Tucson is still in the realm of a learning curve as far as barbeque is concerned. For some reason, we are not that much of a barbeque kind of town. Why is that? So far we have mastered almost every form of cuisine, but the downhome tradition of slow cooking meat in a barrel seems to kind of elude us.
Sure, we do have a fair share of barbeque joints across this desert township of ours and some of them do the craft correct, but when people come visiting from the South or Midwest, they are a little disappointed by the lack of flavors from their hometowns.
Mercifully, this is changing. Whether you prefer the wet rub style or dry, wood smoked or charcoal steeped, some good folks are setting up shop here and our barbeque landscape is looking brighter every day.
Leave it to a couple from Texas to help us with our barbeque blight. Curt Lewis and his wife Marissa, who is a Tucson native, have been operating the popular food truck, Holy Smokin' Butts, for a few years now. When people saw the wood paneled 32-foot trailer pull up, adorned with smiling pigs, cows and chickens with their tails on fire, they immediately lined up, hungry for some authentic 'cue in a city that should be copious with the meaty product but kind of isn't.
Originally from Mississippi, Curt moved to Waco, Texas, where he found not only his wife but a boring management office job. Having both been a longtime fan of home barbequing (Curt for more than 30 years) the two decided to ditch the 9-5 and follow their dry rub dreams all the way back to Marissa's home turf.
"The truck was our original idea when we moved here," Curt says as he pulls slabs of ribs off the 7-foot smoker on the back of the truck behind their new restaurant on Wilmot. "We wanted to see how our product would do before we settled on an actual restaurant. All I can say is that things went better than expected so here we are."
Located in an old Mexican sub shop that still bears a cartoon cactus wearing a sombrero on the marquee, Holy Smokin' Butts has been a hit since they opened their doors earlier this year, even though the exterior appears otherwise.
"This is Texas-style barbeque," says Curt with a confidence and smile. "We use a simple dry rub, some salt, pepper, maybe a few secret touches here and there but that's it. What makes our barbeque special is how long we smoke it."
The signature dish, the brisket, is slow cooked over pecan wood for a minimum of 16 hours. Minimum. Curt and Marissa don't get much sleep as they are up almost every hour on the hour to turn the meat and make sure the wood is up to temp. Why pecan wood though?
"It is plentiful around these parts and the smoke flavor is just the best," says Curt.
When you bite into the brisket you are transported to a smoke-filled land of skill and tradition. The meat is rich; an intense dense sweet wood smolder and flavor with a chewy bark that cascades the aroma of a well-loved grill. Having had barbeque from Texas and Kansas City, among a throng of other facets of the game, Holy Smokin' Butts is up there with some of the best I have ever experienced.
Same goes for the ribs that literally slide off the bone as you attack them. This version of pulled pork is stunningly fatty, juicy and extremely addictive. I also really enjoyed the Hatch green-chili sausage sandwich that is thinly sliced and served on a brioche bun. It was spicy and savory and went really well with the Carolina mustard BBQ sauce, which added a tangy aromatic viscosity to it.
"Right now we are still cooking off the truck but we will be installing four 20-foot smokers into the restaurant once we get our permits," Curt says as he takes perfectly charred chicken off of the pluming barrel smoker. "And when we get the place looking more like a barbeque stand, we will be adding a patio as well."
Even as popular as they are right now, Curt and Marissa have no intentions of expanding. They want to keep their own hands on the meat, they want to get to know all of their customers by name (which they already do) and they do not want the flavor of their product to get lost in translation. That is some business sense to stand behind. But I had to ask Curt: What's up with the name?
"That is 100 percent my wife's idea," he says. "Where she came up with it, I do not know. All I do know is that when people say it, they tend to smile."