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.
Liberty Station Tavern smokes meat using a 500-gallon offset smoker on the northern fringe of Scottsdale. Wood fires the matte smoker. It plugs into nothing. The device – welded by Camelback Smokers, christened just over a year ago when Liberty opened – leads to some surprising dishes.
This wood-fired offset is the same style of smoker used at the top newer-age spots in Texas, and, because of Texas, at better contemporary barbecue joints in cities across the country. It's what they’re using at the most ambitious barbecue spots in metro Phoenix. That a 500-gallon offset is puffing away on the rocky outskirts of Scottsdale at a non-barbecue restaurant is pretty amazing.
It speaks to how far the Valley's barbecue scene has come.
This top-of-the-line smoker, with its twin doors that open to the sky, is what Liberty is using to smoke meat that finds its way into about 50 percent of the menu. Liberty Station is a half-barbecue spot with original moves.
When you get to the eatery, which cooks about a cattleman’s lasso from Carefree, you walk out to a sunny porch with a painted wooden trellis overhead. Classic tunes rain. Drinks flow at a two-sided bar. You get the sense that this is your typical Scottsdale outdoor dining scene. But then you get a whiff of ash, an uppercut of smoked meat’s perfume, and the illusion of sameness slips away.
The smoker is just off the kitchen, on the side of the restaurant. A window reveals the happy sight.
“I decided I wanted to do serious barbecue,” owner Paul Keeler says.
That serious barbecue begins with the offset named Big Papi. Baseball fans know Big Papi as David Ortiz, a slugger who hit bombs for the Boston Red Sox. Keeler has Boston roots. And the restaurant has a New England accent (Boston baked beans, clam chowder) as well as echoes of the American south and Midwest (lots of smoked meat).
Keeler opened Market Street Kitchen in North Scottsdale and Liberty Station Tavern after a long career in restaurants elsewhere, much of it with Hilton.
His Keeler Hospitality Group owns a third restaurant in Nebraska. His chef there, Dan Watts, got really into barbecue as a side project. Watts got some tasty results from a little offset. When Keeler decided he wanted to cook barbecue at Liberty Station, he locked up a high-end offset and flew Watts southwest to get things going.
Watts passed the flame of barbecue knowledge to Liberty’s executive chef, Antony Apolinar. Wood. Combustion. Airflow. Apolinar came to relish barbecue, and developed a familiar cherry-picking barbecue style.
“If you understand how to cook, you can understand how to use a smoker,” he says. “It’s slow and low indirect heat, kind of like braising.”
These days, it's Apolinar who tends to Big Papi.
He begins the process by loading oak, always oak, into a firebox caked with ash. Liberty smokes with local oak and pecan, but Apolinar always starts with oak. He says it’s easier to kindle, taking 25 minutes to rise to full fire to pecan’s hour.
The three main meats at Liberty are pork shoulder (pulled), brisket, and ribs. They come together or apart on a barbecue platter. They also come slipped into various dishes where they recede to a co-star or peripheral role: burnt end quesadillas, a burger heaped with pulled pork.
Fatty brisket is easily the best barbecue meat at Liberty.
Apolinar smokes his brisket in – surprise!— the Texas style. The offset is Texan. So are the use of oak, ninth-inning wrapping of meat, sauceless serving, and minimal rub. The rub is light on the salt and pepper. Liberty goes a step beyond Central Texan austerity and adds ground coffee to the mix. The coffee comes from ROC2, the mad-scientist roastery up the road in Cave Creek.
Brisket goes into the smoker at 9:30 in the morning. The smoker soughs along at 250 degrees, give or take. About 12 hours later, brisket gets moved to a warming pod until the following morning.
At Liberty, fatty brisket is much better than lean. This is great for lovers of melting meat packed with nutty depth, because, insanely, most of Liberty’s customers request lean. That’s cool. Seize their fatty. Fork dusky squares onto your tongue, let them melt, and live.
Ribs are St. Louis style and have a firmer bite. They come slicked with a sauce that has a spirit closest to Kansas City style. Your pulled pork will also come doused, with a vinegar-based sauce in a Carolina vein.
These pork cuts see a rub more complex than the brisket rub, a motley mixture of paprika, cumin, thyme, salt, pepper, and several other dry seasonings.
Liberty drops some barbecue creations out of left field. It all starts with bucatini, a nest of noodles sitting in a hot bath of vegetable stock. The tightly wound noodles harbor pulled pork, making for an unlikely union. Early in the cooking, pulled pork shreds get added to a mirepoix goosed with roasted fennel. Shortly after, the pot is deglazed with beer. It then gets stock, pasta, and herbs to finish. There is only a distant hint of smoke.
Liberty has found a novel way to improve the grilled cheese: stuff the bread with burnt ends. This is an eye-opener. The brisket, melted cheddar, and pepper jack are in the same textural family. It’s softness almost all the way, with toasted sourdough bringing some crunch.
Apolinar says his style has evolved since he got started in barbecue not too long ago. He takes a respectful, humbled approach to the barbecue process and maintains a standard.
“It teaches you patience,” he says. “No matter what happens, you can’t rush it. There are nights when I have 86ed things because they’re not ready, they’re not right. That’s our standard, that’s what we do.”
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The porch side of Liberty’s two-sided bar is made for eating barbecue and drinking beer. Sun falls. The trellis hangs. The weird ferrous rock formations that strew these parts rise in the distance. At night, string lights glow. The better beers on tap come from Arizona, breweries like Helio Basin, Pedal Haus, Oak Creek (Sedona) and THAT (Cottonwood).
With Liberty Station, Keller hoped to do serious barbecue. The smoker, setting, and fatty brisket are just that.
Barbecue Joint: Liberty Station Tavern
Smoke Master: Anthony Apolinar
Owner: Paul Keeler
Wood: Pecan and Oak
Highlights: Fatty brisket
Notable Specials: Prime rib (weekends)
Quirk(s): This is one of the few spots that skips barbecue beans for Boston-style beans. Brisket and pulled pork still make it into the brimming ramekin. Molasses adds body, mystery, and a lightly sweet kicker.
Contact/Hours: 34522 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale; 480-595-9930.
Daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.