People see deities in animals and stars and divinely shaped Doritos. Recently, I glimpsed religion in a plump coin of sausage smoked over olive wood and oak. The brief revelation occurred at the greatest place in Phoenix — a place better than the zoo, Papago Park, and a barstool at your favorite brewpub.
I am talking, of course, about the line at Little Miss BBQ.
Twilight silvered Seventh Street, cars shooting north and south, a big sign advertising to the carnivores of the world that, at last, the new Little Miss BBQ had opened in Sunnyslope. Down a line to the sidewalk, an employee came. He was handing a round of smoked sausage to each person waiting.
When he got to me, he held up a meaty slice. The circle of the pale coin faced me. For a second, facing that offering at eye level, I felt like I was in church. A priest was offering me a communal wafer. Only there was no priest, just a middle-aged man in a Little Miss BBQ shirt and a holy round of smoked meat.
For many, Little Miss BBQ seems to transcend the laws of physics, biology, reality. Brisket shouldn’t taste so good. Beef short ribs, on special Fridays and Saturdays, shouldn’t dissolve like meat custard and bring nirvana within reach (only for you to reach, instead, for another bite of beef). Opened in 2014, Little Miss is handily the best barbecue joint in town. The owner, Scott Holmes, a former hobbyist smoker with classical culinary training, serves barbecue in the central Texas tradition: using muted rubs, emphasizing beef, papering brisket, serving meat naked, and so on. He has a mastery of the offset smokers that he uses at his University Drive location, in part because his side company, Camelback Smokers, makes them.
After protracted construction, Little Miss opened its Sunnyslope location in late 2018. Holmes, being one person, can only be in one place at a time. How then could Little Miss 2.0 be as good as the original?
As the 20-minute line snaked inside the Sunnyslope location, an amply lighted mini cathedral of blond tables and modern fixtures (at least, compared to University’s shack), I considered this question. I considered it as the line drew me by the smokers: mostly Oylers, high-volume devices from Texas, little like the offsets Holmes has used.
At the end of the line, a tray of meats gave the answer.
I ordered every meat on the Thursday menu — brisket (lean, fatty, and pastrami), ribs (St. Louis), pulled pork, turkey, and sausage — as well as four sides, pie, and drinks (Shiner beers and a cocktail). The new Little Miss is counter service; you no longer order from the cutter, grab your tray of steaming, freshly sliced meats, and pull it close. Instead, you order, somebody keys an iPad, and food comes to your table. Some vitality is lost in the new setup.
We spend most of our lives anticipating events. When a tray of Little Miss BBQ arrives, with enervating smells, molten bean liquid, and fanning brisket slices, an event begins.
The pulled pork, sausage, and ribs are all about what they are at the original location. That is to say, they are succulent and allow a low current of smoke to embellish the meat. Sausage was especially mild. The round character of the wood and the soft spices shone. Ribs showed a vivid smoke ring tunneling deep under lacquered bark, tender pork seeming a shade better than at University, and still on the firm, competition-style side. On the other hand, turkey breast, a difficult cut that allows Holmes to show his skill at University, was a bit drier at the new location.
These meats, however, are mere B-sides. Little Miss BBQ’s A-side radio anthem is brisket in the central Texas style.
And that is why it pains me to report that the brisket falls short of the lofty original. Though radiant with caramel notes, though touched with a heart-stopping delicate smoke, though rendering sauce useless, it just isn’t the same.
First, there seems to be confusion in the cutting area. On two visits, fatty brisket looked just like lean brisket. At the original Little Miss, the two look about as similar as a potato and a watermelon. Lean slices are eggshell-smooth on the flanks, with no cracks between tightly pressed muscles, as close as scales. Fatty slices look abrasive, moister, and webbed with cracks that in places can be severe, and slicked with frosty fat.
The difference is more than visual. Fatty brisket sloughs to oblivion on your tongue in a creamy rush of primal beef and distant woodsmoke and spellbinding nutty flavors. Fatty brisket is what makes Little Miss BBQ.
At the Sunnyslope location, one of two things has been happening. First, at least one cutter may not know fatty brisket from lean. Second, maybe the brisket just isn’t as stellar.
Beyond service style and cutting, which Holmes is changing later this month, how could this be?
The difference lies in the smokers. Offset smokers are long metal cylinders, openings on the ends. A firebox burns on one end, drawing heated air into the long main chamber. This air bathes meat as it flows to the smoker’s opposite end, where, now rising, the hot air escapes through a smokestack, dissipating into the sky.
An offset smoker is dry. There are two air exposures; fat and juices drip harmlessly down. The heat of the fire, thickness of the central tank, and size of the smokestack determine how meat alchemizes into barbecue. At the original, Holmes has perfected these elements. They give him his edge.
The Oylers at the new Little Miss provide a lesser edge. Smoke fills a large cube. Meat on a rotisserie inside circles like a Ferris wheel through gathering smoke. Air exposure is minimal; the environment is wetter. As the wheel turns, drippings fall onto lower pieces of meat. Though Holmes runs Oylers on just wood (and no gas), they present a new game.
These differences likely account for the brisket gap. But they don’t seem to hamper the pastrami.
Supernally soft, Crayola-red-pink, the pastrami is outstanding. An all-out blitz of warm spiced flavor pulls the beef-rich spirit sideways, into the same dusky, coriander-imbued realm as mulled cider. The spice circus is so intense and highlights the ornately fatty beef so well that everything slides together into a dark dissolve. It is almost too good to write about. After my first bite, I think my smile connected at the back of my head.
The new Little Miss features the same sides as the old. They remain peerless. Jalapeño grits, cool heat rolling yet not stifling the bright, vegetal peppers, are a wonder of the Phoenix barbecue world. Two new sides, a cheesy mac-and-cheese and Brussels sprouts cooked in brisket fat, belong with the old.
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There is also booze at the new Little Miss: wine, beer, and cocktails. Wren House and The Shop Co. brews go with the slick new patio. A margarita-like cocktail of mezcal, pineapple, and lime isn’t a paragon of balance, but provides campfire husk and brightness anyway, a jungle bridge to barbecue.
Holmes knows he has work to do. Once he gets to where he wants his food to be, he plans to add pork belly, lamb necks (which he says might be his best meat), and breakfast. Now, though, you may not get the same beginning-to-end magic. And you may not see true religion in a brisket slice. But if anybody can work out the kinks and tame barbecue machinery, it’s Holmes. And though the new Little Miss may now only be 85 percent of the old, that still makes it, except for the original, the best barbecue in town.
Little Miss BBQ Sunnyslope
8901 North Seventh Street
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 4 to 9 p.m; Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Monday
Pastrami (Thursday only) $22 per pound
Beef short rib (Friday and Saturday only) $21 per pound
Brisket $20.50 per pound
Jalapeno cheddar grits $5 per pint
Coleslaw $5 per pint
Bekke’s smoked pie $5