Every few years, the eyes of the world fixate on a tiny chimney perched on the roof of the Sistine Chapel as millions await the telltale plumes of white smoke which signify that a new pope has been elected. Since November, 2012, savvy Duke City area barbecue aficionados have been following plumes of smoke emanating from a mobile eighteen-foot grilling machine, a sign that great barbecue is imminent. Fittingly “Follow the Smoke” is the motto of the Back-Sass BBQ team which has been hauling its mother ship of barbecue all over the city.
On January 29, 2014, Back-Sass BBQ put down roots in Bernalillo, launching its bodacious barbecue operation in a restaurant storefront. Located on North Camino del Pueblo less than half a mile north of heavily trafficked Highway 550, Back-Sass is easy to find if you follow the smoke which wafts into your motorized conveyance like a sweet Texas smoke signal beckoning you to try some baby backs. Back-Sass BBQ is situated in a fairly nondescript edifice which formerly housed La Bamba Grill among other businesses. Its signage is bold, sassy and inviting.
Attempts to define any new barbecue restaurant’s “style” as either Kansas City, Texas, Memphis, or the Carolinas are inevitable, but Back-Sass BBQ’s style doesn’t subscribe to any of those hallowed templates. Instead it might best be described as “Cleveland style.” No, not the Cleveland in Ohio which set the Cuyahoga River on fire back in 1969. I’m talking about the other Cleveland, the one in New Mexico bordered by Holman and Mora; the Cleveland on the “other side” of the Jicarita Peak from my hometown of Peñasco.
Back-Sass BBQ founder and owner Gina Valdez grew up in Cleveland, New Mexico, a village one travel site described as “where cars go to die.” She’s been a barbecue enthusiast all her life and although she’s a sanctioned judge with the Kansas City Barbecue Society, doesn’t barbecue competitively, not even in Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew. In fact, Gina didn’t get super serious about honing her craft until a broken leg laid her off, giving her the impetus to build the mobile unit. The eighteen-foot barbecue behemoth can smoke more than one-hundred full-sized turkeys at one time. In her new restaurant, however, she relies on barrel smokers that aren’t quite as prolific. Though hours of operation are posted, once the barbecue runs out, the restaurant closes.
You won’t want to miss out on this barbecue! Shawne Riley, a long-time friend of this blog, made sure I didn’t, extolling the ribs and coleslaw so enthusiastically I had to visit Back-Sass BBQ the following day. Shawne was also enamored of the sauce which she described as “pretty complex.” Obviously more persuasive than I, she managed to coax Gina into telling her what’s in the sauce: molasses, apple pie spices, pineapple and a “bunch of other things.”
Back-Sass BBQ is essentially a one-room operation with booth seating on one side of the room. The dining room is sparsely appointed. Fittingly therefore, the menu lists fewer than twenty items: four sandwiches, four plates (with your choice of two sides), three meats by the pound, baby back ribs, turkey legs, three sides (chile beans, coleslaw, potato salad) and for dessert, peach cobbler and gingerbread men.
26 March 2014: Some purists will tell you that one of the marks of great barbecue is whether or not sauce is needed. Other barbecue enthusiasts don’t want their barbecue naked, preferring it slathered with a sauce. Back-Sass BBQ is quite good with or without sauce. The baby backs pull away from the bone easily and have an addictive bark, the deeply dark, flavor rich, sweet, caramelized rind suffused with magnificently complex flavor. Barbecue without bark has no bite. The sauce, by the way, is indeed pretty complex. The flavor components Shawne described are easily discernible, but the source of a pleasant piquancy can only come from chipotle, a fact Gina confirmed.
One of the other hallmarks of Back-Sass BBQ is an aromatic smokiness courtesy of apple woods which dispense a very mild flavor and imbue foods with a slight sweetness. Because a little smoke goes a long way with meats, most aficionados prefer light-smoking hard woods such as apple which tend to be complementary of all meats. The fragrances at Back-Sass BBQ’s dining room would make a wonderful aftershave or aphrodisiac.
27 March 2014: Your best bet if you want to sample more than one meat is the two meat plate with your choice of two sides. Make one of those meats the hot links, emphasis on the word “hot.” That’s hot as in hotter than eighty percent of the chile served at New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City area. Not only are these luscious links hot, they’re moist and delicious. You’re well advised to eat these last because you might not be able to taste the other meat on the plate…and if the other meat is pulled pork, you’ll want to be able to discern every nuance. The pulled pork has a pinkish hue with a darker “ring” denoting the smoking process. It’s sweet, moist and absolutely delicious–with or without sauce.
