Our critic braves the wild orchards of Mesa to sink her teeth into the Valley’s latest cult-favorite barbecue joint.
How I wish I’d discovered Jalapeño Bucks, a hybrid barbecue and Mexican food joint set in an old orange grove in Mesa – with a name, it must be said, that misleadingly evokes sunburnt college students doing body shots in Cabo – back in March.
In those halcyon days, the weather was gorgeous and the grove was presumably in bloom. Now that the Valley feels like a Dantesque circle of hell, it’s not as much fun to sit on the covered, misted patio of this purposely shack-like shipping container, which offers no indoor seating or bathrooms. But the infernal weather doesn’t seem to deter die-hard fans, who line up 20 people deep to place their takeout orders or tough it out on the patio, which says a lot about the quality of the barbecue here.
Owner and self-taught pitmaster Duaine Burden, who runs the business with his wife Dianne, declares that his barbecue is not Texas-style or Carolina-style or any other damned style but “Arizona-style,” a style that PHOENIX tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to define in our barbecue issue a few summers ago. We speculated that it might involve mesquite, but Burden and his son Jason smoke their meat selections (St. Louis-cut spare ribs, pork butt and beef brisket) over pecan and oak, applying rub to the pork butt and ribs (also laved with butter) and nothing but salt and pepper to the brisket.
Unfortunately, the much-ballyhooed brisket can be inconsistent: subtly smoky, succulent and altogether perfect one time, sooty-tasting and dry the next. When it’s good, it’s outrageous, whether sliced and sold by the pound, tucked inside a lightly browned and melty quesadilla or generously piled on a sturdy toasted bun with sweet, crispy coleslaw on top (an extra $1). Ultra-moist pulled pork, less assertively smoky but still flavorful, is every bit as good, and seemingly more consistent. However, the meat on the spare ribs – too soft, and not especially smoky – gets considerably better after a dunk in Burden’s terrific homemade barbecue sauces: a thick, golden-brown sauce made with mustard (a Carolina thing, whether Burden admits it or not); garlicky Sure Crazy, which has an undertone of molasses; and redder, thinner, spicier Buck Sauce, dotted with black pepper and chile seeds. They’re delicious, every one, and a nice change-up for the Kansas City-style ketchup-based sauces most Arizona ‘cue joints make.
Burden sells salsas by the pint, too, including a sweet, chunky mango salsa that’s completely devoid of chile heat. It’s addictive and I love it, especially with thin and crispy house-fried corn chips. (Ironically, I’d like it even better with jalapeño.) Hot Mexican Red salsa, full of seeds and decidedly hot, is another winner, as is tomatillo- and cilantro-based Hot Gringo Green. I could scoop them all day, but they also serve as zingy sidekicks to neatly tucked burritos, bulging with creamy refried beans, cheese and green chile-sparked beef or pork – both hearty and satisfying. The red chile shredded pork makes my head sweat, and comes with plenty of good side options, including peppery Mexican rice and fresh salads (potato, macaroni) that skew sweet.
Whether the Burdens turn out a definable Arizona-style barbecue is up for debate. What isn’t is how successful they are at doing this deliciously nebulous thing they do.
Contact: 3434 N. Val Vista Dr., Mesa, 480-459-3050, jalapenobucks.com
Hours: Tu-Th 10 a.m.-6 p.m., F-Sa 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Highlights: Beef brisket sandwich ($8.50); pulled pork sandwich ($7); brisket or pulled pork quesadilla ($9.50-$10.50); house-made chips ($5.50); mango salsa (pint, $6); Mexican rice ($5)