Smoke Rings

Smoke Rings: Two Former Nebraskan Pig Farmers Turn to Smoking Pork

A barbecue platter from Pork on a Fork
A barbecue platter from Pork on a Fork Chris Malloy
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.

Justin Erickson grew up on a pig farm in Nebraska. The 250 pink animals ate corn from the fields of the farm, Erickson Ranch, which Erickson's father founded. Pigs were the farm's main product. And when the family cooked with what they raised, the meat tasted best when papa Erickson fired up the smoker.

Erickson’s father was a farmer, yes, but he also competed on the competitive barbecue circuit. You wouldn't need many tries to guess his specialty: pulled pork.

During one of his father's competitions, Justin Erickson and his friend Wes Hansen visited to check things out. It was one of the big ones, the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue. By the time the embers had cooled and the meat had been eaten, the two buddies were hooked.

So began the steady rise of smoked meat in their lives. Erickson’s father educated the two friends in barbecue basics like meat temperatures and cook times. The duo quickly started smoking on their own, and learned the patient ways of barbecue from there.

Hansen and Erickson met back in college.

They both went to schools in or around the orbit of Lincoln, Nebraska. Like Erickson, Hansen's childhood played out on a farm. His family kept 160 acres outside of Omaha, land planted with crops like corn and soybeans, land home to animals including cattle, chickens, and pigs.

click to enlarge Slicing brisket for the lunch crowd. - CHRIS MALLOY
Slicing brisket for the lunch crowd.
Chris Malloy
They left the farms to work in mortgages, and then they left mortgages after the 2008 recession. The two moved to Arizona, where they started selling pork from Erickson Ranch at farmers' markets in 2009. They sold bacon, pork chops, breakfast sausage, ham steak, and a dozen kinds of brats. They sold at 14 markets a week, from Tucson in the south to Pinetop-Lakeside in the north.

And then things changed. Things changed because they started selling pulled pork sandwiches.

“They got really popular,” Erickson says. “People started asking us where our restaurant was.” The friends didn’t have one, only a market stand that moved 14 times a week. Seizing the day, the two opened a barbecue joint in Deer Valley. It had just five tables. It drew a crowd anyway.

“People were outside eating on the hoods of their cars,” Hansen says.

That eatery is Pork on a Fork. Today, Erickson and Hansen have three locations: one in the Camelback Corridor, another in Talking Stick Arena, and the original in Deer Valley. At first, Pork on a Fork sourced from Erickson Ranch. But they outgrew what the farm could provide, and, anyway, Erickson's father and brother have since stopped farming. Pork on a Fork barbecues using rotisserie smokers fueled with pecan wood, hickory, and pellets (compressed sawdust). Meats are pretty standard barbecue fare: brisket, ribs, pork, sausage, and chicken. Sides are just as classic.

click to enlarge Finishing ribs with barbecue sauce. - CHRIS MALLOY
Finishing ribs with barbecue sauce.
Chris Malloy
“Kansas City is probably our main influence, just because we were so close,” Hansen says. “But coming from Arizona, nobody’s truly from Arizona, so we had to broaden our spectrum.”

“We make a barbecue for everyone, essentially,” Erickson adds.

Pork on a Fork uses pork from the Midwest. Erickson and Hansen say they have high pork standards. They say they even know when pigs have been mistreated: burst blood vessels hint at stress before slaughter and, thus, poor slaughtering conditions; inconsistent marbling suggests poor diet. The two only source pork from animals raised humanely without antibiotics. “When you’re a small farmer, that’s your commodity right there,” Erickson says. “You treat it like gold.”

