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.
Out in the southeastern flatlands of cotton and cattle, metro Phoenix’s sprawl becomes a memory. There are pick-up trucks throwing dust on ruler-straight roads. The Superstition Mountains loom in the distance. Drive a few hundred feet of Ocotillo Road past Queen Creek, and you get to Homer’s Smokehouse BBQ.
When I stopped into Homer’s, the pitmaster, Stan Chaffin, was in the kitchen “frying” corn. A cast iron skillet was filled with yellow corn and butter. He raked a spoon through a few times, lifted the pan, and emptied the corn into a tin filled with it.
The cast iron pan — dark and some 14 inches in diameter — was his grandmother’s.
Stan grew up on a farm on an Alabama mountain. “I started pulling turnip greens when I was about 5 or 6,” he says. “We used to pull 200 dozen every day for the farmers’ market in Birmingham.”
Stan’s family also grew tomatoes, watermelon, peppers, squash, and cotton. His family went to town once per month to get essentials like sugar, flour, and lard. They had a smokehouse out back. Stan’s grandfather Homer smoked hams and whole hogs, his grandmother made "one heck of a squirrel stew," and over the years Stan learned how to cook from both of them.
Just before his teenage years, Stan’s family moved to Texas. He later lived for five years in Charlotte, North Carolina. That is some background for barbecue — which is what Stan cooks in San Tan Valley.
That’s why he was tending to a small batch of cast-iron-fried corn.
Stan’s two smokers puff away out back in a grass yard. He has a gas-assisted smoker built into his food truck and a reverse-offset smoker in the middle of the lawn. He finishes his meats in the reverse-offset he got from Alabama. Stan so prefers the offset that he has tapped a fifth-generation welder based in Mesa to build him one.
From the backyard smoker, you can see the White Mountains behind the Superstitions on clear days. They are where Sam gets his wood, post oak (in the Texas style), which he uses for its mildness.
Though he has the family recipes, he takes an intuitive approach to barbecue.
He pats and squeezes brisket ends, observes the springiness and juice running off, and intuits a spot decision about doneness. Stan started smoking brisket when he was 12. He barbecues many of the usual suspects: brisket, pork butts, beef short ribs, and pork ribs. He also barbecues pork belly and chops.
Though Stan uses a milder wood, his meat is on the smoky side. He often leaves brisket in his smoker for a full day. Smoke accretes on its bark. A ruby smoke ring inches into the flesh.
Stan’s barbecue sauce is among the best I have tasted. Perfectly balanced, it falls in a zone between tangy, spiced, tomato-heavy, and sweet. You won’t be able to link it with a dominant flavor. In a genius move, he only serves it warm. You can order your ‘cue naked or sauced.
Interestingly, Stan defines his barbecue in opposition to Arizona’s. Southwestern wasn't his style. “I tried to do a little bit of the Southwestern type of dishes and all that, like using green chiles," he says. "But it’s like everybody around here does cheese grits with jalapeno or cheese grits with chiles. Why not just cheese grits?”
Homer’s Smokehouse BBQ is the rare barbecue joint where the sides are as good as the meat.
Most are straight out of 1960s rural Alabama. He does collards, black-eyed peas, fried corn, six-cheese mac and cheese, and a “silly-stupid” squash casserole (a description he applies to his best briskets, one that fits the yellow squash bake as well). He serves green beans, potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans with burnt ends. He drops his potato fries into tanks of duck fat.
For dessert, there are buttermilk pies, sweet potato pies, fruit pies, and cinnamon rolls.
Eating at Homer’s, one experiences brief flashes of the mountain farm Stan grew up on. It’s that cast iron or his lilt or the spices in his sauce or the warm depths of squash casserole. It’s that he has no freezer. It’s the honey sweet bread and the smoke smell and the location on the Valley’s dusty outskirts.
Once Stan finds his groove with his brick-and-mortar restaurant, he plans on doing whole hog barbecue. And no, I am sorry to report, there is no smoked squirrel.
Barbecue Joint(s): Homer's Smokehouse BBQ
Smoke Master: Stan Chaffin
Wood: Post Oak (from the White Mountains)
Highlights: Ribs, burnt ends, squash casserole
Notable Specials: Whole hog barbecue on special occasions in the future
Quirk: Brisket always comes with a few burnt ends. Sandwiches come on house-baked Texas toast.
Contact/Hours: 1532 West Ocotillo Road, San Tan Valley; 480-440-9734
Thursday noon to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m.; closed Monday through Wednesday