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.
The parking lot of Chelsea’s Kitchen doesn’t smell like garlic. It doesn’t smell like onions, sauce, or kitchen scents of any kind. What you smell as you emerge from your car is something more primal. You smell smoke. You smell meat and fire. You smell the same smell that, 40,000 years ago, must have filled crudely painted caves after thrilling big-game hunts.
Chelsea’s Kitchen in Phoenix, a Southwestern eatery to the core, does serious barbecue.
After the smell, you see. Chelsea’s “smoke yard” projects from the restaurant's adobe, taking up some of its front lawn. Inside a low fence, a rotisserie spins hunks of meat, often prime rib, over a mesquite fire. Smoke exhales in steady thin blue streams from a 120-gallon black smoker, the area barricaded by cords of mesquite and pecan wood.
On any given day, there's a good chance executive chef Dom Ruggiero will be busy in the smoke yard: tending the smoker, laying fresh mesquite into the rotisserie, gauging the doneness of brisket with his eyes.
Chelsea’s didn’t have barbecue before Ruggiero. Ruggiero, a large, tattooed presence with a bass voice, has cooked for LGO Hospitality, the group that owns Chelsea’s, for years. He started at Chelsea’s in 2013, left to open Ingo’s Tasty Food (just down 40th Street a few blocks), and then helmed two LGO restaurants in Santa Monica, California.
He returned to Chelsea’s in 2016. It was shortly after then that the barbecue program started to blossom.
Ruggiero got his start in barbecue a decade ago. His first real brush with 'cue was at a competition he entered with Matt Carter (of The Mission, Fat Ox, and others). The event went down by the Arizona Canal in Old Town. Ruggiero and his squad took a “chef-y” angle, making fancy moves like barking proteins with coffee rubs.
He stayed up all night stoking the fire.
At the judge's table, his team got smoked.
“I’ve gone back to salt and pepper rubs on briskets, a little bit of brown sugar and paprika on my pork,” he says of his present, more restrained style at Chelsea's. “I would say for the most part the barbecue we do is pretty traditional, but then we jazz it up.”
In terms of both smoked meat and how creatively that smoked meat is used, Chelsea’s may have created the most expansive barbecue universe in the Valley.
Ruggiero and his chefs smoke brisket, pork, ribs, sausage, and turkey. Often, they serve this meat traditionally, as ribs with coleslaw or brisket on a platter, same as you'd get in Texas or Carolina. But they may shave turkey over a French-dip-style sandwich, or make that brisket with wagyu. Because of this customary-to-creative range, and because of how frequently the menu changes, eating at Chelsea's is playing barbecue roulette. Smoked meat is served at brunch, lunch, and dinner. Just what ultimate form that meat will take is a crapshoot.
There are other flairs to Chelsea’s that your typical barbecue joint just doesn’t have. These flairs are what make Chelsea's such a key player in the Valley's 'cue scene. Ruggiero has smoked trout and bacon. For a beer dinner on February 15, he'll pair smoked wagyu brisket with a double IPA made using citrusy Mosaic hops. He embraces smoking other apex meats, meats like beef short rib, prime rib, and veal chops.
To make the barbecued veal, Ruggiero starts with seven-bone chops. He ties, rubs, and smokes them for three hours. Prime rib is different. Ruggiero smokes the bone-jutting cut to rare. He then briefly blasts it in the oven, finishing to diners' requested doneness.
Smoked veal? Smoked prime rib? We're not in Texas anymore. We're in the heart of a hopping Phoenix dining district, smoking meat at an Arizona-style roadhouse. We're at the wild heart of Phoenix barbecue.
“90 percent of cooking barbecue is fire management,” Ruggiero says, cutting to the crux of his current approach. “It’s not rubs, it’s not sauces, it’s not meat. It’s maintaining a steady fire.”
That isn’t easy. Ruggiero uses fully manual smokers. Your typical metro Phoenix barbecue joint uses gas-assisted smokers. These use propane to help sustain a fire. In addition to utilizing old-school smokers and tackling a task that many Valley pitmasters who do zilch but smoked meat find too thorny, Ruggiero has to manage a kitchen of 12 souls per shift and crush 500 to 700 covers a night.
The man has uncommon ambition. All of this effort, and barbecue makes up a mere 10 percent of his menu.
“To keep a fire running through dinner service is no easy task,” he says. “I’m constantly playing with opening the door, shutting the door, adjusting the wood inside, make sure there’s good airflow.” The fire has gone out more than once during service, when Ruggiero and his kitchen staff were in the weeds on busy nights.
“It’s purely out of love for barbecue that it’s worth it for us to do,” he says.
Ruggiero shows that love using two smokers.
The first is the 120-gallon smoker, the one in Chelsea's smoke yard. This smooth rig comes from Camelback Smokers. Camelback Smokers is the local project of welder John Rippel and barbecue savant Scott Holmes, the man behind Little Miss BBQ.
