Ron Childs just switched smokers. He called his old smoker Megatron. He used Megatron back before Rhema Soul Cuisine moved to downtown Phoenix, back when the restaurant he runs with his wife, Via Childs, was still in Queen Creek. Childs has adjusted to new smokers before – when he first moved to Arizona from New York and saw that the internal temperature didn’t drop much at night, and when he realized that his passion wasn’t grilling but barbecue.
“Everyone was grilling,” Ron recalls thinking. “Let me get back to what I learned.”
His wife wasn't surprised. “It’s always been his passion,” Via says. “We started experimenting in New York. His dad was into barbecue, so he got into it from a young age."
Ron received his barbecue knowledge in a direct line from the source: the American South. His father was a professional. “When he was coming up in the Carolinas, he worked in barbecue places and worked the railroad,” Ron says. “Watching him got me involved.”
Ron recalls watching his dad smoke ribs and chicken. “Style-wise, he was almost the same as everyone else,” he says. “But he didn’t wrap. He was a purist.” (Wrapping is a method for retaining moisture.)
Later, after Ron's dad moved to the Bronx, he kept barbecuing. Ron's family never barbecued at home because they lived in the projects and couldn’t. Ron’s dad barbecued at Cozy Corner, the bar he owned.
“That bar was rocking with food all the time!” Ron recalls.
The same could be said for Rhema Soul Cuisine today. After he and Via moved to Arizona, Ron worked as a golf instructor, among other jobs. But he brought the barbecue bug with him from New York. A few years back, they opened Rhema Soul Cuisine in Queen Creek. The restaurant moved to downtown Phoenix in April. If you show up after 1 pm., at least one of the meats is likely to be sold out.
Ron makes the meats and sauces. Via makes the sides and desserts.
The food is a mash of soul food, comfort food, and barbecue, three cuisines that heavily overlap. Soul elements include fried shrimp and fish, chicken and waffles, and collard greens. Rhema also shows Caribbean influences, like rice with green olives and peppers, and jerk spices in barbecue sauce – a nod to Via’s Jamaican heritage. Rhema uses three generations of recipes on both sides of the family.
The smoker Ron uses – not Megatron but the “new” one – feels as old as the recipes.
Back in the kitchen, the smoker puffs. It is a huge, wide, white-brick fireplace with metal doors that hinge open, showing the space inside. Ron lines the back of the square hollow with pecan wood. Smoke moves to the front and rises, trapped by the brick, up through the meat, out the chimney, and into the sky over Phoenix.
The smoker functions almost like a classic upright. It is unconventional and old-school. Ron takes another step from the norm in his barbecue style: high and fast.
He keeps his smoker at about 350 degrees. That's some 150 degrees higher than most. His brisket cooks in a mere 6.5 hours. His pork butts are done in 3.5 hours, his chicken halves in 2.5.
“I like it better now that I’m indoors,” Ron says. “I don’t have to light embers for 14 hours.”
Brisket started as a special. It became a mainstay, the favorite of both Ron and Via. Ron rubs the meat with a blend of seasoned salt and paprika. “When we watch the food channel and guys have 41 ingredients in their rubs, I go ‘All right, that works for them,’” he says. “For us, it’s simple."
He uses a simple rub. He does a fast cook. “I let the fat do what it do,” Ron says.
Brisket only comes chopped. This is a reaction to competition barbecue, which, Ron believes, assigns too many points to how meat looks. “For me, it was more make your cuts, cut every piece so that it has some of the fat on it, so that you get fat in every bite,” he says.
He adds that a "chopped, burnt-end feel gives it more depth and texture."
His brisket is a nice addition to the ranks of Valley briskets, one you will want to try. Because of the fast cook, the flavor balance teeters more toward caramelization, almost into sweetness, with the melt and pillowy texture of the best briskets in the Valley, only a shade firmer. Order it with sauce on the side. That way, you can chew over the naked, nutty flavors of the brisket before you jolt them.
You can get standard sauce, spicy sauce, or magic, a combination of the two. You can get other sauces with Rhema’s smoked-and-fried wings, such as Buffalo and raspberry chipotle.
Ron also smokes chickens. They are whole halves, each well over a pound, and one of the menu’s better deals. He sources sausages from The Pork Shop in Queen Creek and gives them a light smoke, keeping them on for not too much longer than it takes to warm them through. He smokes pork butts for chopped pork and turkey for collard greens. He smokes the Impossible Burger, the new meatless burger that bleeds.
Chopped pork makes it onto Ron’s Symphony Fries. These are a $12 heap of standard and sweet potato fries with pork, five kinds of cheese, and barbecue sauce. They have the same playful spirit as Rhema's red velvet waffles, "brorito," and "candy" fries coated with cream cheese icing.
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This whimsical, homey spirit runs through the Childs’ restaurant like the Michael Jackson or Bob Marley music you are likely to hear softly playing in the red-orange-white room on Jefferson Street. Ron and Via cook with a tiny staff, numbering their son RJ and daughter Davia, who bakes cakes from California.
There's no competitive stress to the barbecue here. There's only nice smoked meat with a humble, old-school feeling, and owners who somehow have time, between serving chopped pork sandwiches and wings, to make sure you're digging your meal and enjoying yourself. You are.
Barbecue Joint(s): Rhema Soul Cuisine
Smoke Master: Ron Childs
Wood: Pecan from a farmer named Country who lives in Strawberry, Arizona
Highlights: Brisket, baby back ribs
Quirk: Save room for dessert. Via makes peach cobbler from her grandmother's recipe. This is one of the best barbecue desserts you will find in town, and it's even better with vanilla ice cream on top. Also, Rhema will start serving breakfast later this summer. Ron has plans to smoke ribeye and serve it with eggs. Finally, Ron has been getting into bowhunting. He has dreams of smoking elk.
Contact/Hours: 1153 East Jefferson Street; 480-987-1460.
Wednesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (summer hours)