Metro Phoenix is nearing peak barbecue. Chains are opening fourth locations; the Valley's best small pitmasters are scaling up; non-barbecue restaurants are getting into the game; and newcomers continue to fire up smokers across the Valley. We already have so many options. Faced with this developed landscape, what goes through the mind of a novice pitmaster who wants to open in fall 2017?
Flavor. Mark Nichols thinks about flavor.
Worry about the market doesn't enter his calculus. He believes that if he can build great 'cue with his own slant, eaters will come.
The chef and newly turned pitmaster opened Arizona BBQ Company with his wife, Colette, in Gilbert last month. Mark has a classical culinary training from Le Cordon Bleu. Unlike the last classically trained pitmaster we profiled, Nichols applies his training to the process of cooking meat.
The result is that European technique and American cuisine merge.
Nichols’ style of barbecue would knock the Stetson off any Texan. Practiced in Carolina, Kansas City, or Memphis, he would violate local religions of smoke and fire. He's openly nontraditional.
“I don’t think there’s one right way to do anything,” he says. “And that includes cooking.”
This is a controversial approach to barbecue. Barbecue really is kind of like religion. Pitmasters adhere to rules and beliefs passed down for generations. In the American capitals of barbecue, they've been smoking meat in essentially the same way since before we discovered Pluto.
To have a set of unchanging rules goes against the nature of cuisine: to evolve with the migrations of people, spread of ingredients and ideas, and rise of new technologies.
Two facets of Arizona BBQ Company untie it from convention.
First, Nichols operates beyond the hallowed smoke-and-fire barbecue tradition, utilizing a pair of cooking methods instead of sticking to the traditional one (smoking). Specifically, Nichols finishes smoked meat — brisket, ribs, pork butts, and chickens — with a braise.
Take brisket. He loads fat-laced cuts into the smoker for six hours a pop. He then puts the slabs into pans filled with mirepoix (chopped carrots, celery, and onion), covers them, and bakes the pans in the oven. The brisket’s rendered fat cooks the vegetables, which flavor the meat in the timeless French style. The endgame: his brisket develops something of a corned-beef-like texture, parts of the fat hued an ivory-yellow.
Pork gets a similar slow-roasted treatment, minus mirepoix and plus beer. Chicken and ribs, too, are plucked from the smoker, covered, and slowly finished in the oven.
This method of smoking and braising, Nichols says, “captures fats rendered out in long smoking.”
The second way Nichols’ barbecue departs from tradition is in how its served. His eatery has the Arizonan influence its name suggests. Mac and cheese is spiked with green chile. Tortillas and jalapenos come with smoked meat platters. One of his sauces uses habaneros. Smoked meats come alongside — and often mingled directly with — Southwestern flavors.
This isn't wholly alien. Other barbecue spots in the Valley give barbecue a similar treatment. The difference is that Nichols pushes the Arizona angle a little harder.
Nichols even uses Arizona mesquite.
He smokes with a 50-50 mesquite and oak blend. His Myron Mixon MMS72XC H20 Smoker can handle, at once, 72 racks of ribs, 162 half-chickens, 90 pork butts, or two whole hogs. The smoker, too, is somewhat unconventional; it has a two-inch water pan under the meat.
To feed his smoker, Nichols loads in two fresh sticks of wood per hour.
His use of mesquite is key. A few Arizona pitmasters have found mesquite too pungent, that it masks meat's true spirit. Nichols, however, only smokes brisket for six hours. He needs to use mesquite to reach a base level of smokiness that would be impossible to attain with milder woods over an abridged smoking. Mesquite makes ashy vibes possible in a short time. If Nichols used oak, perhaps his meat would lack the smoky depths that make barbecue barbecue.
Looking at the menu, Arizona—more so than Texas or elsewhere—is the place that comes to mind.
“The concept is really about giving a nod to Arizona,” Colette says. “You know, as opposed to your Memphis style or your Carolina style or anything like that. We really like to take our style and say this is what Arizona is.”
What does the couple say Arizona is, then, through its barbecue?
Arizona is a pair of tacos: brisket zagged with avocado crema, pulled pork zapped with pineapple salsa, each stuffed past capacity, each hit with Cotija cheese.
Arizona is the “pig mac” sandwich. This half-pound monster spills cheesy shells onto its serving paper. Tangled shreds of pulled pork pile between nicely toasted brioche buns. On the lower bun rests a bacon round as thick as an iPhone. The pig mac tastes just like it looks—delicious.
Arizona is chicharrones smothered in chili made with chopped brisket. This glorious dish meets both the need for comfort food and the craving for something new. The synergy between brisket lopped into tender, bombastic hunks and rub-dusted chicharrones, airy and crisp, elevates the smoked meat by casting it with flavors and textures opposite.
Arizona, too, is ribs cooked to a clay-red bark that was once an 11-ingredient rub, one blending the likes of chile powder, paprika, garlic, rosemary, and thyme. The meat of this St. Louis-style rack flakes off the bone, revealing tender pink all the way to the other side. The mesquite lends husk. You can layer on the thin sooty vibes a little more intensely by spooning on chipotle barbecue sauce.
Nichols is undaunted by the market . He has long experience as a corporate chef, has spent time as a caterer, and has an approach that makes him something of a barbecue outlier. Or blasphemer, depending on your vision.
One month into operations, the smoking has been mostly smooth.
He and Colette did have an issue a brisket supplier, who was delivering slabs ranging anywhere from 12 to 19 pounds. The two are switching to a source that always slaughters cows at 1,500 pounds and supplies a more consistent product.
Consistency is key to minimizing one of the thorny variables that come with smoking: meat size. The road to smoked meat is paved with pitfalls, ranging from fat content to room temperature.
Smoking meat isn't easy.
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Nichols' cooking method and Arizona angle make for a unique experience. His braise results in meat juicier than your typical ‘cue. The drawback to pairing mac and cheese and avocado crema with barbecue is that the granularity of the flavors often get lost.
Smoke can engender the wild flavor nuances that make barbecue phenomenal, and eating glorious. That said, the endgame of a barbecue spot, new or old, is food that tastes good—not adhering to methods calcified since before the Hoover Administration. Though Arizona BBQ Company does things a little differently, the food gets there. Use two hands on that pig mac.
Barbecue Joint: Arizona BBQ Company
Smoke Master: Mark Nichols
Wood: Mesquite and oak
Highlight: Chicharrones with brisket chili, pig mac sandwich, ribs
Staples: Brisket, pulled pork, ribs, chicken (whole halves or pulled).
Ordering Quirks: This barbecue is served without sauce. If you crave extra tang or heat, check out the "sauce bar" for four options, one of them a green chile slather.
1534 East Ray Road, Gilbert; 480-361-4180
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday