When you eat barbecue, you should get poleaxed. You should feel like you have lived, died, and been reincarnated into a beautiful world. You should take a bite of brisket, the fractal textures of the meat’s primal flavor tunneling a thousand generations back, and your mind should clear like the Arizona sky after a monsoon. Your hopes and dreams should slide away, briefly. You should have only one thought, just one idea in this wide world of oceans and deserts and airplanes and HTML and talking heads and rock strata and grain harvests and clean air and sunlight and meat shooting hot pleasure to your brain: dammmnnnnnn.
Great barbecue knocks the words out of your head. You go warm and speechless, deeply grateful for the tender moment of present eating, for the sauce sticky on the webs between your fingers, for the smile curling across your face.
Great barbecue is food at its exospheric potential, food as good as food can be. Great barbecue, like the right song or smell, can collapse the years and reduce you to a kid again.
The word “barbecue” means to cook meat with smoke. People have barbecued since long before history began. Cultures of barbecue have thrived across the steady slide of time and the borders that over time we have drawn across the world.
The word “barbecue” evolved from the Spanish word “barbacoa.” According to esteemed food writer Harold McGee, “barbacoa” comes from a Tainos word meaning “a framework of green sticks suspended on a corner post, on which meat, fish, and other foods were laid and cooked in the open over fire and coals.”
American barbecue has Caribbean and African roots. Slaves captured from these lands smoked meat in young America, using smoke to tenderize throwaway cuts. Smoking meat spread to the Carolinas and Memphis and Texas and afar. Barbecue evolved to jigsaw with local food ways: beef and oak in Texas, hickory in Tennessee, pork in Carolina.
The evolution of barbecue continues through the present. You can see and taste this firsthand right here in metro Phoenix, thanks to our trove of spots thoughtfully smoking meat.
After having eaten widely, gratefully, and aggressively through our barbecue scene for the past year, I have things to say about Phoenix barbecue. And I am going to confine those things to a list — a list of the 10 best barbecue joints in town.
You might ask: Ah, but what metrics did you use? Here is my answer: none.
Barbecue is poetry, not prose — art, not science. What we are going to do here, rather than create categories and tally numbers, is take a journey to the ashy heart of Phoenix barbecue, a journey with hunger in our stomachs and curiosity in our souls. The way I eventually arrived at my 10 best was simple: These were the 10 places that made me happiest.
My list has been divided into three tiers. The middle tier (tier 2) represents a leap up in quality from the lower tier (tier 3). All three tiers contain great barbecue. But the most earthshaking barbecue in town, you may want to know, lives in the top tier (tier 1).
For this list, I considered the Salt River Valley from end to end. The top 10 spots come from six towns, one up north in Cave Creek, another down southeast in San Tan Valley. A truly incredible four of the top 10 have opened in the past few years.
So here’s the list. Hope you have fun eating through.
El Tlacoyo2535 East University Drive, Tempe
The tables are almost full. A mariachi teases music from his guitar. Soccer plays on a TV. Your waitress starts for your table bearing a white plate that swivels heads, eyes briefly glued to fist-sized hunks of chocolate-brown lamb. It’s Saturday, the day this modest Mexican restaurant serves its specialty: lamb barbacoa.
The word “barbecue” doesn’t exactly conjure Mexico — at least, not in most of America. This is no small injustice. Mexico’s history of barbecue stretches back long before American barbecue was willed into being by Caribbean slaves laboring in the wet heat of the American South. Some parts of Mexico have barbecued for eons. The central Mexican state of Hidalgo is one. El Tlacoyo cooks in the style of Hidalgo, including, lucky for us, traditional pit lamb barbacoa.
Steaming hunks of lamb cave to modest fork pressure. The fleshy brown mass is like pulled pork but with larger shreds, huge twisting columns and knobs of brown flesh. The tender lamb has a wild and enigmatic flavor, one that seems to grant you access to the soul of the animal, to grass and sun and soil. Your teeth rend easily through the soft flesh, the deeply mineral undertone rising like the smell of new rain, and sharpening more as you ponder the lamb’s dusky nuances.
One way to order this barbecued lamb is on tacos. A robust salsa the color of tobacco juice zings through the lamb’s signature richness. So does a thick, grassy salsa with capsaicin heat that rises and rises.
Homer’s Smokehouse BBQ1532 West Ocotillo Road, San Tan Valley
Stan Chafflin grew up on a mountain farm in Alabama where his grandfather (Homer) smoked hams and whole hogs. His grandmother cooked just about everything else. At Chafflin’s relatively new barbecue joint standing alone on a roadside in San Tan Valley, he prepares fried corn, squash casserole, and other of his grandma’s specialties using her 14-inch cast-iron skillet. He smokes meat from Alabama memories of his grandfather, employing a style edited by stays in Texas and North Carolina.
Homer’s is the rare barbecue spot where the sides are as good as the meat. Potatoes fried in duck fat emerge as decadent french fries. Squash casserole assails your senses with a soft, full-body warmness, like mac and cheese but featuring pliant vegetables. Tall, fat, iced, sloping cinnamon rolls baked that morning cling to one another on the counter, staring down the customer at the cash register, rarely lasting until sunset.
Chafflin uses a variety of smokers, including a reverse offset, to smoke a variety of meats. He barbecues the usual suspects you find across town, sure. But more. Pork belly and pork chops. Beef short ribs. He has even talked of plans to do whole hogs for special occasions.
Though Chaffin uses oak, a milder wood, his meat is on the smoky side. Brisket isn’t the star of this establishment, but it does come with a few burnt ends. Ribs are loaded with meat and soft fat. If you order pork chops, be sure to try to wrangle one from the end of the rack (more caramelization). After your Southern meal, when you emerge into the dusty heat, cotton rows and cattle fields all around, you might as well be in Alabama.
Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue6130 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek
The man behind the smoker at this spacious Cave Creek barbecue restaurant, Bryan Dooley, formerly used his classical training to cook in hotel restaurants. He takes a chef-driven approach to barbecue, one that incorporates more refined technique. You can taste it in his more complex rubs — one even blends some 15 spices — and an intricately musky sauce with a vivid backbone of tomato and tang.
Dooley lacquers brisket with a heavy char. The bark is curiously smooth, sheening, and a black that seems to vacuum up all colors in the vicinity. Though the brisket looks coated like a freshly paved street, the bitterness you brace for never comes. His fatty brisket delivers complex nutty tones and the “ahhh” of a narcotic dissolve.
When eating at Bryan’s, especially when eating outside in the cooler months, you have to admit that the setting, Cave Creek, adds a layer of flavor to the barbecue. This is a Western town, one with red rocks and rodeos that call to mind outlaws, cattle ranches, and cook fires.
Depending on availability and his whims, Dooley may lay some interesting meats to smoke over his pecan wood fires. Alligator ribs. Bison ribs. Lambs shank served with ginger barbecue sauce. Some of his non-smoked dishes can tempt as much as smoked, including frog legs and an artichoke po’ boy. Here you likely won’t regret venturing off of the well-worn barbecue trail. And even if you stay on, you’ll be happy with something like a solid pulled pork sandwich.
Trapp Haus BBQ511 East Roosevelt Street
This Roosevelt Row barbecue restaurant is a temple to originality. Murals and painted barbecue slang coat the walls. Aggressive flavors spring from meat. Proprietor Phil “the Grill” Johnson, who calls himself “the Jay-Z of barbecue,” attacks the process of seasoning with uncommon verve. Where many of the best metro Phoenix barbecue restaurants employ spices and sauces with restraint — with the goal of showcasing the meat’s nuances — Johnson dials up all flavors as highly as possible.
He rains spices, even after the smoking is finished. He sloshes sauces. And often his barbecue finds its way into an offbeat creation that give Trapp Haus character, remixes like brisket empanadas and pastrami Reuben.
Johnson gets his full-tilt seasoning style from his past in competitive barbecue. The endgame of competitive barbecue is to pack as much intensity into one bite of meat as possible, to blast judges with epic flavor.
The best of Johnson’s barbecue does just that. His Philly Crack wings, smoked and fried, sing with a hypnotic union of sweet and smoky and spicy and more. On good days, his fatty brisket packs a little bit of spice cabinet sizzle. One recent afternoon, deftly seasoned ribs exploded with flavor and melted like hot wax.
That melting texture, though, isn’t Johnson’s goal. He prefers a bit of a firmer bite to ribs, the meat clinging a little more tightly to the bone — the ideal texture for barbecue competitions. Brisket, too, can be a little uneven. But this place hasn’t even been open half a year, and time may hone consistency.
Naked BBQ a.k.a. NakedQ10240 North 90th Street, Scottsdale
2340 West Bell Road
“Naked” is barbecue jargon for “without sauce.” Naked is how owner Oren Hartman serves his meat — sauceless, minimally spiced, and in a restrained manner that lets delicately smoked meat whisper beautiful things to you.
He makes his brisket at Naked BBQ in the central Texas style, meaning with mild woods, Spartan rubs, no sauce, and wrapped during the terminal phase of cooking to lock in moisture. Even his “spicy” barbecue sauce, a barely perceptible head nod to Arizona, has a glancing note of heat that stays out of the meat’s way as much as possible. As in the Lone Star State, sliced brisket comes on a square of butcher paper. It’s one of the best briskets in the Valley. The silky slices are light on smoke, huge on primal flavor.
Hartman takes a more complex approach to other meats. This is reflected in his pulled pork, encrusted with a rub composed of some 12 spices, prepared in a more North Carolinian style, and perhaps best enjoyed with his vinegar-based sauce done in the North Carolina tradition. The pork here is good. The links are strong.
But given one or two meat choices, you would be wise to stick with beef.
As specials, Hartman smokes prime rib and beef short ribs. The beef short ribs are where his style really sings. These cartoonish bricks of meat have Neolithic bone handles jutting from masses of burnished flesh. The slabs, much fattier than humble brisket, wallop you with a heady beef flavor of another time. You think back to Stone Age humans, but no way did people back then eat so royally.
Jalapeño Bucks3434 North Val Vista Drive, Mesa
In a century-old orange grove, Jalapeño Bucks smokes meat in a dwelling made from a shipping container and pine wood salvaged from the Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002. Dwayne Burden oversees barbecue operations. Lines form long before noon, the Mesa lunch crowd turning out for standard and quirky eats that emerge from Burden’s Oyler rotisserie from Mesquite, Texas.
That 1,300-gallon Oyler can hold 120 racks of ribs. Burden leaves pork butts to alchemize in a haze of Arizona red oak and pecan smoke for a full 24 hours. The pork gets so tender that he “pulls” it with two quick clenching motions of his tightly gloved hands. As is the case at most truly great Arizona barbecue joints, the pork is good but the beef is better.
Brisket takes an impressive array of final forms. You can get brisket tucked into a burrito, brisket topping a quesadilla. You can get brisket on a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly. You can get brisket sliced, whole (cheaper than sliced), or as spectacularly delicious burnt ends.
If you’re sitting in that orange grove, where gnarled trees sway, citrus perfumes the air, and the fresh tang of five house-made salsas and the aroma of three barbecue sauces nibbles at your hungry mind, the best thing you can order is a brisket sandwich. Burden toasts the brisket for a little brownness. Slices fold and heap between pillowy sweet buns from Texas, meat melding with “thunder sauce,” a mayo-based spread made from Burden’s mom’s recipe. Layers of softness carry you away.
JL Smokehouse1712 East Broadway Road
10423 North 19th Avenue
In a town of exuberant pitmasters, James Lewis might have the most outsize personality of them all. As he did growing up an Arkansas sharecropper, Lewis barbecues thick cuts of bologna. His walls are coated with Sharpied notes and inane doodlings. He smokes pork belly and serves pork belly burnt ends. He claims, without a smidgen of jest, “I make the best pulled pork in the country.”
Out back, in the thinly grassed yard behind his south Phoenix nook, Lewis stows finished meats in an Igloo cooler. Chopped wood spills from cords all over the yard, and razor wire tops stucco walls. Reverse offset smokers custom made in Arkansas puff away, the smell invading you, the smoke thinning into the desert sky.
Lewis uses unconventional tactics. He smokes high and fast, before mellowing his fire for a slow and low finish. He even uses mesquite, a pungent wood he mixes with milder oak.
The best thing I have ever eaten at JL Smokehouse has been a smoked Chicago-style-inspired dog. Lewis imbues his links with heady smoke. Each bite is a fresh detonation of umami and ash. Braised cabbage, braised celery, and hot pepper meld with the juicy link.
Lewis seasons with calculated aggression. He uses salt, pepper, and brown sugar with a heavy hand. He sauces meat in a barbecue sauce that falls nebulously between sweet, tangy, spicy, and spiced, a concoction inspired by what he tasted in Tennessee. His brisket is brash and abrasive, with a ruggedness that fits a man who grew up laboring on farms. And his pulled pork? Best in the country? I don’t know about that, but it’s good.
Danky’s BAR-B-Q4727 East Bell Road, #31
This north Phoenix barbecue spot offers not only great meats, but an impressive degree of consistency across meats. Everything I have tasted at Danky’s has been reliably great, minus a heavily fried side of okra. Owner Pat Frederick comes from Detroit — not exactly barbecue holy land — but can nevertheless make a smoker sing.
He uses mesquite, a rarity among true barbecue wizards. He smokes brisket for a full 24 hours. Meat comes naked (though meat on sandwiches will come with sauce of some kind). A ramekin of hot, tomato-accented sauce sloshes darkly in the middle of your platter.
Side-wise, you won’t want to miss the beans. They swim in dense sauce with spice-cabinet tingle and generous shreds of pork belly, the belly smoked in the square steel smoker in the center of the shop.
Though not made in house, sausages are one of Danky’s best meats. The link to get here is andouille. They look lightly toasted and coated with a trace of sexy Maillard brownness. The taut skin is like the wrapping around summer sausage, thick and a little rubbery. Salt, chile, and umami flavors explode from each sliced round, casting the powerfully rich meat in the best way.
Though a platter of ribs delivers the animal pleasure of hot meat that greets your tongue like ice cream, these ribs feel pale next to fatty brisket, the best meat at Danky’s. This brisket is as tender as brisket can be without being too soft and shapeless. Even the muscular swath below the pearly fat seems to have fat’s custardy melt. A deeply caramelized, deeply nutty flavor radiates.
This is one of the only briskets in town that belongs in the same conversation as the one below.
Little Miss BBQ4301 East University Drive
8901 North Seventh Street
You arrive early. People are already waiting in lawn chairs. You take a seat at a wooden table. You hear people talking, slapping down cards. You hear the rough twang of old music, the whinny of an electric drill. You look at the Texas-style smokers packed with dozens of briskets. A worker is checking the temperature of sausage. A plane cleaves the sky overhead.
Chatter rises to a sea of voices as people come and the opening hour nears. A line forms. Sun catches in pecan smoke, feels hot on your arms. You start to really sweat and grab water from one of the chilled dispensers. You wait and the line moves, drawing you slowly closer to the ordering counter. A fan beats warm air onto the top of your head when you reach the entrance, cross the threshold.
Inside, you see the cutting board, and brisket sawed into its point and flap. The slices leak juice. You recall, if you have been here before, the incredible landscapes of bark on the exterior, the fatty brisket’s furious dissolve, rush of blood-mineral flavor not unlike what you get from a $90 porterhouse, and the peppery tingle that consumes even that heft, rising pleasantly on the end.
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Ribs here are firm but flavorful. Grits are silken with mellow jalapeño heat. Smoked pecan pie is chewy, sweet, and intensely nutty. There are no holes to a meal here. Come on Friday or Saturday for beef short ribs, the best bite of barbecue in town.
And yes, a Sunnyslope location opened recently, and you can find our thoughts on that in our review of Little Miss BBQ 2.0.
The crimson smoke ring on a slice of Little Miss fatty brisket is a portal to another dimension. Little Miss BBQ is Phoenix’s best barbecue spot by a good distance, and one of our best restaurants of any kind.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 12, 2018. It was updated on May 31, 2019.