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Last modified on December 26th, 2018 at 11:26 am
Unlike too many pit masters and soul food chefs who adamantly insist that their region’s cooking is the best in the South, Kenneth (“Ken”) Alexander is not married to any one barbecue style.
Over the course of his career as an international missile salesman, Ken traveled to 43 different countries, sampling this and that and learning. He kept what he likes in his repertoire, and his restaurant is now a truly multicultural affair.
“It’s not where you’re from; it’s where you’re at,” Ken said. He was referring to whether he roots for Arizona or his hometown of Louisville when it comes to college basketball, but the adage applies to his philosophy of food, too.
Combine this open-minded education, inherent creativity, and his Southern family’s heritage recipes, and voila! Witness Ken’s updated menu, replete with dishes literally anyone can enjoy.
Take, for example, the three bean vegan chile. Vegan food at a barbecue joint? Oh, yes, and it’s fabulous. The side beans don’t have meat either, “so that more people can enjoy them,” Ken said.
It was his mother, grandfather, grandmother, and Uncle Glen — who owned Sadler’s Family Cafe in Nashville — who taught him the cooking ropes.
He began cooking for his family at age nine and proved that he had a knack for the art. Growing up, Ken said, “people kept saying I should open a restaurant.”
So in 2015, after retiring from sales, Ken tested his chops by heading out to Georgia to acquire a food truck.
En route back to Tucson, where he’d moved in 1984, Ken stopped off in Tallahassee, Florida, and picked up a “whole bunch of hickory.”
The truck garnered a following. On May 30, 2017, the family started their brick and mortar endeavor, keeping the food truck and branching out into catering.
The restaurant’s success is partially attributable to Ken’s education: not only did he learn to cook from the best, but he earned an MBA in 1984 as a graduate assistant football coach at Morehead State in Kentucky.
The menu attributes many recipes to their original creators by name. Sides like Grandma Wilma’s Green Beans and Momma’s Potato Salad fly off the line. The (outstanding) mac and cheese is his grandfather Robert Sadler’s recipe.
Aunt Sherry (Ken’s wife, Sharon)’s Sweet Potato Pie and his daughter Roxie’s Peach Cobbler represent some of the restaurant’s craveable desserts.
The pit mastery, featuring dishes like pulled pork, brisket, and ribs, is all Ken — and sometimes his son, KG, who makes the Party Wings, and alongside Ken’s son-in-law Shawn, creates the sauces and sandwiches.
The pitmasters smoke their meats at about 200-225 degrees, now using Sahuarita-sourced pecan wood — Ken said he has “toyed around with mesquite” but it imparts too intensive of a flavor.
Ken’s pulled pork is a North Carolina-style dish, with apple cider and brown sugar. His brisket, covered in his own dry rub recipe, is reminiscent of Texas barbecue, while his spare ribs are St. Louis-style, smoked and sauced. Sloppy Joes are served on a tres French brioche bun.
Green Feet Brewing, here in Tucson, makes Ken’s proprietary Rye Pale Ale, and teetotalers can enjoy Waco, Texas’ Big Red Soda to soothe the Buffalo, New York-inspired Frank’s Red Hot sauce available on the side.
Ken said he brings barbecue together with soul food. The catfish and collard greens he features on his menu are not barbecued but they hail from the US South, he noted, which he considers the hallmark of soul food.
“And we don’t cut corners. We serve exactly the same food at the restaurant as we do at home,” he said. “It’s just an extension of Mom’s kitchen.”
In recognition and celebration of Ken’s mother, on Christmas Day from 10 a.m. to noon this year, Ken and his friends, family, and members of Sigma Pi Phi will feed the hungry at Santa Rosa Park. They will serve turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, beverages, and peach cobbler.
Ken said that “It is important that during this holiday season we give back to our neighbors, family, and friends. Like our family recipes, I am passing on the tradition of serving the hungry in the community on Christmas Day, just like my mother has for decades.”
Ken’s Hardwood Barbecue Food Truck, Catering, and Restaurant is located at 5250 E. 22nd Street. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Keep up with Ken’s Hardwood Barbecue on Facebook to find out where the truck is.