenix barbecue scene takes most of its external cues from Texas. Brisket is pope here, just like in the Lone Star State. The Valley's barbecue eateries tend to use spartan Texas-style rubs on beef, often nothing more than salt and pepper . Several local pitmasters give brisket a “Franklin trim,” shearing away fat in the style of barbecue wunderkind Aaron Franklin (of Austin). The offset smokers that the Valley’s best pitmasters use are often modeled after Franklin’s. We cook beef short ribs (a Texas thing), serve on platters in the Texan style, and even paper our briskets the Texan way. The influence is strong.
Tennessee is another planet in the barbecue universe.
“The barbecue geography of Tennessee is as rich and varied as the population itself,” write James R. Veteto and Ted Maclin, Tennessean anthropologists who document Southern barbecue in their book, The Slaw and the Cooked. The duo combs through the variety to pin a few statewide tendencies. “Most often hickory, but also oak, apple wood, and wine or whiskey barrel staves, are the raw materials that lead to a pinkish ‘smoke ring’ just beneath the surface of the meat.”
Tennessee is known for pork, slaw, hickory wood, and meats served pre-sauced.
Jackson, West Alley's birthplace, is 85 miles from Memphis, 130 from Nashville. It’s a town of 67,000 where “everyone knows everyone,” Bardo says. He recalls what locals used to barbecue before modern smokers, the pits and the barrels. From these memories, he built West Alley’s pits, with help from the recollections and cues provided by West Alley pitmaster Jim Dandy. At West Alley, meat is smoked in pits. “That’s a bygone style now,” Bardo says. “People don’t do that anymore.”
Many of Bardo's and Dandy's memories come from the restaurant run by Dandy’s father. Dandy’s father owned a barbecue joint in Jackson, one that Bardo enjoyed. Bardo tapped Dandy, who learned how to barbecue from his dad, to oversee the smoking at West Alley’s first location.
Now, Dandy watches over the pits of the second.
Dandy’s family has humble barbecue origins. “We were from the country,” he says. “We didn’t have a whole lot of money. We didn’t have no pit, but we dug a hole in the ground and put some bars down and some chicken wire, and then you put the meat on top.”
At West Alley, Dandy barbecues in a 21-by-5-foot pit. The pit is a slim rectangle of gray cinderblocks built into the earth out back. Dandy starts by laying charcoal in the pit. He lights it, adding wet and dry wood once the charcoal burns at the right heat. On top of the pit run a few sets of grates. These grates are suspended from a pulley system and can be raised and lowered to the fire. Meat goes onto these grates, and, creak creak creak, lowers down by the fire.
A thin, square lid covers each section of the pit, veiling the magic.
Smoke gathers in the dark.
Meat cooks away from the fire, almost like pizzas in a wood-fired pizza oven. Dandy orients brisket, ribs, pork butts, sausage, and chicken close to or far from the fire. The distance depends on how slow each meat needs to be cooked. When busy, West Alley will call on its more modern 500-gallon rotisserie smoker.
Dandy grew up smoking with hickory. At West Alley, he smokes with almond wood. “It has a sweeter taste,” he says.
“Out here it’s really expensive to obtain hickory,” Christian says. “We knew that coming. We also knew that everybody was using pecan, using mesquite. We didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing.”
Wanting to be different is what sets West Alley apart from metro Phoenix’s barbecue scene. There is a certain pack mentality to the barbecue world here. What makes West Alley a nice addition is that it deepens what we have with what we don't really have (Tennessee-style), and that its creative muscles despite being anchored in tradition (old-school pits, experimenting with almond and fruit woods).
West Alley skirts convention by not using rubs on pork. Complex rubs embellish pork. But when Dandy hits baby back ribs with vinegar-based barbecue sauce made from an old family recipe, sweet with cool heat, you have no idea the rub is missing.
Dandy's treatment seems to draw out the inner spirit of the meat. You can taste all of the flavor landscapes that make pork great, and you can seemingly taste them more. It’s a simple treatment that goes well with the nature of a man who grew up barbecuing in a hole, that goes with the valleys and hills that gave rise to this little Tennessean kingdom within the greater American barbecue taxonomy.
Pulled pork sandwiches come in standard and strange forms. The Jim Dandy spills porcine shreds and slaw and spills a round of fried bologna partway back into a basket of pepper-dusted fries. When asked to choose spicy or mild barbecue sauce, hot is the truth.
The brisket needs some work. The Valley of the Sun may be a brisket place, but when in Jackson (or at West Alley) do as the locals do: Think pig.
Again, the baby back ribs are for real. They are expertly crafted and vanish from your platter too soon. A light sweetness and nuttiness created by almond wood smoke almost calls to mind, in the scarcest, most fleeting way imaginable, European pastries made with sweet almond paste. This remote flavor together with the heat-cut sweetness of Dandy's restrained sauce add supporting flavors to highlight the pork, stopping just short of quashing the rib meat's subtle glories.
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West Alley also does non-barbecue dishes, like wings, baked potatoes, and fried fish.
A few people come on the early side. The dining room is polished and lined with sleek tables. Cords of almond wood stand in plain view. There’s a bar heavily stocked with whiskey. (Tennesseans Jim and Jack are present.) The harmonicas and gravelly voices of blues artists like Muddy Waters slash through the almond-wood-scented room by day. A bandstand awaits local musicians that play Friday and Saturday nights. Glowing, Bardo says he wants to make West Alley the best blues scene in town.
Not much else could make the ribs better.
Barbecue Joint: West Alley BBQ
Smoke Master: Jim Dandy
Owners: Christian and Bardo Brantley
Highlights: Baby back ribs, pork sandwiches, slaw, fries
Notable Specials: St. Louis ribs (Tuesday), all-you-can eat fish fry (Fridays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. or until fish runs out), beef short ribs (coming soon)
Quirk(s): Sauce comes on meat. Slaw comes on sandwiches. Many barbecue dishes come on Texas Toast. Also, there’s a cigar lounge, Puro’s, upstairs. You can order barbecue while up in the lounge.
Contact/Hours: 111 West Boston Street, Chandler; 480-248-8819.
Sunday through Wednesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight