Chow Bella

Smoke Rings: A 20-Year Veteran of the Metro Phoenix Barbecue Scene Is Still Evolving

Chris Malloy
A meat platter with meat add-ons and sides
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.

Launched in 1998, Joe’s Real BBQ has long been a keystone of the metro Phoenix barbecue scene. Before barbecue styles could be glimpsed widely online, before the cuisine edged into the national consciousness and before books on ‘cue started coming out by the dozen, Joe’s was dutifully smoking brisket using pecan wood in the paved heart of Gilbert.

Gilbert has enjoyed a renaissance due in part to the efforts of Joe Johnston, owner of Joe's. The Johnston clan has deep roots in town. In 1960, Johnston's father bought the farmland that Johnston would turn into Agritopia, an 11-acre urban farm. Johnston went to Gilbert High School. Today, Johnson's Gilbert-based projects include, in addition to his barbecue Mecca, Liberty Market, the indoor-outdoor farm-and-vendor complex Barnone, and Joe's Farm Grill. He even tackles dreamlike innovations through Barnone's Johnston Machine Co., testing his ideas for novel cooking tools.

Johnston fortified his Gilbert roots in 1998, with the opening of Joe's Real BBQ.

Back in those days, the Valley had a mere handful of barbecue eateries — and that Joe Johnston helmed one of them surprised even Joe himself. Johnston started in adult life as an engineer.

click to enlarge Joe Johnston, the mind behind Joe's Real BBQ. - CHRIS MALLOY
Joe Johnston, the mind behind Joe's Real BBQ.
Chris Malloy
He studied engineering at Stanford. After, he worked for an electronics firm and then as a consultant. Half a decade later, he changed course and got into coffee.

Johnston founded the original Coffee Plantation in Tempe in 1989. He was roasting beans back when the idea of third-wave coffee would have seemed like something out of Star Wars. Coffee Plantation was a huge hit. New locations sprouted. The artist in Johnston, though, bristled at the success. His heart fell out of the business, and he sold to a buyer in Canada, staying on as a consultant.

The company stationed Johnston in Texas.

He was tasked with designing and building coffee shops in Austin, Houston, and Dallas. As any sane person spending time in Texas would, he visited Kreuz’s, Louie Mueller, Cooper’s, and other cathedrals of Texas barbecue. “I ate a lot of barbecue back then,” he recalls. “I was already starting to think what was next. Barbecue was really cool. It was a process you could master, this defined thing.”

click to enlarge CHRIS MALLOY
Chris Malloy
When his contract ended, Johnston pivoted to barbecue. Once home, inspiration struck as he drove past a boxy white church in Gilbert. “It was exactly the kind of building an old agricultural town in Texas would have, not unlike Louie Mueller’s,” Johnston says. “This was an old grocery store. Most of those barbecues were grocery stores. So I passed this building, and thought this is a barbecue building.”

He bought the building from the preacher. And though Johnston isn't manning the smokers himself these days, the Joe's team is still smoking 20 years later.

The high-ceilinged hall serves your standard barbecue fare — platters and sandwiches — with outliers of “pit ham” (smoked ham) and turkey-jalapeno sausage from Schreiner’s Fine Sausage. Non-meat offerings provide flair and down-home vibes: a range of cakes and cobblers, homemade root beer and cream soda, a stack of individually wrapped cookies. A giant green tractor sits at an oblique angle between the hall's tables. One wall gleams with a colorful mural featuring the 5 “Cs” of Arizona. Everything feels hospitable, and that’s before we even get outside to the cornhole sets on the lawn.

click to enlarge Cafeteria-style sides - CHRIS MALLOY
Cafeteria-style sides
Chris Malloy
Smoking meat is an art. The road from raw brisket to sliced heaven is strewn with creative possibilities and a thousand known and unknown variables. Johnston is part artist, yes. But when the door of one of his 1,000-gallon Oyler smokers clangs, the pecan wood combusts, and smoke draws into the main chamber, the scientist in Johnston takes over.

