In Phoenix, Arizona, in an airport neighborhood crowded with commercial warehouses, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant is serving the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten.
The front door to Little Miss BBQ looks like the entrance to someone’s cousin’s shady auto parts business. Once inside, you won’t see rusty Route 66 signs, neon sculptures of hungry cannibalistic pigs, or any of the other kitschy decor an East Coast corporate decorator would hang on the walls. Instead, you’ll find a modest counter manned by friendly people serving up what may very well be America’s best barbecue.
That’s a big claim, I know. But there’s only one way to challenge me on that, isn’t there? And you can do it. If you’re out this way, you can drive to Phoenix. If you’re elsewhere, you can take a flight to Sky Harbor Airport and be ten minutes from pulled pork paradise. And then you can put Little Miss BBQ (4301 East University Drive) into Google Maps and see for yourself.
Early Birds Get a Line
Had we made it to Little Miss BBQ by lunch, as planned, we would have joined hundreds of locals and pilgrims in a line with a three hour wait time. (The management passed out numbered tickets so people could wait in their cars instead of standing out in the brutal noonday desert sun.) But because of flight delays (thanks, Delta!), we walked up to the door at 2:30 — and walked right in.
You could make this your strategy, too, but only if you’re willing to be flexible in your order. By the end of the day (they close at 3:00), you get what’s left. In our case, we could only get brisket or pulled pork (which is probably what I would have ordered anyway). The crew also can be really generous with sides at the end of the day, as we found out when Clyde and I debated whether to split barbecue beans or jalapeño grits. The young man behind the counter ended the debate by grinning and giving us both.
The Brotherhood of Barbecue
Minutes later, there we were, on the shaded back patio, sitting under misters, with a crew of Chinese rappers from Los Angeles to our right and a plump, multi-generational family of Midwestern Grand Canyon pilgrims on our left. The rappers snagged a huge platter of meat, a stack of loaf bread, and a ton of fixin’s:
Clyde and I, honoring our Weight Watchers diet plan, took a more conservative route, splitting a pulled-pork sandwich and a hand-sized smoked pecan pie:
The problem with describing a unique food experience is this: how can you avoid cliche? I mean, you’ve heard all these things before (the meat melts in your mouth, etc.). But here, they’re true. That savory, smoky, juicy meat. That crispy skin. The soft pillow of a bun. The slow burn of the jalapeño grits. The hardy stew of beans and pork. And that pie. Oh, that pie. If you could eat a bejeweled, hand-carved mahogany music box, it would taste like a Little Miss Barbecue smoked pecan pie:
Successful, Not Snobby
You’d think that, in a place with three-hour lines, you’d be pretty much left to your own devices. Not so. Everyone was so hospitable, so pleasant — and when Denny — one of several aproned staffers wandering the patio and talking with customers — saw the look on my face, he came over and settled in for a chat.
“We can’t believe it,” he says. “We’re pinching ourselves. And it’s hard work. But we love it. It’s our passion.”
And this shows. In Atlanta, when a barbecue joint (or other restaurant) gets this popular, service declines as the staff gets more distracted and irritable. But here, despite incredible efficiency — most customers spend exactly 90 seconds placing and receiving their orders — the vibe is friendly, not frantic.
You Can Do It
If you care about great barbecue, you need to make this journey. If you’ve time to spare, arrive early and take a ticket. But if you’re willing to be flexible (and trust in the kindness of this remarkable staff), arrive late, let the guy behind the counter point you to what’s best, and think of the entire transaction as an express ticket to a Land of Meaty Delights.