Sunday, May 24, 2015


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Star-studded Phoenix barbecue eatery smokes the competition with succulent meats and smooth ‘shine.

According to the South Carolina Barbecue Association, there are four main types of barbecue: Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and Carolina. Notice Arizona and the entire Western U.S. fail to make the cut.

Historically, our Southwest-centric culinary scene has experienced alarming shortages of classic barbecue fare, despite the game efforts of restaurateurs. Big Daddy’s BBQ in Scottsdale opened and folded. So did 5 Star BBQ & Grill in Mesa, just this fall. Indeed, a seemingly endless parade of ‘cue joints has tried to fill the Valley’s BBQ black hole over the past five years. Bootleggers smokes ‘em all.

The owner, EaterAZ blogger and Arizona BBQ Festival co-founder Rick Phillips, has assembled a formidable pit crew – including The Mission’s Matt Carter as a menu consultant and James Fox, formerly of Milagro Grill, as executive chef – to help realize his BBQ vision. Kansas City Barbecue Society award-winning pitmaster Kevin Slade lent both his expertise and his Southern Pride SPK-500 smoker to the venture.

The woodsy smell of cooking meat wafting from Slade’s rig is the industry equivalent of come-hither perfume. Bootleggers’ decor similarly seduces, bypassing the tacky hay bales and flying pig murals of chain BBQ joints for a subtle Southern speakeasy vibe. Blackout curtains, Mason jar chandeliers and reclaimed brick walls inset with weathered wooden windows combine to make guests feel as if they’ve stepped into an underground bootlegging operation circa 1921.

phm1113 ebmc2 mdFox’s BBQ philosophy mainly descends from the slow-smoked, dry-rub meats of Missouri (or Missoura, in the native parlance). Pulled pork ($8) is tender and memorable, the 10-hour-smoked meat lightly coated in tangy sauce with a strong molasses-ketchup finish. Neatly trimmed St. Louis ribs ($16 half/$23 full) are naturally succulent, their toothsome charred crust protecting a core of moist, savory pig flesh.

Beef brisket ($12) offers the truest test of a ‘cue joint’s worthiness, and Bootleggers’ version scores high marks for leanness and taste. Austere and peppery, the savory roast beef flavor of the smoky meat stands alone or as a grounding agent for spicy peppers, grassy avocado relish and salty house-made chips in the nacho flat appetizer ($10). Smoked turkey breast ($8) might’ve stayed in the smoker a bit too long. The poor, dehydrated bird fares better in buttermilk-soaked Cobb salad ($12) and an open-faced turkey sandwich ($10) with white cheddar, spicy arugula and pickled onions. In the latter, thick slices of melt-in-your-mouth pork belly and liberally buttered sourdough make for a richer overall flavor.

Remember Jack Sprat and his lard-loving spouse? Mrs. Sprat would go gaga for the aforementioned belly, which makes an appearance in Bootleggers’ delightful Bacon Board ($14). Compared to the crisp, tongue-teasing jalapeño bacon served alongside it, the belly has a somewhat blubbery mouthfeel, but the board’s confit offering resides firmly in the Goldilocks zone – rendered in its own juices, paired with griddled cheese toast and sweet onion jam, the meat achieves a lean vs. fat balance that’s “just right.”

Bootleggers’ entrées resist playing second fiddle to the cheaper, more accessible smoked meats. Notes of black cherry and tomato make the melt-in-your-mouth Dr Pepper-braised short rib ($18) almost addictive, and grilled salmon with tart apple cider gastrique ($18) is snackable from the seared skin down. My favorite of the lot is a tropical take on classic pork chops and apple sauce ($16). The garlicky, peppery undertone of adobo seasoning energizes the meat and helps balance the natural sweetness of the dish’s mouthwatering pineapple glaze. It easily outclasses the one your mom used to make on Sunday evening.

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Dr Pepper-braised short rib, Bacon Board

The lone disappointment was roasted chicken ($14) served in a swamp of searing Cholula-herb glaze. Avoid the oral self-immolation and opt instead for the panko-fried chicken sandwich ($11), a tweaked cordon bleu with mouth-awakening arugula, crisp chicken and buttery sourdough. Stretching the limits of Chef Fox’s peanut butter and jelly obsession, PB&J cold-smoked chicken wings ($8) were a surprise hit. His tart, caramelly-raspberry browned butter sauce tastes even better on the cluckers than it does in his desserts.

Add-on sides such as the piquant green beans with diced shallots ($4) are solid, though the scrumptious-sounding grilled cauliflower steak with melted cheddar ($4) suffered an onion overdose that literally pickled this dish’s goose. Stick with classic accompaniments like thick-cut cottage fries ($4) or tangy, oniony cole slaw ($3). A departure from the buttered picnic staple, smoked sweet corn ($4) starts with a chile tang that becomes increasingly addictive as you gnaw your way around the cob. As for the sinfully rich mac & cheese ($5) with its sharp, pungent parmesan crust, let’s just say Bootleggers had me at “béchamel.”

Dessert options include a fun cherry pie milkshake with yeasty crust pieces ($5) and peach-blueberry cobbler ($7) that’s as sweet and simple as a Southern belle. The real treat is Bootleggers’ house-made moonshine, available solo or in a flight trio ($10). The mellowest of the lot, blueberry flavored Midnight Moon, tastes more like Kool-Aid than the engine degreaser Granny Clampett concocted in her bathtub. Strawberry Firefly is a fruity refresher, while potent Old Smokey could give the Clampetts a run for their money.

Bootleggers’ homey, cinnamon- and nutmeg-infused apple pie moonshine ($5) tastes so much like the dessert that you can order it à la mode. Its recipe is a closely guarded family legacy that Phillips won’t reveal – a wise move on his part, considering all of the apple pie addicts that will have to return to Bootleggers for their next fix, myself included.

phm1113 ebmc5 smDETAILS
Bootleggers Food and Drink
Cuisine: Barbecue/American
Address: 3375 E. Shea Blvd., Phoenix
Phone: 602-996-4228
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Highlights: St. Louis ribs ($16 half/$23 full); beef brisket ($12); Bacon Board ($14); Dr Pepper-braised short rib ($18); panko-fried chicken sandwich ($11); smoked sweet corn ($4); apple pie moonshine ($5)