27 March 2014: The turkey legs at Back-Sass BBQ look like throw-backs to the age of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. They’re bulbous, chewy, delicious drumsticks the size of Popeye’s forearm or a pterodactyl wing. Bad cartoon metaphors aside, you’ll channel your inner troglodyte as you gnaw on perhaps the best turkey legs in the Duke City area (with apologies to The Cube). There’s almost something primal about holding these legs by their built-in handle and piercing through the glistening bark to expose pinkish smoked turkey meat. Who cares that turkey is all dark meat. The smoked flavor and surprising moistness will convert even the most cynical.
3 April 2014: During an April, 2014 visit to Back-Sass BBQ, Gina told my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and I that before she was a barbecue lady, she was a soup lady and that she planned on introducing soup to the menu once she perfected her recipe. She then treated us to a magnificent example of her soup handiwork, a steaming hot bowl of smoked turkey and broccoli soup. This soup is perfect as is and should be on the daily menu starting now! It’s a rich and creamy soup with a strong pepper influence coalescing with the smokiness of turkey and the al dente crispness of broccoli, celery and other vegetables. Both Sr. Plata and I took home 32-ounces of this enchanting elixir to share with our respective wives, but we secretly hoped they don’t like it as much as we do so we could have all of it. Unfortunately for us, they loved it.
9 April 2014: The soup of the day during a subsequent visit was a potato and leek soup with spinach. It’s a hearty, creamy and very tasty soup served hot. The flavors of leek and potato harmonize very well and the spinach lends nutrients, texture and its very own unique flavor profile. This is the type of soup you’ll love best during cold winter days, but it’s wonderful any time.
3 April 2014: If your experiences with brisket are akin to what masticating shoe leather must be like, it’s because you haven’t had great brisket. Trust Gina to smoke your brisket. It’s tender, offering just the right amount of chew and it’s and smoky with a pink smoke outline. Best, it’s delicious with or without sauce and has the perfect qualities for dressing a sandwich. A quarter-pound will do you for lunch.
09 April 2014: If you prefer your brisket on a sandwich, Back-Sass serves an overstuffed sandwich just brimming with moist, tender brisket nestled in a soft hoagie bun. My friend and fellow barbecue aficionado Mike Muller uses brisket as his benchmark for how good a barbecue restaurant is. He loved this one and was surprised at just how moist and tender the brisket is. The brisket pulls away easily and you won’t find any annoying sinew or fat.
09 April 2014: The very last item on the menu I had from Back-Sass was the chicken. True to form, it’s very clucking good. The chicken is available as a sandwich or you can opt for a half-chicken (thigh and leg). Any way you have it will become your instant favorite. As with all meats smoked by Gina, the chicken is moist, tender and redolent with apple wood smokiness. The half chicken has a wonderful crust which, at first glance, may appear to be on the burnt side, but that patina comes from the marinade she uses on her beer can chicken recipe. That crust is poultry’s answer to pork skin and is absolutely delicious.
One other essential element in the barbecue experience is sides, the accompaniment needed because even barbecue addicts can’t live on meats alone. Back-Sass BBQ offers three terrific sides. The chile beans are true New Mexican chile beans with red chile and not Texas “chili” beans with whatever mystery spices they add. The coleslaw is light on the dressing and heavy on crispness and freshness. The potato salad, which includes finely cut pickles and celery, is similarly light on the mayo or salad cream. All are terrific.
27 March 2014: Back-Sass BBQ offers only two desserts, one of which is seemingly de rigueur in barbecue restaurants. That would be peach cobbler, one of those desserts often described as both homespun and old-fashioned. More often than that, it’s described as delicious. Covered with a crumbly sweet crust and imbued with moistness, it’s a good cobbler, one which can be improved only by a scoop or four of ice cream. The other dessert is gingerbread men (five for three dollars) which children of all ages will enjoy.
Meat up with some friends and follow the smoke to Back-Sass BBQ in Bernalillo for apple wood smoked deliciousness.
N. 213 Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 April 2014
1st VISIT: 26 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Chile Beans, Potato Salad, Coleslaw, Hot Links, Pulled Pork, Peach Cobbler, Gingerbread Men, Turkey Leg, Smoked Turkey-Broccoli Soup, Brisket, Brisket Sandwich, Half Chicken, Chicken Sandwich