The smoker at NakedQ in Scottsdale holds 1,000 pounds of meat. Inside the formidable steel contraption, racks rise and fall in slow circular motion like the cars of a Ferris wheel, inching through scented smoke. Pecan wood. Oak. Slowly, the smoke transforms on-the-rack meats — beef, pork, chicken, and turkey — into barbecue. And not any ‘cue, but the kind you eat and then cancel Saturday dinner plans to come back for two days later.
Narrowly, the verb “barbecue” means to cook meat with smoke. “Barbecue” the noun refers to smoked meats as well as the glorious cuisine based on the making of them. That cuisine, born in the Caribbean and brought to the U.S. through the Atlantic slave trade, has evolved to perfection in the red-white-and-blue.
But any carnivore worth his or her pork butt knows that “barbecue” means different things in different places. Famously, sauces and styles vary from the Carolinas to Alabama, from Memphis to Kansas City, and even within sub-regions of these places, such as from south to central to west Texas.
Today, there is even a Phoenix barbecue. Or is there?
Given the somewhat recent explosion of barbecue joints here, there may be. And I am happy to “work” toward an answer by eating my way through the Valley’s 'cue scene in the hopes of, by tracing an outline in ash and sauce and gnawed ribs, describing one. This will be an ongoing series called Smoke Rings.
We begin in a Scottsdale strip mall, at Naked’s spotless 1,000-pound capacity steel smoker.
Oren Hartman, owner of Naked Q, opened his first location in Phoenix three years ago. (His Phoenix location is called Naked BBQ). The Scottsdale spot opened in April.
Over the years, Hartman made ‘cue for cookouts and tailgates, not as a professional but as a hungry guy who liked smoking meats and eating them with family and friends. Eventually, he left his long career in sales with a Fortune 500 tech company to live the gospel of smoke and meat.
Hartman’s former corporate travels have shaped his approach. He was on the road often, and, when he had extra time, he sought out the best local barbecue.
“Each of the meats we make tends toward one region or another,” he explains. “Our brisket is Texas, our pork North Carolina, our ribs Memphis.”
Hartman calls his restaurants Naked because the meat comes without sauce. His rubs tend to be simple, leaving the meat unmasked. He avoids pungent woods like mesquite that camouflage flavor behind assertive musk. What sets Hartman apart is this simple, understated, reserved approach. To serve his meat, he simply puts it on a square of butcher paper.
With the sauce, smoke, rub, and presentation all dialed back, Hartman’s approach allows his meat’s flavor to shine through.
“Other guys put a lot more smoke on the meat,” Hartman explains. “We’re putting a mild, moderate smoke on. We’re buying the highest-quality meats we can, so we don’t want to cover them up too much.”
Even Naked’s spicy sauce, one of four house-made barbecue sauces, has a dim note of heat that just glances your taste buds at the end. But don’t confuse simple style for simple flavor.
Between the two locations, Hartman smokes 15 to 20 slabs of brisket a day. Each weighs about 18 pounds and reduces by half its weight while cooking. Smoking takes at least a whole night and lasts a total of 14 to 16 hours (for brisket). Near the end, Hartman wraps brisket in butcher paper to keep it moist.
His travels have led him to aim for a central Texan brisket.
Texas is known for brisket. Daniel Vaughn, a writer who has held the awesome title of Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly, has christened central Texas as “the promised land of barbecue.” He outlines central Texan barbecue in his book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, as a style in which “spice-rubbed meat is cooked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood.”
That’s precisely what Hartman does. The Ferris-wheel rotisserie provides indirect heat from the right kinds of wood. And his brisket is light on smoke, huge on primal flavor.
For pork, Hartman uses a more voluble, 12-spice rub. “We’re not trying to get too complex,” he says. “Just letting the meat come through with a little bit of seasoning.” The (secret) components of his rub and lack of sauce make his pork, tonged to shreds to-order, North Carolinian.
If you aren’t comfortable eating totally naked here, a good call for pulled pork is Hartman’s sauce done in the vinegar-based North Carolina tradition.
Hartman’s reserved style reaches its apex with beef short ribs, another Texas tradition, one that lives up to what they say about the size of everything in the Lone Star State.
A handle of bone shaped like the head of a cricket bat extends from Neolithic beef slabs that, each more than a pound, look cartoonish. The ribs have dark crust on the top and bottom, and pure give within. Each beef short rib costs $20 and comes with two sides. Short ribs are available on Saturday nights until supplies run out, which is why once you’ve torn into one your future fancy dinner plans will be in eternal jeopardy.
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Hartman’s ‘cue game is strong. The Valley is lucky to have a newcomer so far outside the barbecue belt. Though late to barbecue, Hartman’s brisket and destiny may have been entwined from the beginning. He shared a college dorm at Wisconsin with the famed barbecue writer and pitmaster Adam Perry Lang.
Hartman pulls from greatest American hits. He also takes his own approach. The pat travels that have shaped his range and reserved method make his barbecue style his own.
Barbecue Joint(s): NakedQ and Naked BBQ
Smoke Master: Oren Hartman
Wood: Pecan and oak.
Highlights: Beef short ribs, brisket, pulled pork
Notable Specials: Prime rib (Friday); short ribs (Saturday); Grand Canyon sandwich of puled pork, pulled chicken, and smoked sausage (Saturday, Phoenix only); coffee-rubbed tri-tip (Tuesday, Phoenix only); pork belly (Friday, Phoenix only); and wings, smoked Bologna, and shaved rib meat sandwiches (random). More specials will be introduced to the newer Scottsdale location over time.
Happy Hour: 3 to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday (Scottsdale); wings and nachos on special; half-off beer and wine.
NakedQ: 10240 North 90th Street, #105, Scottsdale, 480-912-2102
Naked BBQ (Phoenix): 2340 West Bell Road, 602-439-4227 (BYO)