A Brisket Sandwich That Will Make You Forget the Burger

Brisket sandwich from Chelsea's Kitchen.
Brisket sandwich from Chelsea's Kitchen. Chris Malloy
Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

16: Brisket Sandwich from Chelsea's Kitchen

Chelsea's Kitchen makes a brisket sandwich with a level of flavor that must flutter in the dreams of every burger cook who buns patties. Sadly, the burger cooks will never get there, in part because the burger won't, either. An ultimate beefy sandwich will remain abstract for them, a beefy chimera.

That is, unless they learn how to smoke.

Dom Ruggiero of Chelsea's Kitchen knows how to smoke beef. He uses a pair of smokers, one from Camelback Smokers (local), the other from Fat Stack Smokers (Southern California). Crucially, he uses them to smoke the brisket that he slices thin and drapes onto a soft bun.

His brisket sandwich is better than a burger. Even if we're using brisket sandwiches as our yardstick, this is one of the top versions in the Valley.

click to enlarge Chelsea's is a busy restaurant. That doesn't stop the barbecue magic from happening. - CHRIS MALLOY
Chelsea's is a busy restaurant. That doesn't stop the barbecue magic from happening.
Chris Malloy
The key to planting a latent umami detonation in beef is to go into go slow and low. You can sizzle beef on the grill and achieve nice flavor, sure, but a smoker is the way to unlock dreamlike flavor. In the right smoke, meat alchemizes. A peppery crust barks the outside. Swaths of hot fat take on a heady nutty flavor that perfumes the rest of the meet. The meat's actual chemistry changes. Collagens collapse. Using a smoker is like using a cheat code in a video game, only it's not a short cut but the long way to your goal.

Ruggiero starts his sandwich with long-smoked brisket. Sliced like you would see in a barbecue joint, the brisket piles folded-over-on-itself on the bottom bun.

Buns are freshly baked down the street, at La Grande Orange Grocery. They have softness to closely match the dissolve of the soft brisket, which, eaten by itself, melts like pudding. A pickle and slaw tossed in Sriracha mayo top the brisket. Pretty simple.

Fries elevate the brisket, and brisket elevated the fries. They are linked by virtue of sharing a plate, but also because Ruggiero tosses his fries in rub, creating a potato experience cousin to barbecue chips.

It all comes together in a huge soft way, the way you want a brisket sandwich or burger.

click to enlarge A 120-gallon offset smokers from Camelback Smokers. - CHRIS MALLOY
A 120-gallon offset smokers from Camelback Smokers.
Chris Malloy
Once again, a metro Phoenix chef proves that the long way is the right way. Does Ruggiero have to sprint from his kitchen at the height of service to add another pecan log to a smoker? Does he have to spray-mist briskets to keep the moisture right while as smoke? Does he have to study the barbecue greats and hone his skills by pushing himself to try new things, like smoked prime rib and wagyu?

Nope. But the extra through and effort pays in flavor. It's what plucks the idea of a Platonic beef sandwich from dream and sets it down, hot and heaping, into sunny patio-table reality.

Chelsea's Kitchen. 5040 North 40th Street; 602-957-2555.
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The Essentials So Far
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe
31: Beef Tacos from Asadero Norte De Sonora
30: Orange Blossom from Huss Brewing Company
29: Rye bread from Yasha From Russia
28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's
27: Griddled Corn Cakes and Ramona Farms Super Food Salad at Phoenix City Grille
26: Soup from Reathrey Sekong
25: Lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba
24: The Special at Grand Avenue Pizza Company
23: Red chile at Elmer's Tacos
22: Marranitos at La Purisima Bakery
21: Kronuts from Karl's Bakery
20: Beef pies at Chou's Kitchen
19: Bavarian pretzels & schnitzel at Haus Murphy's
18: Red chili burro and sopapillas from Los Dos Molinos
17: Camelback Soda at The Sugar Bowl
16: Brisket Sandwich at Chelsea's Kitchen
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy