West Alley BBQ & Smokehouse
111 West Boston Street, Chandler
Wanting to be different is what sets West Alley apart from metro Phoenix’s barbecue scene. What makes West Alley a nice addition is that it deepens what we have with what we don't really have (Tennessee-style), and that it flexes its creative muscles despite being anchored in tradition (old-school pits, experimenting with almond and fruit woods). The baby back ribs are for real. They are expertly crafted and vanish from your platter too soon. A light sweetness and nuttiness created by almond wood smoke almost calls to mind, in the scarcest, most fleeting way imaginable, European pastries made with sweet almond paste. This remote flavor together with the heat-cut sweetness of pitmaster Jim Dandy's restrained sauce add supporting flavors to highlight the pork, stopping just short of quashing the rib meat's subtle glories.
3434 North Val Vista Drive, Mesa
Jalapeño Bucks in Mesa may be the Valley’s most underrated barbecue joint. Duaine Burden, who with his wife, Dianne, oversees Jalapeño Bucks, smokes brisket, ribs, and pork butts. His 1,300-pound-capacity Oyler smoker from Mesquite, Texas, holds 120 racks of ribs. He hits ribs and pork butts with rub, brisket with just salt and pepper. The Oyler draws heat from Arizona red oak and pecan wood, for Burden “likes the smoke that comes from them.” Duaine learned how to source, smoke, slice, sauce, and serve barbecue on his own. His surprisingly great barbecue exists somewhere at the murky meeting of southwestern, Mexican, and Mexican American. The best way to eat his brisket may be on a sandwich, lifted by an ethereal sweet bun that, like the smoker, comes from Mesquite. Burden griddles sliced brisket for a little Maillard brownness. He mounds it on a bun slicked with "thunder sauce," a mayo-based spread. With a bit of house mustard barbecue sauce, the sandwich is unreal.
Homer’s Smokehouse BBQ
1532 West Ocotillo Road, San Tan Valley
Stan Chaffin of Homer’s Smokehouse BBQ in San Tan Valley takes an intuitive approach to barbecue. “The wood and the smoke and the meat — you’ve got to listen to it. The way it sounds, the way it looks, the way it feels, the way the smoke smells.” Chaffin started smoking brisket when he was 12. He barbecues many of the usual suspects: brisket, pork butts, beef short ribs, and pork ribs. Highlights are ribs — which seem to be loaded with meat and fat — and pork chops. Homer’s is the rare barbecue joint where the sides are as good as the meat. Stan does collards, black-eyed peas, fried corn, six-cheese mac and cheese, and a “silly-stupid” squash casserole (a description he applies to his best briskets, one that fits the yellow squash bake as well). He serves green beans, potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans with burnt ends. For dessert, there are buttermilk pies, sweet potato pies, fruit pies, and cinnamon rolls.
10240 North 90th Street #105, Scottsdale; plus another location
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.”
Little Miss Barbecue
4301 East University Drive
Little Miss BBQ smokes and serves in the Central Texas style. The style consists of minimal rubs, use of oak and mild woods, sauceless meat, brisket, and quirks such as doling out meat on butcher paper and with sliced white bread. Scott Holmes isn’t afraid to experiment. He takes some wildly novel positions despite claiming no barbecue weirdness. He has a fine-tuned sense of when to stick with custom and when to split, and that’s what makes Little Miss BBQ the best I’ve eaten in Phoenix.