His smokers are partly automated. Johnston can control temperature by pressing a button — not uncommon among pitmasters who use smokers powered by more than wood fire. Lately, he has thrown himself into the process of hacking his smokers’ governing devices.

His goal: smoother systems, better barbecue.

“One of the great things about Arizona,” he says,  “is that we can do whatever we want.”

Inside the main chamber of each smoker, a circle of great racks spins. Smoke is drawn from an offset firebox and into this chamber, where the smoke transforms meat into barbecue

Johnston has probes inside one of his Oylers. They collect data. He tracks temperatures in various parts of the main chamber. (The top tends to be about sixty degrees hotter than the bottom.) He monitors the opacity of his smoke, believing that clearer smoke produces cleaner flavor. When wood first catches flame, thick dark smoke spews. Johnston, who believes this newborn smoke creates acrid flavor, has trained his staff to manually eject this smoke before it reaches the meat chamber. He's in the middle of making this ejection automatic.

click to enlarge Smoked turkey sausage is a highlight at Joe's - CHRIS MALLOY
Smoked turkey sausage is a highlight at Joe's
Chris Malloy
Johnston has all kinds of plans for improving his systems. He believes two kinds of people run restaurants: systems people (who create blueprints that guide how things function) and savants (freakish talents who put in long hours and go more by feel). He considers himself a systems guy. That’s why he channels his inner tinker in a quest to control smoke from temperature to opacity to how different-sized wood pieces burn.

Johnston hopes to have some new processes in place on or shortly after January 20, his restaurant’s 20-year anniversary. He isn’t the only smokeshow in town these days. Even the Valley's original barbecue players must stay sharp with the tide of the new.

Your tray fills up fast at Joe's. Very fast.

click to enlarge Joe's serves its barbecue cafeteria-style - CHRIS MALLOY
Joe's serves its barbecue cafeteria-style
Chris Malloy
Ribs are a highlight, smoked to tender pinkness and flaking away with ease. Johnston hits ribs and pork butts with a sweeter rub; the touch of sugar embellishes these meats. His base savory rub leans heavily on salt and pepper, less on aromatic ingredients like paprika and granulated garlic. Turkey-jalapeno sausages, sliced disc-thin, benefit from the lack of sweetness. Their shy smoke doesn't stomp out the more delicate fragrance of the sausage, resulting in a meat more finessed and balanced than your typical bombastic brisket.

Johnston has used the same two sauces for two decades. Orange juice is a not-so-secret ingredient. Meat comes naked or sauced, your pick. Warmed containers of normal and spicy sauce await, too, by the sneeze-guarded condiment trays crammed with onion relish and pickled jalapenos.

The Joe of Joe’s doesn’t do much of the smoking these days. He has his hands in too many projects to properly dispatch the demanding 24-hour task, a responsibility that includes everything from stoking the fire to keep it all going to giving each brisket a Franklin trim. Johnston's three 1,000-gallon-capacity Oylers are in veteran hands with Daryl Jansen. Jansen has been smoking at Joe’s since day one.

Although he's not the pit master, Johnston still scratches his engineer's itch for perfection. He still follows his mind to smoked meat that speaks to the soul. This Gilbert original still tests things, still thinks and thinkers, and still tries to improve even now, after 20 years.

click to enlarge Pit beans, thanks to the addition of meat, rock hard - CHRIS MALLOY
Pit beans, thanks to the addition of meat, rock hard
Chris Malloy
Barbecue Joint(s): Joe's Real BBQ
Smoke Master: Daryl Jansen, Joe Johnston
Wood: Pecan
Highlights: Ribs, turkey jalapeno sausage, pecan cobbler, barbecue pit beans
Notable Specials: Arriving for the 20-year anniversary later this month
Quirk: The buffet-style servers may sauce your meat without giving you a choice of sauce or no. Don't be shy if you're the kind of eater who likes your barbecue naked.
Contact/Hours: 301 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert; 480-503-3805
Every day 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.