You’d think the heat in Phoenix, Arizona, where temperatures can reach 117 degrees, might dissuade people from standing in line for hours. But try a bite of Little Miss BBQ’s brisket and you’ll understand why.
With a reverence for Texas tradition and a few years of competition ’cueing under his belt, Scott Holmes, 42, and his wife Bekke, 36, opened Little Miss in 2013 to immediate acclaim on the strength of his melt-in-your-mouth, oak-smoked brisket. It’s a pitmaster journey that began with Scott’s first addictive bite of barbecue on a visit to Bekke’s parents in Austin in 2007.
“I'm just some guy from Tempe, but my goal is to try to recreate the barbecue experience I fell in love with in Texas,” he says. “The first time I went to Texas, I went to the Salt Lick. You show up, and they’ve got the stone building and the big pit right there; I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I came back from that [trip] and bought a smoker.”
From there the couple began cooking in the competition circuit, taking first place for brisket in one of their first events in Tucson in 2009. After four-and-a-half years of competing, they decided to take their smoker to a steaming hot parking lot in an industrial neighborhood southeast of the Phoenix airport. A crowd quickly followed, but it wasn’t the easiest transition to go from cooking for judges once a week to preparing daily for hundreds of hungry diners.
“It’s something that’s easy to do as a hobby, but in the restaurant when you’re doing it every single day, there’s just no time. You can’t prep ahead,” Scott says. He left his job as a project manager at an environmental company when he opened the business, as did Bekke, who had worked as a medical research director.
Until the Holmes’ opened shop, Phoenicians were limited to strip mall barbecue that, although serviceable to satisfy desperate cravings, was a far cry from the artisan meats found in barbecue meccas like Texas, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Kansas City. But Little Miss’ barbecue is the real deal, sliced to order and smoked on both an 800-gallon custom offset smoker made by R&O Smokers in Granbury, Texas, as well as two 1,000-gallon Camelback smokers. On a busy day, people start lining up at 9am -- two hours before opening -- to get a slice of the day’s 500lbs of brisket before it sells out by early afternoon.
Given Little Miss’ popularity, it might surprise many barbecue lovers to know that the Holmes had to significantly change their recipe from the style that earned them first place in competitions -- barbecue sauce mixed with gravy.
“When we were competing, we were one of the top teams in brisket… but it was just disgusting,” Scott admits.
For Little Miss, they reverted to the Central Texas style of a simple rub formulated from salt, pepper, cayenne, and granulated garlic and onion -- allowing the meat to speak for itself and saving the sauce for the side. Their beef is flavorful enough to stand alone, and since the briskets are prime quality, diners can tell the difference.
Unfortunately, Little Miss can’t quite emulate all Texas traditions. Their spartan, covered outdoor patio lined with picnic tables wouldn’t be out of place in Austin, but due to strict liquor-license laws, they aren’t able to hand out free beer (or sell it, for that matter) as is common at many Texas trailers. Instead, they stock coolers with bottled waters to keep patrons in line hydrated in temperatures that casually crack triple digits on a daily basis.
Like at Little Miss’ Texas idols (la Barbecue, Franklin, Smitty’s Market, and countless others), brisket is the best-seller, but beef isn’t the only meat on the menu: Pulled pork, pork ribs, turkey, and sausage round out the offerings. Holmes also occasionally experiments with less conventional cuts like lamb neck, which despite being one of his favorites, never sold well. Weekly specials include pastrami on Thursdays and beef plate ribs on Fridays, which are such a fan-favorite they might soon be offered five days a week -- though at up to 2lbs a serving, they’re guaranteed to induce a meat coma.
“Everybody loves them, we sell a ton of them, but they’re definitely heavy,” Scott says. “I can eat one of those and I'll be full for a day and a half.”
On the side, Little Miss offers the traditional barbecue supplements: Ranch-style beans, coleslaw, potato salad, and jalapeño cheese grits, but they stand out in an area that most barbecue joints neglect -- dessert. The sweets come courtesy of Bekke, who grew up eating a pecan pie made by her grandmother. The recipe was passed to her when she went off to college, and she’s kept it secret ever since, even refusing to give it to her in-laws. She follows the same recipe at Little Miss, except now the pies spend time in the smoker, giving them an extra layer of flavor. The dessert proved an instant success; the restaurant bakes up to 80 of them every day.
Not content to rest on their savory laurels, Little Miss is currently in the process of expanding to a second Phoenix location where they’ll keep cooking their signature brisket, but plan to diversify their meats beyond the Texas staples. Pork ribs will switch to St. Louis-style (instead of full-sized spare ribs) and will get doused with sauce during cooking to caramelize the exterior. They’ll also add chicken, which there was previously never room for in the smokers. Plus, seating will expand from their current cramped interior booths to a more spacious capacity of 50 that includes a “big old patio bar.”
Even though there’ll be some changes, Little Miss plans to keep its attention on savory bites of meat served with a side of hospitality. Scott still treats the brisket like his baby and walks up and down the line, greeting regulars and making sure newcomers don’t have unrealistic expectations about the wait time. Bekke works in the restaurant three to four days a week doing payroll while juggling getting their two young kids to preschool and kindergarten.
“My goal is always to produce the absolute best barbecue we know how,” Scott says. “There are so many cool things about Texas barbecue that we want to bring here. The restaurant is a culmination of all my experiences.”