It's taken a while, but if you're a fan of slow-smoked barbecue, then you're probably already aware that we have a solid selection of 'cue joints in this town. There are the standby options like Bryan's Black Mountain BBQ in Cave Creek, but also newcomers to the scene, including Bootleggers, a "modern American smokehouse" that opened its first location in North Phoenix about a year ago.
You could say that Bootleggers was the first sign that Phoenix might be on the right track to joining the list of cities across the country currently experiencing a revival in interest for barbecued meats. And now with the restaurant's second location open in Scottsdale, we're pretty confident in saying that we're well on our way.
Bootleggers executive chef James Fox agrees there's more interest in barbecue now than in recent years. Just look at the explosion of 'cue-focused television shows, such as BBQ Pitmasters, and a recent MasterCard commercial that features chef Nobu Matsuhisa at Franklin Barbecue in Austin.
"I definitely think it's everywhere now," Fox says.
But unlike in places like Texas and North Carolina, Arizona isn't known for a particular regional style of BBQ. Fox says it's a double-edged sword for pit masters in the Valley. Since many Arizonans haven't been exposed to much barbecue, they often don't know what makes "good" barbecue. On the upside, that leaves the door open for chefs like Fox to do barbecue however they see fit without having to worry about straying from time-honored traditions.
"I wouldn't say we have a style at Bootleggers," Fox says. "I would say it's 'James Fox-style.' I want to make barbecue the way I like to eat barbecue. I don't want to be pigeonholed."
In Fox's case, "they way I like to eat barbecue," means barbecue with a Mexican twist. That's why you won't find any of the white bread that's signature with Texas 'cue at Bootleggers. Instead you get a pile of hot tortillas to build barbecue tacos as you see fit. You can also taste the south-of-the-border flair in the rub on Bootlegger's brisket, which blends chipotle, black pepper, and chile powder, among other spices.
It should come as little surprise that Fox's brand of 'cue blends classic American and Mexican flavors. After all, his résumé does include time at Milagro Grill and in Mexico, where he worked as a personal chef for a time. Prior barbecue experience comes from his stint at Big Earl's BBQ in Scottsdale.
But even within the realm of barbecue, Fox doesn't want to feel limited. In the next few months, the restaurant will head toward a more "smokehouse focused" menu.
"Barbecue isn't the only thing you can put in a smoker," Fox says, adding that he's been playing around with the idea of adding a wild game section to the menu with items like smoked guinea hen and alligator.
The chef says they'll also be taking the smoky theme to the bar soon, with charred and smoke-flavored cocktails.
Even with the recent growth of good barbecue in the Valley, Fox says, it's difficult for restaurants in this town. He blames the trend of eat-and-go diners who don't want to sit and enjoy a leisurely dining experience but are focused on offering "instant criticism."
"But we do have a couple of pretty good solid barbecue spots," the chef says. "I think we're slowly but surely getting our feet under ourselves on all these trends."
One thing you want people to know about Bootleggers is: We serve a lot more than barbecue.
My favorite item on the menu is: The Nacho Flat. I just love our brisket hash. How can you go wrong when you mix that with cheese, tortilla chips, and avocado relish?
If the food at Bootleggers were a song it would be: "Momma Said Knock You Out" by LL Cool J because my food punches you in the face with flavor.
The biggest misconception people have about barbecue in Arizona is: That we are trying to stick to one barbecue region or another. Why can't there be an Arizona-style barbecue?
I'm most excited about: The future. There is this uncertainty but excitement for what's to come. Unexpected adventures, new learning experiences, fresh ingredients, progressive techniques, and new people that I get to meet every single day. I mean, what's not there to be excited about?
One national/international restaurant I want to go to this year: There are really so many it is almost impossible to choose only one.
Your favorite drink and where you like to get it: A margarita from The Mission. Their Primarita is so simple but so damn enjoyable when it's 115 outside.
The most overrated ingredient is: Truffle oil. It's okay in moderation, but it sure as hell doesn't make something delicious if the rest of the dish sucks.
The most underused ingredient is: Salt. It is easy to overuse this ingredient, but it really pisses me off when it tastes like they have never even heard of it.
One local chef you admire and why: Matt Carter, not only for being my mentor but also because I feel like his bold flavors and attitude toward cooking is something that is art.
Phoenix's barbecue scene is: Coming into its own.
The Valley could use more: Street food and comfort food spots.
The Valley could use less: Fox concepts or corporate restaurants.
Your favorite local restaurant that's not your own and what you like to eat there: The Parlor. I love the Calabrian pizza, amazing crust, delicious simple tomato sauce, spicy calabrese sausage, burrata cheese, and watercress. Then dip that crust in some of their freaking bomb ranch. Yes, I am a big kid, I know.
The most underrated bar in Phoenix is: Karsen's Bar and Grill. They make you feel comfortable and at home as soon as you come in. If you go in there a few times and they see you walking in they will poor you one before you even open the door -- now, that's service.
If you could invite any five people to dinner who would you pick and where would you eat: This might sound a little conceited but I would love to eat with myself at 18, 28, 38, 48, 58 and we would eat at The French Laundry. I would just love to see the reactions and different experiences I have throughout those decades.
The next big trend to come to Phoenix will be: Comfort food and Asian noodle spots. (I'm hoping.)
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Your best advice for home barbecuing: Don't rush, and make sure you are always watching your temperatures.
What would you eat for your last meal on Earth: Most likely, authentic tacos from a taco truck in central Mexico with tons of different salsas.
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