Welcome to Smoke Rings, a series about the Valley of the Sun's barbecue scene. The goal of this series is to pin down a "Phoenix-style" barbecue, if there is one. Regardless of whether we have a style, a barbecue boom has taken the Valley this decade. Here, we outline the 'cue scene in ash and sauce and gnawed ribs. So bring your appetite, curiosity, and open mind as we chomp our way to answers.
Listen, we know there's brisket to be eaten in the Valley. We know there's pulled pork. We know there's a bunch of small-name spots with hypnotic sauce and big-name destinations that plate smoked meats so haunting and beautiful that you can feel the prehistoric cave dweller in you rising to life and dancing. But there are also big-name chains, and even a few that make barbecue worth seeking.
Bobby Q is one of the many Valley barbecue joints that can, with the right piece of meat, tap into reservoirs of flavor and feeling. Bobby Q has three locations.
The barbecue micro-chain has been smoking meat in metro Phoenix for 13 years, since before the new wave but after the Ur-smokers. The first location opened in west Phoenix, as anyone who has seen its sign from the 17 knows. The other two locations are in the Biltmore area and Mesa. Bobby Q has been piloted for the ride by Bob Sikora (the “Bobby”) and Mark Hittle (a co-owner and head smoker). Bobby Q plates a range of barbecue meats — the usual suspects, plus some welcome novelties.
Hittle smokes using two kinds of almond wood: green and seasoned. He uses greener wood for smoking meat, older wood for firing a rotisserie and a broiler, the latter used to finish certain meats.
“We get big green chunks for the smoker because they burn for a long time,” he says. “If we load the smoker up tonight at 8 or 9, we’ll smoke all night. It doesn’t get as hot, and it burns longer.”
Pork gets 12 to 16 hours over that greener almond wood. Hittle has changed the pork recipe many times over the years. More recently, he dropped the smoker down to 200, give or take 10 degrees due to the whims of wood and fire. He knows pork is done by “temperature, touch, feel, and look.”
Like all the smoked meats, pulled pork comes sauced. The house sauce is sweet-leaning, Kansas City-style sauce. (There is also a Carolina-style sauce, which you have to ask for. It'll come in a thermal pourer.) Saucing meat before serving is sin to many barbecue cognoscenti, but something about doing so feels right in Bobby-Q’s Mesa outpost, a restaurant of TVs, a doughnut machine, and 21,000 square feet of salvaged barn wood.
If you are a habitual barbecue eater, the unusual meats at Bobby-Q will likely be the ones that ultimately occupy the most real estate on your table. They are hard not to order, and I wouldn't advise skipping them. That said, I would save some table space for pulled pork.
The pulled pork at Bobby-Q is strange and very good. It has a softness not unlike yogurt. Each strand has kind of melted into the mass. But the collapsed porcine fragments, tinged a blush color in places, have retained just enough of their structure that they aren’t mushy. As you eat, you get nice little spurts of ash.
Bobby-Q’s other smoked meats include brisket, pork ribs (St. Louis-style and baby back), beef ribs, beef short rib (a special), and prime rib. There is chicken, too, but this chicken takes a spin in the rotisserie – and not in the smoker – meaning the bird ain't barbecue.
In this series, we've seen brisket. We've seen pork ribs. We've seen the odd bird or two. What we haven’t really seen is beef ribs or prime rib.
Beef ribs aren't beef spare ribs. A beef rib more resembles pork ribs: lengths of bone, meat tight to the sides, the whole darkly fluted slab looking almost like the sides of an accordion.
“It’s one of the hardest ribs to make, because if you cook them too fast they shrink a lot,” Hittle says. “We cook them overnight at about 190 degrees and then hold them at 160 for a couple hours.”
Hittle leaves beef ribs on the rack until an order. Then, he cuts them off bone by bone. You get four bones per order. Each looks like the femur of a stegosaurus.
On a recent visit, the beef ribs were a tad dry. But you get to tear at the meat like you live under stalactites, and the ribs are a nice, novel expression of how beef can speak to you.
In another novel twist, Hittle finishes his ribs – pork and beef, spare and prime – on a broiler fired with almond wood and mesquite. He opts for this tactic, he says, “to mark” the meat.
Meatheads of the non-gym variety will gravitate toward prime rib. At the Mesa outpost, Bobby-Q has a steak-aging program. Flintstonian lengths of prime ribs are wet-aged in crovac for at least 60 days before, meeting their smoker.
But here, too, Hittle employs cooking methods beyond the smoker. After seasoning prime rib, the meat takes a trip to the oven. “We seal it, meaning we put it in the convention oven for 30 minutes at 400 degrees,” Hittle says of the method. “Just blast it with heat really fast to seal the outside. And then it goes in the smoker.”
Fatty brisket at Bobby-Q is in the upper third of Valley briskets. The chicken, though not technically barbecue, brings a potent flavor due to the amplifying influence of ample coarse salt and pungent rosemary.
Sides are homestyle, satisfying, typical. Mac and cheese has more cheese than mac. A nice coleslaw has the small crunch of pecan pieces. Barbecue beans teeter dangerously toward the sweet side and, in their soupy saucer, show shreds of leftover barbecue meats.
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Bobby-Q is a fun place. There's a lounge room with dark fans and upholstered chairs where people linger watching hockey and basketball. There's a central bar area where 20 taps rout craft brews into glasses. Ant there are other rooms still, including a well-lighted patio.
Any of these rooms would prime the mind for smoked meat, for a classic metro Phoenix barbecue experience. Just be sure to consider straying beyond your classic barbecue meats.
Barbecue Joint(s): Bobby-Q
Smoke Master: Mark Hittle (co-owner with Bob Sikora)
Wood: Almond (green and standard)
Highlights: Fatty brisket, pulled pork, prime rib
Notable Specials: beef short ribs
Quirk: Hittle supervised the building of the Mesa location. On another note, he tucks brisket into egg rolls. A pyramid of fried egg rolls balances on a plate, between containers of barbecue sauce and chipotle ranch.
Contact/Hours: 1610 South Stapley Drive, Mesa (plus other locations); 480-361-7470.
Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday and Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.