In researching Black Smoke, his forthcoming book about Black barbecue in America, Adrian Miller visited Phoenix. Called “the Soul Food Scholar,” Miller — a former lawyer and special assistant to President Clinton, a food historian, and a certified barbecue judge — has won awards for his writing on African American foodways.
In Phoenix, where he hadn’t heard of much beyond Little Miss BBQ, he visited exclusively Black-owned barbecue restaurants.
“I was really impressed with the Phoenix barbecue scene,” Miller says. “I was not expecting to find a lot of great barbecue.”
Phoenix has become a city of widespread barbecue over the last decade, and many of the best new outposts are run by African Americans. This year, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder under a Minnesota police officer’s knee, we’ve seen protests awaken the country, an unprecedented boost in support for Black Lives Matter, and surging interest in supporting Black-owned restaurants. In greater Phoenix, eating Black barbecue is a great way to provide support. And when doing so, one should remember barbecue’s roots. As a patchwork whole, barbecue originates in African, Caribbean, and Native American culinary traditions. Smoke was one way many enslaved people, who had minimal cooking tools, made tough meats melt.
Though barbecue and Black barbecue are inseparable, Black barbecue has its own hallmarks — even in its nascent enclaves like Phoenix.
“African American joints are going to be specialists in ribs,” Miller says. “I would say ribs, some kind of sausage, and chicken are the three things you’re pretty much going to see in Black barbecue restaurants across the country.”
He says you’ll also see soul food sides and desserts, like collards and cobbler. Many traditions extend beyond food, to areas like design. Miller believes he can predict when a Black barbecue restaurant was founded based on who fills its picture frames. (MLK or JFK? 1960s or 1970s. Obama? Any era, likely this century.)
More recent trends? Smoked turkey, often pinch-hitting in regional specialties. Also: rib tips.
“You’re starting to see rib tips everywhere,” Miller says.
Phoenix’s Black barbecue scene traces its lineage to 1984, when Mark Smith and Gary Clark started Honey Bear’s BBQ out of their Tempe apartment. Smith learned from watching his grandmother in Tennessee; today their two locations are known for Tennessee-style, vinegar-based sauce, pulled pork, and ribs.
When Smith and Clark traded Tempe for Phoenix in 1986, the Valley, Smith said, had just a few barbecue joints.
Today, he estimates there are 70 or 80.
“A lot of people are bringing good barbecue to Phoenix,” Smith says. “You’ve got Texas barbecue, South Carolina barbecue. There’s a variety of different types now.” Though varied in origins, the younger Black barbecuers share a common lodestar: meats with bold flavor. Rather than aligning with the voguish minimalism of central Texas or competition style, in which a restrained approach lets the meat’s subtle flavors speak, our best Black barbecuers go heavy on the rub and seasonings, dialing flavor as close as possible to infinity.
This is certainly the style of James Lewis, called “JL,” raised a sharecropper in Arkansas. These days, Lewis smokes meat “high and fast” over oak and mesquite at JL Smokehouse in south Phoenix.
Lewis’s lineup has no weaknesses, from brisket to smoked bologna. He centers the flavors of wood and fire, draws them into the spirit of his meat.
“It’s a lot bolder than places that are looking for the art, the smoke rings,” Lewis says, reflecting on his style. “I know that stuff as well, but that’s not my focus. My focus is to give you that true bone taste, like you’re sitting in somebody’s backyard. That taste has a history.”
Lewis didn’t always fully embrace that history. He knew that rib tips, knobby ends sawed off the meatier ribcage, were historically an unwanted meat that enslaved people turned succulent with smoke and time. But when Lewis was young, his father passed, and friends gave his family rib tips.
“They would drop them off by our house,” he says. “They pretty much gave them away.” After that, he never made rib tips due to the pain of those memories.
That changed three years ago, when Lewis graduated from selling on the roadside in Scottsdale to his 16-seater in south Phoenix. “When I opened up, I realized how much rib tips meant to people all over,” he says. “That’s what people [once] had when it came to barbecue.”
