Arizona pitmasters utilize Southwestern heat to enhance savory, traditional BBQ

Arizona has become a home for all BBQ – while adding its own Southwestern flair and style to the mix.
Arizona has become a home for all BBQ – while adding its own Southwestern flair and style to...
Arizona has become a home for all BBQ – while adding its own Southwestern flair and style to the mix.(Jeff Popovich)
Updated: Mar. 15, 2021 at 3:45 PM MST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- One of my favorite aspects of barbecue is the imbued sense of community, family, and tradition. With the various styles and methods for it, it’s no surprise that in a state home to people from all walks of life for our warmer weather and lower cost of living, Arizona has become a home for all BBQ – while adding its own Southwestern flair and style to the mix.

Barbecue has a long and rich history worldwide, with different cultures all essentially discovering basic barbecuing in their own unique ways for centuries, and in some cases, longer than that. Some even argue when humans first discovered fire and began cooking meat over it, THAT was the birth of barbecue!

The history of American barbecue is but one chapter of a diverse cooking book of the origin story and primarily gets its roots from a Caribbean cooking style called barbacoa, from which the word “barbecue” is derived. Over the years, this cooking style would find its way into parts of the developing United States and evolve with beef-based styles in Texas, mutton-based BBQ in Kentucky, and pork throughout most of the southern states.

MORE: Care and dedication to the craft makes Little Miss BBQ a Phoenix staple

Pitmasters in Arizona have crafted their techniques, styles, and inspiration from the “barbecue belt” of five distinct barbecue traditions found in the Carolinas, Texas, Memphis, St. Louis, and Kansas City. While Arizonans get to enjoy these styles’ regional tastes all in the comfort of their own state, many local pitmasters have found ways to infuse southwestern heat and variations to give a new take on barbecue.

Caldwell County BBQ

Take Caldwell County BBQ in Gilbert. Owner Clay Caldwell previously owned a barbecue joint called Waldo’s BBQ for over 20 years before selling in 2014 and beginning what ultimately would be a brief retirement. Clay took a trip to central Texas, and his passion for barbecue was reborn.

“In my retirement, I started going out to Texas, been out there ten times chasing the BBQ scene, trying to keep up to date,” said Caldwell. “And I kind of had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment when I went into Aaron Franklin’s BBQ in Austin, Texas and tasted his brisket, and I thought to myself, ‘I can do this.’”

Clay and his wife decided to get back in the barbecue game and founded Caldwell County BBQ, a play on their last name and a popular county in Texas known for its barbecue. The county seat, the city of Lockhart, is considered by many the BBQ capital of Texas.

Outside of the traditional Texas-style barbecue, Clay incorporates many Southwest flavors, grinding and roasting green chilis to use in sauces and sides to give a nice heat finish. When it comes to the smokers, Clay’s pitmaster Jimmy uses mesquite wood, which is native to Arizona and best for smoking dark meats, such as Texas-style brisket.

Hap’s Pit Barbecue

Another long-standing Phoenix joint, Hap’s Pit Barbecue, pulls from what Pitmaster Christine Darroch calls “dixie-style,” primarily using a blend of southern influences. Darroch stepped in nine years ago to buy and continue her family’s business after her parents planned to retire.

“If they had not sold the restaurant to me, they were going to close the doors. So, I quit my corporate job, and I’m here continuing the legacy,” Darroch said.

For Darroch, being a female pitmaster is about more than just breaking barriers in the barbecue world; it’s also about being a strong and positive role model for her son and two daughters.

“It feels amazing. It feels like a great example that I’m setting for my children, especially for my kids, for them to see a female that’s able to conduct this type of business. Females aren’t generally pitmasters and running barbecue restaurants, so I do run into a lot of people who are surprised to see that I do invest my time into my barbecue restaurant and just setting the example for my girls to be a leader and a small business owner in barbecue,” Darroch said.

MORE: Cajun-infused recipes bring a flavor of Louisiana to Glendale at JJ’s Louisiana BBQ

Trapp Haus BBQ

Other barbecue styles that have found their way to Arizona hail from parts of the country outside of the South as well. Pitmaster Phil Johnson aka “Phil the Grill,” combines various New York City influences, seasonings, and dressings into his creations at Trapp Haus BBQ. Johnson adds an urban influence from his youth growing up in New York City to the meats he makes for all to enjoy today.

“What I like to do with my barbecue is use a lot of the ethnic backgrounds that I grew up with in New York. There was Dominican, Puerto Rican, Jamaican influence, so there’s a lot of different seasonings that I use that nobody else uses in the barbecue world, and that’s what makes me different. I cook with love and with the ethnic background that I was raised with,” Johnson explained.

Phil blends in the Arizona-fusion with his sides, particularly the baked beans, my personal favorite among his side dishes. Phil adds his concoction of seasonings, bits of sausage, green chilis, a touch of salt, and smokes the beans.

Arizona-style barbecue

During this series, I often wondered if Arizona has developed its own “style” when it comes to barbecue. While there are many arguable cases where Southwestern influences have led to some seriously delicious and unique foods, I think true Arizona-style IS the fact you find so many different variations here that have come from different parts of the country and world. With Arizona becoming home to so many different cultures and backgrounds, it makes sense that the state’s gastronomy would reflect that as well.

Barbecue is a form of cooking whose entire history is based on evolving and taking influence from different cultures and regional flavors and expanding its reach. Whether Arizona is a place you call home, seasonal visit, travel, or vacation destination, it’s a state that embraces what everyone brings to the table. In this case, that everything is something everyone can enjoy, something that brings us all together as a community and teaches us something new about each other and ourselves through the foods and traditions we love.

This is the sixth and final segment in a series on barbecue in the Phoenix metro. Arizona’s Family Foodie observed how Arizona pitmasters have fused traditional American BBQ with Southwestern heat and spices, creating almost a new style within its own right. Barbecue brings people and communities together, and I hope this series had led to a discovery of some new, great restaurants to support and enjoy together!