The Pecan-Smoked Barbecue Plate Served with a Side of Nostalgia

This classic barbecue plate is an East Valley staple.
This classic barbecue plate is an East Valley staple. Jackie Mercandetti
Welcome to The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

14: BBQ Sampler Plate at Joe's Real BBQ

Before downtown Gilbert Road became a hotbed of sidewalk patios, colorful marquee signs, and the premier weekend brunch destination for the suburban set, there was Joe's Real BBQ.

Joe's Real BBQ opened in 1998, back when the population of Gilbert was roughly half what it is today. Joe Johnston's Texas-inspired barbecue restaurant is credited with helping set off the development boom that has made Gilbert's Heritage District one of the fastest-growing food and drink corridors in metro Phoenix. It clearly took vision, and a fierce love of good barbecue, to renovate the old 1929 brick building on Gilbert Road that was once a grocery store, and turn it into a shrine to smoke-kissed meat and small town Americana.

The gamble clearly paid off, though, and almost 20 years later, Joe's Real BBQ is a modern-day classic. The most popular order is probably the BBQ Sampler Plate, which is loaded up with almost a pound of meat. Like a snowflake, no two plates are ever exactly alike, but yours may include glistening slices of chicken breast, bundles of pulled pork and beef brisket, maybe some St. Louis-style ribs, plus your choice of side.

You can smother it in the sweet-peppery house barbecue sauce, which complements the smokey, rich, pecan-smoked meat. You wash it down with a 25-cent cup of coffee, because how can you resist the retro price point? And since you're having a cup of coffee, you may as well grab a slice of the house lemon cake, a moist, tart sugary cube that is easy to put down no matter how much meat you just ate.

Part of the appeal of Joe's Real BBQ is that it's designed to evoke small-town Arizona, circa the 1940s. The dining room features a John Deere tractor, a nod to the town's farming roots, and the cafeteria-style setup, manned by workers wearing paper hats, looks like something out of an old Life magazine spread. The nostalgia is heavy here, for better or worse.

Once a year, the restaurant celebrates its annual Customer Appreciation Day by giving away free food to dine-in customers. Mark your calenders: free barbecue day falls sometime in the first week of May. You may have to wait in a long line, but for your patience, you'll be rewarded with great barbecue. The side of nostalgia is always free.
The Essentials so far:
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour.
48: Dizzy Fig Empanada at Republica Empanada.
47: Linguine Carbonara at Avanti.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George’s Kitchen.
44: Spinach & Cheese Chimi Burro at Mi Patio Mexican Restaurant.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner.
41: Zipps Wings at Zipps Sports Grill.
40: Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa.
39: Asian Nachos at Moto.
38: Olive Oil Tasting at Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill.
37: Baby Back Ribs at Don & Charlie's.
36: Limoncello at Cibo.
35: Chili Salt Chicken Wings at Asian Café Express.
34: Smoked Prime Rib at Texaz.
33: Steak Salad at Feeney's.
32: Tasting Menu at Kai Restaurant.
31: Toffee Banofi Sundae at Sweet Republic.
30: Big Jim at Welcome Diner.
29: Sonoran Hot Dog at El Caprichoso.
28: Sashimi at Nobuo at Teeter House.
27: Oysters at Casey Moore's Oyster House.
26: Spring rolls at Da Vang.
25: Bruschetta and wine at Postino.
24: Hot green chili fry bread at Fry Bread House.
23: The Big One at The Chuckbox.
22: Cahuamanta Stew at Cahuamanta El Yaqui.
21: Dim Sum at Great Wall Cuisine.
20: Fried chicken at The Horny Toad.
19: George & Dragon’s Famous Fish & Chips.
18: Macaron Ice Cream Sandwiches at Pho 43rd Express.
17: Cerreta Candy Co. Factory Tour & Candy Sampling in Downtown Glendale.
16: Steak Dinner at The Stockyards.
15: Margarita + Guacamole del Barrio at Barrio Cafe.
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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.