Ron Childs, who runs the Queen Creek-based mobile kitchen Rhema Soul Cuisine with his wife, Via Childs, takes a similarly assertive approach to smoking meat.
“When you talk about Black barbecue, you’re talking about seasoning, flavor,” he says. In Queen Creek, Ron smokes at high heat using Arizona pecan wood. He coats brisket with seasoned salt and paprika, chops it for a “burnt-end feel.” His top meat might be ribs. For a truck, he does an impressive range of meats, all enhanced by Via’s soul food sides and cakes.
In Tempe, Demetrious Makel of Word of Mouth Grill also pursues pedal-down seasoning. He smokes with mesquite, layering on an ashy musk. In one of the “twists” he gives each meat, he jolts a minutely shredded pulled pork with jerk spices. On top of wrapping brisket with butcher paper, he injects brine and leaves extra solution in the wrapped package. “I didn’t want to hide behind my sauce,” he says. “I wanted to make sure all the flavor was in the meat.”
That said, Demetrious simmers some mean sauces — 10 in all. His mustardy, Carolina-style blend has a tangy punch. His creamy Alabama white enriches pulled turkey.
Demetrious and his wife, Jacque Gomez-Makel, saw crowds swell in their dining room in pre-pandemic days: families eating sweet potato pie, juicy hot links, and rub-caked rib racks under Latin jazz. Word of Mouth’s best meat, just one-and-a-half years in? An uncommonly juicy rib tip.
On paper, the stylistic counterpoint to the flavor-forward zeitgeist might be Phil Johnson. “Phil the Grill,” the man behind downtown Phoenix’s Trapp Haus, has earned accolades in national competitions, which call for a different style. Using a wood blend that usually includes one fruit wood, Johnson smokes a firm, competition-style rib at Trapp Haus. For the Roosevelt Row eatery, Johnson has moved his style between competition and backyard. Still, he showers those firmer ribs with seasoning, just like his brisket. With flavor, he aspires to take customers and “punch ‘em in the tonsils.”
In Chandler, West Alley BBQ takes a similar lane — one that leads to the past. The location near Arizona Avenue is the second for father-and-son Bardo and Christian Brantley. The first is in their home state, Tennessee.
West Alley smokes exceptional baby back ribs in the Tennessee style. Pitmaster Jim Dandy — whose father cooked at a Jackson restaurant that Bardo Brantley ate in for years — brushes ribs with a vinegar-based sauce, cooking them in creaking pits that predate modern smokers, casting sunshine onto all the pork’s flavor landscapes.
At these fine establishments, ash and fire and flavor ripple through meats. A tether to the bygone past warms the barbecue experiences, even at a place like Trapp Haus, abuzz with craft beer and contemporary art. Though Black barbecue is new in greater Phoenix relative to other parts of the country, the culture has blossomed here, and manifested, in part, as flavor and feeling.
“Black barbecue is more than just a smoker,” Ron Childs says. “It’s tradition more than anything else.”
Thankfully, our local portals to these tastes and traditions have won some real estate in Miller’s book, which is due out in 2021. “The Phoenix Black barbecue scene is thriving,” he says. “I hope you see an opportunity for more entrepreneurs to get into the barbecue space.”
Honey Bear’s BBQ
5012 East Van Buren Street
2824 North Central Avenue
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, Central Avenue; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Van Buren Street
Pulled pork $15.99/pound
Ribs $18.99/half rack
Mac and cheese $2.99
2010 East Broadway Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Rib tips $16.20/pound
Pulled pork $19.98/pound
Rhema Soul Cuisine (Food Truck)
Chicken and waffles $10
St. Louis-Style Ribs $14
Cornbread cake $3
Word of Mouth Grill
7660 South McClintock Drive, Tempe
Hours: 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday
Rib tips $15/pound
Hot links $12/pound
Sweet potato pie $5
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511 East Roosevelt Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday to Sunday
Ribs $17.99/half rack
Burnt ends $8.99
West Alley Barbecue
111 West Boston Street, Chandler
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Ribs $16.99/half rack
Pulled pork $16.99/pound
Creamy coleslaw $3.29