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Smoke Rings: An East Valley Barbecue Veteran Comes Out of Retirement

A platter of brisket, sausage, pulled pork, a rib, and sides.EXPAND
A platter of brisket, sausage, pulled pork, a rib, and sides.
Chris Malloy

Clay Caldwell was retired. He had run Waldo’s BBQ in Mesa for 20 years before selling. Then, he took a trip to Texas. In central Texas, in the mythical barbecue establishments in and around Caldwell County, Clay ate brisket.

One bite ended his retirement.

“I kind of had a come-to-Jesus moment the first time I ate this Texas brisket, even though I’ve been cooking brisket for 20 years,” he says. “It’s just what they’re doing in Texas is exceptional.”

The fateful brisket was consumed at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. It not only galvanized Clay out of retirement, it set a narrow course for his barbecue future: Franklin would be his North Star.

Clay and his son Spencer Caldwell, partners, model their barbecue operation on Franklin Barbecue. Aaron Franklin’s barbecue temple is about as widely considered the best in the country as a barbecue spot can be.

Clay, who oversees the food at Caldwell’s, takes a Franklin-inspired approach to brisket: a “Franklin trim,” salt and pepper seasoning, and wrapping in butcher paper. He uses wood-fired 1,000-gallon smokers that he welded partly himself, same as Franklin's but for a square firebox and thicker firebox insulation. The pivot to central Texas-style barbecue using Franklin’s methods was unexpected for Clay. Texas is all about beef. At Waldo’s, Clay had specialized in pork.

Clay has visited Texas to eat barbecue seven times. “I’ve been to 20 places in 72 hours,” he says.

Three Texas-style offsets puff away behind the restaurant.EXPAND
Three Texas-style offsets puff away behind the restaurant.
Chris Malloy

In a part of Gilbert with more green fields than human development, Clay opened Caldwell County BBQ last week. Clay and Spencer are partners in the high-volume endeavor, with Spencer more of a real estate guy, and Clay more into the food.

Out back, puffing away with oak, mesquite, and pecan, are three magnet-black offset smokers. They are 1,000 gallons each, enormous. Cords of wood flank the smooth ovoids that run in parallel. They are on the back porch of the restaurant, which feels like a house because it is one.

The Caldwells bought, gutted, and remade a residential home, a journey that met with a nightmare of red tape, most cut when the family was able to change, after great effort, the local zoning law that stymied them because they were operating near a decommissioned Air Force base.

From the street, the restaurant doesn't look like one. Half a dozen signs tell you it is. The kitchen and its cutting table and flat-screen TV bustle in the old master bedroom. Tables await under new wood rafters. Out back are longer benches, and a table with an umbrella.

When the clock ticks to 11 in the morning, Clay begins cutting brisket. “He likes to start cutting because he likes to analyze what happened the night before,” says Susan Caldwell, Clay’s wife, who works the register.

Clay uses some mesquite to smoke brisket, something of a daring move given the wood’s pungency. When he started thinking about what wood to use for his brisket, given the price and kinds of wood available in Arizona, he had something of a crisis.

“We weren’t going to use mesquite,” Susan says. “But on one of Clay’s visits back to Austin he actually had a conversation with Aaron Franklin and was talking about how expensive oak [the most popular wood in Texas] was here and he said ‘well what’s indigenous to your area?’”

Clay answered mesquite. Franklin said to use it and not worry.

Caldwell County BBQ is central Texas-style with a few divergences. Clay’s family has a long history in Arizona, tracing back long before statehood, so there are a few Arizona flourishes. The restaurant gets its name from both the family that runs it and the county in Texas.

Head nods to Arizona are slight. Corn casserole, made with creamed and fresh corn from an old family recipe, has a beautiful mellow chile burn and a buttery opulence in the same zone of downhill richness as smoked meat. Pulled pork gets a rub of salt, pepper, and garlic. This is a radically simple rub for pork and harks back to what Clay did at Waldo’s for two decades, looping in even more local juju.

Spareribs are the best meat now on the menu at Caldwell. They have a chewy, taffy-like bark that has been liberally seasoned, the garlic warming through and coaxing out the goodness of the pork. Rib meat sloughs away with something of a tug, collapsing into softness.

The main pieces of the menu are set – ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage, and turkey – but some will continue to evolve. Sausage was a touch dry, but will soon be made using a different supplier, and, one day, the hope is, will be made in-house.

The barbecue sauces are memorable. An amber sauce plunges into mustardy realms. The house barbecue sauce has a tantalizing undercurrent, unspooling into the territories of molasses and cane sugar, but without a shock of sweetness.

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And finally, that central Texas-style brisket.

Brisket gets a marathon 20 hours on the offset. Fatty slices are good, sure, but won’t instill fear and nirvana in you, as the Valley’s best will. Lean brisket flirted with dryness. Slices felt a little large and unwieldy. All said, the brisket has potential.

We're talking about a place that opened not long ago and is still training some of its staff. We're talking about a pitmaster who rigorously studies a master, has built top-end smokers, and eats at 20 restaurants in 72 hours. Caldwell has the tools and fire to be great.

Barbecue Joint(s): Caldwell County BBQ
Smoke Master: Clay Caldwell
Wood: Oak, pecan, mesquite
Highlights: Ribs, corn casserole, mustard and house sauces
Notable Specials: None yet. A beef short rib is coming.
Quirk: There is a picture of Clay's great-great grandfather in the bathroom. In the faded black-and-white shot, he's sitting in a Yuma jail cell.
Contact/Hours: 18324 East Nunneley Road, Gilbert; 480-201-4891.
Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (or until sold out)

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