Caldwell County BBQ – Gilbert, Arizona

I grew up in what used to be the truly small town of Gilbert, Arizona. It was a great upbringing out in the then-rural southeast side of the Phoenix metro area. When we got there, there was only one stoplight in the whole town. And the roads south and east of our home were not paved. Many times we had some good long-time friends come pick us up with a horse and wagon/buggy to head out to their ranch to have fun. It’s been many years now since we moved from there to Houston. We went back last week for a much needed visit to family and friends – my WWII veteran grandad is 95 now and won’t be around forever. We knew that Gilbert had grown up significantly since we left 19 year ago. But I was not prepared for how much growing up had occurred. It’s incredible to witness the growth that has come to the area. Spaces that were nothing but farmland and desert are now full of houses, apartments, shopping centers, parks, etc. It’s crazy remembering how small it was compared to how it is now!

With all this growth in my hometown, one thing that has made me very happy has been to follow a locally-owned Texas barbecue joint called Caldwell County BBQ that opened their doors in Gilbert a couple years ago. I’ve told as many friends and family members as I could to go there and try them out, support them, etc. All reports back had been that it was some great barbecue. But of course I’ve really wanted to get there myself and give them a try. So the same afternoon that we landed at Sky Harbor we headed to their place just west of Power Road just south of Warner. And I’m sure glad we did. We got some lean and moist brisket, jalapeño cheese sausage, some pulled pork and a St. Louis style pork sparerib. And for sides we tried their potato salad, Aunt Susan’s corn casserole and lemon poppyseed coleslaw. They say they are true Texas barbecue. In fact, their tagline is “If Texas and Arizona had a baby, it would be Caldwell County BBQ“. Pretty good, right?! Given how many barbecue joints I have gotten to experience in the great state of Texas, I think I can confidently claim to know what true Texas barbecue tastes like. And this, my friends, really is about as authentic Texas barbecue as you can get outside of Texas. It’s true that they don’t burn post oak in their four massive 1000-gallon offset steel pits – trying to source post oak in Arizona would be incredibly challenging. Instead they use native Arizona mesquite. Other than that, boy that stuff sure tasted like I was eating my ‘cue while sitting in a meat market somewhere in central Texas.

  • Brisket – had a great bark, good-looking smoke ring, outstanding smoky flavor and with well-rendered fat.
  • Sausage– though not made in-house, it is a locally-made sausage that the Caldwell folks specify. It had an excellent grind, good snap to the casing and offered a very nice spicy flavor with just the right kick of the jalapeño and right amount of creamy smoothness from the cheese.
  • Pulled pork – was outstanding, with plenty of bark mixed in, and wasn’t too moist or dry.
  • Pork sparerib – was excellent. It had not been overseasoned or mopped with a sticky-sweet sauce. The meat spoke for itself, with the pork flavor coming through, supported by the salt-and-pepper rub. The fat was perfectly rendered and the whole thing had a great bite – the meat pulled away from the bone with a good tug.
  • The sides and accoutrements were outstanding as well:
    • Potato salad – had the right amount of mayo and mustard for my taste, and the perfect balance of ingredients to make it very tasty.
    • Coleslaw – I was curious about adding in the flavor of the lemon and the texture of the poppy seeds. They really contributed to the experience, and the combination tasted great.
    • Corn casserole – I don’t know who aunt Susan is, but I am a fan of her corn casserole recipe. It was excellent (sadly I totally spaced getting a photo – sorry about that).
    • Barbecue sauce – they offer three different barbecue sauces – a standard house sauce, a hot-and-sweet version and a Carolina-style mustard sauce. All three were very tasty. No complaints there at all.
    • Pickles, onions and pickled jalapenos – no self-respecting Texas BBQ joint omits the all-important pickles, onions and jalapeños that help offset the fatty goodness of the smoked meat with their acidic, vinegary deliciousness. And Caldwell County BBQ is definitely a self-respecting joint. I had to ask for them – but I imagine that is because of COVID sanitation requirements. They were all standard-fare, nothing special, but even so they were plenty sufficient.

Just as I would expect, everything was served meat market style on aluminum trays covered with pink butcher paper. Honestly, the only thing that could have even been called “amiss” was the lack of paper towel rolls. Instead they had real no-kidding napkins sitting on the appropriately socially-distanced tables. 🙂

Once we had eaten all that we could fit, I got to chat with a great young man by the name of Corbin who was out manning the pits in 110°F weather (try that – wow it was super toasty warm hanging around large pits that are cooking meat at roughly 250°F — yikes!). I got to look at their pits and learn more about their first one, affectionately named Max Woodruff (take a quick read to hear that story). And I got a view at how they cook their briskets. Here’s what I was told – once the briskets hit the stall, they take them off the pit and wrap them first in aluminum foil and then in pink butcher paper. However, before closing up the foil, they add what looked to be about a half cup of dill pickle juice. They then go into a warmer until the next morning when they go back on the pit and are finished off an readied for service. They swear the pickle juice helps with moisture but does not hurt the flavor. Having already tried their moist and lean brisket, I can tell you that they’re right. I had not heard about the pickle juice trick before – but since I have had a couple conversations with some pitmasters back here in Texas who have heard about it as well. Very interesting idea.

One final note – the story behind how the name of the restaurant was chosen is a good one. It’s worth a read here. If you live in the Phoenix metro area, and you are jonesing for some real, no kidding central Texas barbecue, jump on the 202 and head down to Caldwell County BBQ in Gilbert. I am certain you will not be disappointed.

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