You might say that I have a little smoke in my soul.
I recently returned from Sparks, Nevada where I served as a judge at the nation’s biggest barbecue rib festival. 20 competitors from across the country served more than 250,000 pounds of smoked ribs to 500,000 hungry people under the hot summer sun.
I’m a barbecue guy. I take my smoked meats seriously. And as I scored the entries and rendered my verdict in the climate-controlled comfort of a conference room at the Nugget Casino Resort, I thought of all the great barbecue joints that we have back home in Southern Arizona.
This is good news for my fellow rib, brisket, pulled pork, and other smoked protein enthusiasts, particularly this week with two local barbecue spots among the 100+ restaurants participating in Sonoran Restaurant Week, running from Friday, September 9 – Sunday, September 18.
One participant is Ken’s Hardwood Barbecue, located at 5250 E. 22nd St., a Kentucky-inspired salute to the smoke by Louisville native son Ken Alexander.
"We’re all about community engagement, involvement, and support, which is why participating in Sonoran Restaurant Week and other local charitable events is so important to us," said Alexander. "Whether it’s for kids and the arts, homeless programs, or military, veterans, and first responders, we see our food as a way to connect, and we all win when these connections help the community, like how Sonoran Restaurant Week will help support the San Xavier Co-op Farm."
The Louisville style of barbecue can be a little difficult to define. Alexander says it’s a melting pot of sorts, with his menu pulling from North Carolina, Texas, St. Louis, and other regional traditions. But he notes that it’s his family recipes, going back generations, that truly represent his Louisville roots.
When asked what his personal Sonoran Restaurant Week choice would be, he didn’t pause for even a second. "With my ribs and brisket, I’m going beans, coleslaw, and cornbread," he asserted. "The beans are from an old family recipe, as are all of our sides, and we call them Grandma Wilma’s green beans.”
Alexander shared some fun stories about his side dishes that left me begging to see his family tree. I almost felt like an honorary Alexander when hearing about Grandma Wilma, Grandpa Robert, Aunt Roxie, and K.G.
For satisfying the Sonoran Restaurant Week thirst, Alexander features a line-up of fountain drinks, beers, and wines, but his personal pairing preference for barbecue is a cream soda-style drink called Big Red. "I don’t drink soda a lot, but when I drink soda, and when I’m eating barbecue, I’m drinking Big Red," he said with intention.
“Celebrating family with food has been a way of life for me, and that’s what we do here at Ken’s Hardwood Barbecue, we bring people together for fellowship, we allow them to be who they are, and we support community values by helping where we can.”
For more information on the special menu, visit sonoranrestaurantweek.com. Ken's Hardwood Barbecue is located at 5250 E. 22nd St. For more information and hours of operation, visit kenshardwoodbbq.com.
John Aldecoa, another prominent fixture on the local barbecue scene, is also participating in Sonoran Restaurant Week through his restaurant Brother John’s Beer, Bourbon, & BBQ, located at 1801 N. Stone Ave.
Beer, bourbon, barbecue. Three basic groups on my personal pyramid. But I digress.
"We’re locally owned, my brother and I are both fifth-generation Tucsonans and graduates of Cholla High School and the University of Arizona, and to us, as brothers and business partners, Sonoran Restaurant Week is a celebration of local, of family, of heritage, of roots," said Aldecoa. "We’re fortunate enough to be able to give back to the community and we enjoy doing that on a regular basis."
In the world of barbecue, there are several regions with their own distinct styles, and you might say that Aldecoa’s menu is like a passport for your palate.
"Style-wise, the Southwest hasn’t yet established itself as a regional barbecue hub, so we have some things to offer our guests who are looking for Texas, for Memphis, for St. Louis, and for other classic barbecue destinations," said Aldecoa.
So, what is the plate of choice if I wanted to be John Aldecoa for a night? "That’s easy," he exclaimed. "Fatty brisket all day long, baby back ribs, buttered green beans, and mashed potatoes."
Aldecoa said these sides work well together and that’s what he loves most. "We make the mashed potatoes fresh from Yukon Gold potatoes, sometimes twice a day, and the fresh green beans are cooked to order in a butter fondue resulting in a nice al dente texture." As far as the brisket goes, it’s all about the fat for Brother John. "Don’t give me no lean brisket, that’s like asking for dry water," he joked.
For libating with his perfect barbecue plate, Aldecoa typically reaches for a Juicy Jack IPA from SanTan Brewing Company or an Old Fashioned. This comes as no surprise with the words "beer" and "bourbon" in the name of his restaurant.
"The values of Sonoran Restaurant Week are really our values at Brother John’s as well, and being a fellow Sonoran and local restaurateur myself, it’s a great community program for us to support," he concluded.
If you think that I’ve gone on temporary barbecue hiatus after returning from the rib competition in Nevada, think again. With Ken Alexander and John Aldecoa celebrating Sonoran Restaurant Week the way they are, I’ll be rolling up my sleeves, letting a notch out of my belt, grabbing a roll of paper towels, and following the smoke to these local eateries that are making a difference in a community they love.
For more information on the special menu, visit sonorantrestaurantweek.com. Brother John's Beer, Bourbon & BBQ is located at 1801 N. Stone Ave. For more information and hours of operation, visit brotherjohnsbbq.com.
Sonoran Restaurant Week made its return this year for 10 days from Friday, September 9 - Sunday, September 18. Tucson Foodie is ecstatic to be producing the culinary celebration this time around, which is also sponsored by Visit Tucson, and features several restaurants and unique menus that locals and visitors alike can savor.
Read our article "Where to eat during Sonoran Restaurant Week 2022."
For more information, visit sonoranrestaurantweek.com.
Matt Russell has been a food and beverage writer/broadcaster covering stories in Arizona and beyond since 2009. He's been the...