Nebraska is a meat state, a land home to more than 3 million pigs. It also contains more than 19,000 cattle ranches. Though Pork on a Fork's founders initially sourced pigs from Erickson Ranch, and though “pork” is in their eatery’s name, they proudly smoke more than pig.
click to enlarge Wes Hansen (left) and Justin Erickson - CHRIS MALLOY
Wes Hansen (left) and Justin Erickson
Chris Malloy
Smaller meats are smoked on-site at each location. Brisket and pork butts are smoked for 12-plus hours in the duo’s larger smoker at a 4,000-square-foot central kitchen. Pulled pork begins as boneless butt, a cut actually from the pig's upper shoulder. “You get more smoke penetration with a boneless butt, ‘cause the bone is out of it,” Erickson says. “You get more surface area for the seasoning to get in there.”

The seasoning is a rub called “Bold-R-Dash.” Uncooked, it leads with chile heat and the crunch of salt crystals before fading into sugary sweetness and the warmth of garlic. Pork on a Fork uses this house blend on just about everything, right on down to mac and cheese.

Pork on a Fork's pulled pork is pink, juicy, and has a lot of the robust, mineral flavor of dark-meat chicken. The barky pieces are chewy on the outside and have intenser aromatics, making for better bites.

Chicken is a highlight here. Smoking chicken is a challenge because of how prone the lean birds are to drying out. The duo solves this issue by skipping breast, smoking dark meat, and taking it out at the right time. The smoke on chicken is faint, a glancing flavor on the level of a background spice.

click to enlarge The dining room, a space formerly home to a garment factory, jammy tunes raining down. - CHRIS MALLOY
The dining room, a space formerly home to a garment factory, jammy tunes raining down.
Chris Malloy
Pork on a Fork is the rare barbecue joint where sausage is probably the best meat. Hansen and Erickson use Polish links made from a blend of beef and pork. A link looks like a redder, pinker, thicker hot dog. It even has the weird meaty echoes of a hot dog but brings a rounder, deeper, walloping flavor, nutty, and umami currents rolling on and into your next bite.

The original Deer Valley Pork on a Fork is marooned in an office park. Corporate folks briefly escape the office rigmarole, kick back, and savor slow-smoked meat. These days, the spot has ample seating. What was once a garment shop behind the restaurant has been converted into a high-ceilinged dining room where pictures of the family farms hang, smoky aromas drifts, and the jammy music of artists like The Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix rains from a sound system on the second level. Diners coolly fork up mac and cheese made with three cheeses, one of them a nostalgic Velveeta. Eaters polish off rolls and potato salad, each made from Hansen’s grandmother's recipes.

click to enlarge Pork ribs are baby-back and sauced. - CHRIS MALLOY
Pork ribs are baby-back and sauced.
Chris Malloy
Many of Pork on a Fork’s most fascinating smoked meats are only available through catering orders. In addition to what you can get for lunch or dinner, Hansen and Erickson smoke ham, turkey, pork loin, chicken wings, and tri-tip for special events. Tri-tip is the pointed flesh usually sliced away from the end of sirloin. It’s not as lean as brisket, and, unlike the cow's hallowed pectoral muscle, is extra-juicy off the grill.

But Hansen and Erickson are among the many who love the cut smoked. They rave about barbecued tri-tip, which they first tasted when in Fresno, California, for a University of Nebraska football game. The cut is hugely popular in California, and has even become the jewel in the crown of the the West Coast barbecue scene, as vital and beloved as brisket or ribs.

And damn, you wish Pork on a Fork would smoke you some for lunch.

Barbecue Joint(s): Pork on a Fork
Smoke Master: Wes Hansen and Justin Erickson
Wood: Pecan and hickory
Highlights: Sausage, pulled pork, Midwest Monster sandwich, chicken, mustard barbecue sauce
Notable Specials: Prime rib, various elusive catering specials
Quirk: Four sauces await your greedy squeeze: a vinegar-based sauce in the Carolina style; a sweeter sauce that channels K.C.; a spicier condiment more in the spirit of Arizona; and a mustard-based sauce that's tangy and beautiful and perfect for pork.
Contact/Hours: 1515 West Deer Valley Road (plus other locations, including 4724 North 20th Street); 623-434-1794.
Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy