I recently returned from the Nugget Rib Cook-off in Nevada, the nation’s largest barbecue rib event, where I have served as a judge for the past five years. Often dubbed the Masters Tournament of ribs, the annual event attracts more than 500,000 people who collectively consume nearly 300,000 pounds of these beauties.
Upon returning each year – still smelling like smoke, I may add – I’m reminded of the depth and breadth of local barbecue in Tucson, and it’s encouraging that there are so many options for satisfying my craving for ‘cue all year round.
Following are six spots that will cater to your own craving the next time barbecue beckons.
Brushfire features a classic line-up of barbecue essentials, including ribs, chicken, pulled pork, sausage, and brisket, along with smoked meatloaf, smoked salmon, and a host of appetizers, sandwiches, and sides. Six different barbeque sauces are also available to suit your own style, from sweet molasses to smoky chipotle, and the grilled pork belly and “Messy Mac and Cheese” are other fan favorites. When it comes to the smoke, BrushFire uses a blend of pecan and mesquite woods which delivers sweet and earthy notes to the proteins. Fans of BrushFire say their barbeque is habit-forming, so consider yourself warned.
For more information visit brushfirebbq.com.
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The Bubb’s Grub menu demonstrates its allegiance to Texas with its brisket and spicy hot links both named in honor of the Lone Star State. Lest you be limited to this Texas two-step, there is also a wide spectrum of other meats such as ribs, chicken, and pulled pork, along with creative sandwiches, salads, and steaks. All of the pit-smoking is done “out in the yard,” after it has been “bubb-rubbed,” and pecan is the wood of choice for all of Bubb’s Grub smoking. Some guests like to start with an order of Wisconsin Cheese Curds (with prairie sauce, of course) before getting their ‘cue on.
For more information visit bubbsgrub.com.
On the grounds of the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort, the Catalina Barbeque Company combines the flavors of the Sonoran region with those of traditional barbeque yielding a Tucson take on ribs, pulled pork, chicken, sausage, and brisket. This means bringing some of the region’s spices and seasonings to the mix, from piloncillo to poblanos, and smoking the meats with ever-abundant pecan wood. The Catalina pit crew includes a number of certified competition barbeque judges delivering barbeque, sandwiches, steaks, and other dishes, such as the smoked wings, which would be an obvious choice while cheering your team onto victory in this lively sports bar atmosphere.
For more information visit marriott.com.
Move over Memphis and Kansas City. Island flavors are the inspiration for the Mama’s menu, and it’s been said that this barbeque is made with a healthy dose of aloha. The Kalua Pork is a tribute to the traditional island-pit pig, slow-roasted for more than 18 hours, which is available at the center of the plate with island-inspired sides or in sandwich or slider versions. The Kalbi Short Ribs are prepared with a teriyaki marinade and char-grilled, and while Mama’s wings are prepared four different ways, barbeque fans should opt for the smoky BBQ style. A selection of plate lunches, salads, sandwiches, and desserts round out the Mama’s menu.
For more information visit mamashawaiianbbq.com.
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At Mr. K’s they’ll tell you that barbeque done right is a labor of love, and they believe that mesquite is at the heart of this love affair. Mesquite is the exclusive wood used at the south-side barbeque joint, stirring up smoke for its pork and beef ribs, chicken, BBQ pork, brisket, and hot links that are served in plate and sandwich styles. Southern-inspired dishes also populate the menu, like fried catfish, collard greens, and candied sweet potatoes, and the barbeque sauce has earned such a following that it’s now sold by the gallon, half-gallon, and pint.
Visit Mr. K's BBQ on Yelp.
While many local pit masters use the same woods for smoking all of their meats, R & R pairs a different wood with each protein which I’m told maximizes the flavors of both. For their pulled pork, they like the mild sweetness of pecan. Brisket? They say that’s a job for hickory, with a stronger, bacon-like profile. A wood blend is used for their ribs, which consists of a delicate balance of pecan, hickory, and mesquite. Chicken is more subjective at R & R, and the wood used depends on the whim of whoever is doing the smoking. In addition to the barbeque plates, the brisket Philly cheese steak and BBQ nachos are other guest favorites.
For more information visit rrbbqtucson.com.
Time to ‘cue it up, Tucson. Follow the smoke and let me know where you land.
(Editor's note: Coming soon is Red's Smokehouse and Brother John's Beer, Bourbon, & BBQ. Also, for even more barbecue options, check out our recent feature, 5 Food Trucks To Satisfy Your BBQ Cravings.)
Matt Russell has been a food and beverage writer/broadcaster covering stories in Arizona and beyond since 2009. He's been the...