Most top Phoenix barbecue joints look to deliver the pure flavor of meat to your tongue. Most strive for the simple, unadorned, true nature of the meat to unfold in your mouth with minimal ancillary sensations. To best spotlight the beef, brisket tends to be austere: maybe a rub of simple salt and pepper, maybe naked, without a drop of sauce. Whole barbecue restaurants and styles are carefully curated to this prized end.
Phil Johnson takes another road to the same destination of standout barbecue.
Johnson, who opened Trapp Haus BBQ on Roosevelt Row last month, hasn't developed his barbecue style around clearing all players but meat from the stage. He doesn’t hold back his personality and seasoning so that brisket can delight you in its simple goodness. Johnson, rather, lets his seasonings rip.
His barbecue is flavored with loud spices. Johnson uses cumin, giving his meat a trace of a cool, Jerk-like sting. He uses sazon, a Spanish spice blend. When brisket or ribs land on his cutting board for a final touch, he squirts on sauce and showers pungent spice.
Trapp Haus also serves barbecue imbued with Johnson's huge persona. Meat vibrates with flavor. This is true despite that Johnson — nicknamed Phil the Grill — swears that he under-seasons his meat.
Johnson comes to Trapp Haus from a background in competitive barbecue. He cooks differently for judges on the competitive circuit.
“The judges are looking for appearance, taste, and tenderness,” he says. “You have to wow them; I call it 'punch them in the tonsils.' You’re going to have to make sure things are seasoned and well-glazed. Where if I gave somebody that same piece of meat here, it would be overpowering.”
Johnson is from the Bronx. He started barbecuing so he and his friends would eat well on NFL Sundays.
After relocating to Arizona, he began a catering business. Competition barbecue soon followed, and so did a food truck. Then came Trapp Haus, Johnson's first brick-and-mortar restaurant. He uses a wood-fired reverse-offset smoker on his truck, a pellet-fueled Fast Eddy in his storefront.
Trapp Haus also has style.
Johnson will come in rocking a shirt featuring Tyone Biggums, the crackhead from The Chappelle Show, a nod to his "Philly crack wings." He posts strangely alluring Instagram videos, like this clip of a finger of Whistle Pig doctored hickory smoke. The florid paintings of downtown artist Jesse Perry swirl across his restaurant's walls; two weeks after opening, a bucket of color-caked brushes still stood in the corner.
The vibrancy of the art matches the vibrancy of Johnson’s barbecue style. He combines competition style and backyard style. “I try to blend the two together,” he says. “There are differences. As far as my chicken, I’m not making it all pretty for the judges.”
Judges in competitions look for certain meats to have certain textures. These "ideal" textures don't necessarily mirror what your average consumer would want in a piece of meat. Take ribs. Most people want ribs melting from the bone, soft and sublimely tender. But judges typically want firmer rib meat. Johnson likes his ribs that way as well, so that’s how he makes them at Trapp Haus.
“I'm trying to get the ribs to where you get that nice clean bite and the meat is not falling off," he says.
Aggressive flavors. Competition influences. These are the hallmarks of Phil the Grill's style. Another: a mold-breaking philosophy on wood.
“I usually do a fruit and a nut,” he says. “So if I do cherry, it’s probably with pecan. Or if I do apple, it’s with a hickory or something.”
When loading his smoker, he reaches for both a fruit wood and a nut wood. This template for smoking keeps the ashy husk light and instills meat with the right balance of color and flavor. Cherry wood is one of Johnson's go-tos; he says he uses it to lacquer the right redness onto his brisket. At Trapp Haus, he uses a blend of maple, cherry, and hickory.
The fourth pillar of Phil the Grill’s style is that the dude has fun.
His menu is barbecue in a funhouse mirror. It's barbecue as you would make barbecue if you were 12, sick with a smoker, and noodling around with friends. Johnson does waffle fries with barbecue meats, brisket mac and cheese, a brisket Philly cheese steak, and a brisket empanada. He takes pride in his sandwiches and even, oh yes, his barbecue salads. For these unlikely creations, Johnson has developed a barbecue ranch dressing.
He does classic meat platters as well: old-school brisket, ribs, links, pulled pork, even pastrami.
Being from New York, Johnson has high pastrami standards. His pastrami begins as uncooked brisket brined for five days. After smoking, the meat has a soft pink interior almost like ham. It disappears between your teeth and teases you with a salty, faintly smoky flavor. If you want to properly evaluate its quality, get pastrami as part of a meat platter. On a sandwich, bread and coleslaw tread on the meat’s nuances.
Johnson’s Philly crack wings deserve a lawn chair in the pantheon of Phoenix barbecue dishes. These wings have nothing to do with Philly (“Philly” denotes the pitmaster) or the narcotic, although there’s a great chance you’ll become addicted. They are the epitome of Johnson’s style, barraging your senses with interlaced spicy-sweet flavors that bewilder you in their sheer intensity.
“You know, a smoked wing is a little soggy,” he says. “I take that smoked wing and put it in the flash fryer. That’s where it cracks.”
His pork ribs are firm, as advertised. They have a tender bite, but definitely a bite, flesh that requires a little chew to pull from the bone. Pork ribs are perfumed with the same Jerk-reminiscent flavors as many of his other meats.
"I have a couple wild cards in there, having grown up in New York," he says of his use of spices.
The origins of barbecue are important to Johnson. He traces dishes like brisket and rib tips (the latter made from rib trimmings) to the earliest American barbecue savants: black slaves.
The slaves who arrived in the South on slaving galleys are traditionally seen as American’s first practitioners of barbecue. Pits, smoke, and fire were used to make lean sinewy cuts, like brisket and odd trimmings, palatable.
“Brisket was a throwaway meat,” Johnson says. “It wasn’t meant to be edible. The slaves took that and was able to master on how to make that tender."
He sees himself as a modern practitioner of this long tradition. “I’m very proud to hold that honor, on the inside, definitely,” he says.
Trapp Haus brings one man's traditional but intensely personal barbecue to the Phoenix scene. What makes Johnson's smoked meat worth adding to your barbecue rotation is the force of his personality, which expresses itself in his cool creations, bourbon glaze finishes, spice blends, and uniquely flavored meat. In a transportive way, cumin and sason channel the Caribbean; they provide a link back to barbecue’s origins.
The best place to sit at Trapp Haus is the kitchen counter, at a stool. There, you can watch staff members snap open Helio Basin brews and plate pork sandwiches with honey-jalapeno coleslaw. You can casually soak in the ambient banter between staff and customers, many already regulars. And as they head for the door, many say goodbye to Johnson by name, and then disappear down Roosevelt Street.
But not before turning back to see what he's cooking.
Barbecue Joint(s): Trapp Haus BBQ
Smoke Master: Phil "The Grill" Johnson
Wood: Maple, cherry, and hickory
Special: Philly crack pork shank (Friday); beef short rib, plain or on a sandwich (Wednesday); Tuesday and Thursday specials to come.
Special Something: A Trapp Haus wall has been painted with barbecue slang. When you're done gnawing ribs, use your saucy hands to look up barbecue terms like "deckle" and "3-2-1." It's cool how Johnson, who has taken home hardware in American Royal and Sam's Club competitions, makes barbecue feel chill and inclusive.
Quirk: Trapp Haus offers a "soul brunch" from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Contact/Hours: 511 East Roosevelt Street; 602-466-5462.
Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed Monday.
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