Camelback Smokers are matte black. They are made to Holmes’ Platonic ideal. They are offset, meaning that the lighted firebox glows opposite the smokestack, which draws hot air through the main chamber. Holmes has dreamed his smokers to be ergonomically smooth, with dope features like counterweighted hinges (for lighter opening) and round bars for grates (for easier cleaning).
“It’s the best smoker we can make,” Holmes says. "I want my smokers to look sexy."
Ruggiero’s other smoker is another traditional offset. It’s a 500-gallon dilapidated beast made by Eric Wech of FatStack Smokers. Based in Los Angeles, Wech hooks up the SoCal barbecue cognoscenti with smokers made from tanks he salvages from California, Arizona, New Mexico, and old Mexico. He built Ruggiero’s smoker from a propane tank found below the border, one cast back in 1961. “We’re looking for just the right tanks,” he says. “Not all tanks are created equal. For Dom, I got lucky and managed to find an older tank.”
The Camelback is black and sleek; the FatStack is white, splotched with old welds and heat marks, gnawed with ancient patinas and rust.
“Every smoker is different,” Ruggiero observes.
His first spark of barbecue interest flew in pork-centric Georgia, where Ruggiero served in the Marines. His barbecue chops are self-taught. He learned in part by watching YouTube videos. Ruggiero, who uses 100 percent pecan wood, cribs and blends styles based on what he sees in the Valley and on social media. For example, Ruggiero has seen how beef short ribs are made in Texas. He's also a big fan of the pastrami that Little Miss BBQ cuts on Thursdays. Looking to riff, he merged the two into a pastrami short rib.
For it, he corns beef short ribs for 10 days, dries the ribs, rubs them, and loads them into the smoker, alchemy yielding novel pastrami that's cut to order.
Last week, Ruggiero featured four barbecue creations for lunch.
The first: carne adovada. He makes the New Mexican dish the old way, mostly traditional but for the use of barbecued pork shoulder. Robust smoke on finger-long shreds of pork melds with the husk of rehydrated New Mexican chiles. Smoking the pork jolts the dish.
Cold-smoked trout – the only smoked dish always on the menu – has a fainter smoke. Ruggiero gets the fish butterflied with the skin on, brines the fish, air-dries it overnight, and smokes it for about an hour. He blends some into the creamy dip; some he adds in dusky chunks.
He serves a New Mexican-style enchilada (layered like a lasagna) with salsa verde and smoked turkey breast. The turkey spreads a low-toned musk to the salsa, with white cheddar and queso Oaxaca lending smoothness. Here, 'cue takes a supporting role. (It can play a mean second fiddle.)
Finally, Ruggiero plates a brisket sandwich. This sandwich is what in the acid dreams of hamburger joints their patties would one day taste like. The brisket is nutty and melts on your tongue like pudding. A pickle, heap of Sriracha-mayo-tossed slaw, and bun baked the same day at La Grande Orange Bake Shop complement the brisket and make for wildly fulfilling bites. The sandwich hits on every last flavor sensation, umami most of all. The fries, coated with Ruggiero’s barbecue rub, are bombastic.
“We’re constantly trying to do different stuff, to push the boundaries of what barbecue is,” Ruggiero says. “Every day we’re going to come in and go ‘what do we want to do today?’"
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Some may argue that this ain't barbecue, that naked or simply sauced ribs and brisket draw the outer bounds of our hallowed American cuisine. Ruggiero, however, isn’t transforming barbecue out of its Ur-state. By smoking veal chops and shredding barbecued turkey into regional enchiladas, Ruggiero is running with barbecue like he runs to heave a pecan burl into the smoker during a blitzkrieg dinner service.
He starts with traditionally inspired barbecue smoked on traditional smokers. He slots this — barbecue, no doubt — into his Southwestern, Latin-leaning aesthetic, one arisen in large part from the dusty roadhouses of Arizonan history. The result is barbecue but in new age, Phoenician form, is enchiladas or carne adovada or something else, smoked meats elevated but grounded in the place we call home.
These dishes give Arizona barbecue character and charm. With them, Ruggiero expands and enriches metro Phoenix's barbecue scene.
Barbecue Joint: Chelsea's Kitchen
Smoke Master: Dom Ruggiero
Wood: Pecan (from Guadalupe, Arizona), cured for about 12 months. (Ruggiero uses mesquite for his grills and rotisserie, but what these produce is not barbecue.)
Highlights: Going to Chelsea's for smoked meat is playing barbecue roulette. You don't know what's going to be on the menu. If the brisket sandwich is on, don't get fancy. Pull the trigger.
Notable Specials: Smoked veal chops, smoked prime rib, pastrami short ribs
Quirk(s): Ruggiero has plans to make barbecue even more of a menu cornerstone. Stay tuned.
Contact/Hours: 5040 North 40th Street; 602-957-2555.
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.