By Jeff Kronenfeld, May 2020 Issue.
Two men held an impromptu tailgate party as I pulled into the parking lot for NakedQ in Scottsdale. Don’t worry, they were more than six feet apart. I could smell the meat roasting in oak and pecan wood even as I parked a safe distance away. HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center loomed across North 90th Street, bringing to mind the patients and healthcare workers battling within. I counted my blessings, pulled on a scarf and went to pick up my order.
This was a few days before Governor Doug Ducey issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Like all restaurants still open, NakedQ shifted to exclusively dine out or delivery. Of its three locations, two are still grilling. Not being in delivery range of either this store or the Phoenix location, I made the quick trip north on a snowbird-less freeway.
Oren Hartman opened NakedQ in 2014. He traded a job as an executive at a Fortune 500 tech company to run his own meat-smoking startup. Before exiting the corporate life, Hartman visited barbecue joints from Texas to the Carolinas and beyond on his travels for work. While august grill masters still debate which region’s special sauce has the most magic, Hartman puts his faith in the flesh.
In fact, the restaurant’s au naturel name derives from Hartman’s simple but effective philosophy of barbecue: good meat doesn’t need bells and whistles. Starting with high-quality cuts, the meat gets a simple rub then it is off to the smoker. That’s pretty much it, but this doesn’t mean you can get that sauce you’ve been craving either. NakedQ offers four basic sauces, including a sweet, a spicy, a North Carolina vinegar-based, and — last but not least — a South Carolina mustard sauce. The inclusion of the latter golden variety is just one instance of NakedQ going above and beyond. I love the stuff, but I am biased, hailing myself from the Palmetto State.
Another instance of NakedQ’s exceptionalism is its response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They have been distributing free food to healthcare workers, first responders, laid-off hospitality workers and anyone else who needs a meal. The foods they’ve given out by the hundreds include chicken sandwiches, BBQ, spaghetti, and chicken soup. “We know that so many people in our community are going through some tough times right now, not just restaurants,” reads a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “We’re proud to be a part of the Arizona hospitality community that’s pulling together and helping to feed people in need.”
The two men manning the store and half-ton rotisserie smoker proved as friendly as the message. My meal was neatly prepared and packaged upon arrival. When I threw them a curveball by adding a pound of pulled chicken at the last minute, they didn’t flinch. The meat by the pound option is a little like the gift that keeps on giving. We used the smokey soft chicken for sandwiches, chicken salad and to spice up other meals during this extended staycation from hell. Wet naps are available, almost as hot of an item these days as toilet paper.
Once I had already committed to leaving my house, it seemed reckless not to go very big. Thus, I ordered a pair of two meat platters. To be gluttonously clear, that was two just for yours truly. For the first, I choose sliced brisket and pulled pork. You can get the brisket chopped, but the staff recommended sliced, so, of course, I listened. I listen to the experts for my meat as well as my health. The brisket’s exterior was charred dark as a tree trunk in a forest fire, albeit much tastier. The rich smoke had visibly saturated the first quarter inch or so of meat below the caramelized surface. This yielded to the lighter inners, which were tender. The light marbling of fat rounded out the flavor.
The pulled pork burst with its own unique flavors. It was savory, a little sweet and even had a hint of that umami or monosodium-glutamate-like goodness. I closed my eyes, masticated and forgot to be anxious for a few precious moments. Like everything at Naked, this complex taste emerged organically from the meat itself.
For the second two meat platter, I went with jalapeno hot links or ribs. The sausage was spicy, but not overpoweringly hot. With toilet paper hard to come by, this helps conserve a hopefully-temporarily scarce item. The heat played well with the deep smoke oomph. The flecks of fat smoothed out the mix, especially when the dog is lavished with a generous coat of that South Carolina gold. Likewise, the ribs had the right mix of crunch on the outside and tender fattiness inside. I coated mine in a blend of the spicy and sweet sauces.
For my significant other — a teacher learning how to be a YouTube channel and IT specialist — I ordered the sliced turkey sandwich. She is far less carnivorous than I but dabbles in the occasional slice of bird. She particularly loved the mustard sauce, describing it as oozing with an almost honey-like sweetness. I, of course, had to sample it. I found it as tender and moist as she reported.
The barbecue is the main attraction for sure, but the sides are nothing to sneeze at, even if you are wearing a face mask. We shared them, but platters come with two sides and cornbread, while the sandwiches come with one side. The cornbread is chock full of corn kernels, jalapenos and butter. They were delicious and I didn’t regret ordering extra. The mac and cheese shined with smoked gouda and a peppery kick.
The beans were like something an old prospector might feed you around a campfire. They were soft, filled with pork flavor and even had a few meat treats thrown in like marshmallows in a children’s cereal. We tried both varieties of coleslaw. The traditional creamy kind was satisfactory, but I definitely preferred the vinegar variety. It’s not for everyone, but I found its pungent astringency refreshing. It’s an excellent pallet cleanser as well. The potato salad was creamy and disappeared quickly.
In a final piece of excess, I also grabbed one of their oversized sea salt chocolate chip cookies. If you have never had the pleasure of a salty cookie, there’s no better time than quarantine to pick up a new bad habit. When you order or pick up food, don’t forget to give people plenty of space. Even better, have it delivered. You can ask to have the food left on your doorstep, minimizing the chance of exposure for you or your food-bearing delivery angel. Most apps offer this option now as well. And, most importantly, tip everyone generously. It’s the most we can do until we address the systemic issues that allowed this predictable outbreak to get so out of control.