The Journey from Competitive BBQ, to Favorite Local Joint

By Molly Cerreta Smith

For those that know barbecue, it’s safe to say that it goes beyond the meat. Of course, excellent barbecue starts with selecting the best meat. From there, it requires a lot of effort, care, time and dedication to set great barbecue apart from simply good barbecue. But barbecue isn’t just about the food… It’s an experience that is enhanced by atmosphere, the company, and a good cocktail, too. And that’s where Bootleggers Modern American Smokehouse comes in.

However, the restaurant’s beginnings developed long before the doors first opened in 2013. About a decade ago, Kevin Slade, owner and managing partner of Bootleggers Modern American Smokehouse, located at 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard with a second location in Old Town Scottsdale, discovered the competitive barbecue scene through a friend and a local barbecue club. One casual barbecue gathering among friends led to the formation of the Major Woody’s competitive barbecue team, which ignited Slade’s love of barbecue — but it was more than that. As the team participated in various barbecue competitions, Slade says, “We really enjoyed the friendships that developed and the camaraderie that happened at these events.” A few years into doing competitive barbecue, an opportunity for what is now the Phoenix location of Bootleggers became available. And this shifted Slade’s focus from competitive barbecue to barbecue as a business.

The location had been occupied by many restaurants, but most hyper locals will likely remember it as the old Dirty Drummer. That’s exactly how Slade, who has lived in the valley and the neighborhood for more than 30 years, remembers it. “It was always a great family spot for chicken wings; people would go there after little league games or high school sports events,” he recalls, adding that there is something really special and unique about the location. “It’s a great neighborhood spot that you can walk to or ride your beach cruiser and just hang out with friends.” Since living here, Slade has seen this established neighborhood redevelop to the point where the families that live here have grown to include children and grandchildren — and the area itself has experienced a regeneration. “The schools are good, the home values are high and it’s just a great central spot in the valley,” he adds of the North 32nd neighborhood.

Slade began thinking about a concept that could serve as the same thing for locals today as the Dirty Drummer did in the past — a family-friendly restaurant with a fun, inviting atmosphere in a great location. With his breadth of experience in barbecue under his belt through competition barbecue, he decided on Bootleggers Modern American Smokehouse. But he wanted it to be more than a typical barbecue restaurant with “red checkered table cloths.” Slade wanted to create an elevated approach to barbecue while providing locals with a neighborhood hangout to call their own. Slade adds, “We weren’t even sure if it would work out… but we figured even if it didn’t, we’d have a cool place to hang out.”

Spoiler: It worked out. The concept for an upscale barbecue restaurant began with the focus on quality slow-smoked meats, which remains the restaurants focus to date. In fact, the restaurant is smoking meats 24 hours a day, seven days a week to present diners with barbecue done right. And Bootleggers’ menu was thoughtfully crafted with a concentration on consistency. Even “typical” menu items such as burgers are not so typical at Bootleggers. A lot of time and effort went into fine-tuning the meat blend for the restaurant’s burger patties, and every menu item — right down to the kids’ selections — was given that same care and attention.

Beyond traditional barbecue offerings (including barbecue pulled pork, St. Louis ribs, smoked beef brisket, and turkey breast), the menu’s eclectic and elevated selections include Pan Seared Scottish Salmon, Smoked Prime Rib, a variety of Smokehouse Tacos including Pork Belly, Salmon and Green Chile Pork, and more. Sandwiches include a wide range of offerings based upon that amped up burger patty, including the popular Bootlegger Burger with muenster cheese, whiskey onions, confit slab bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onion, dijonnaise and house sauce on a pretzel bun, as well as beyond burger choices such as the Notorious Chicken Sandwich with a grilled or panko-fried chicken breast topped with smoked ham, white cheddar cheese, arugula, red onion, dijonnaise, and spiced aioli on griddled Noble Bread, a local bread purveyor. There are plenty of local vendors represented on the Bootleggers menu including Hickman Deviled Eggs and Schreiner’s Sausage.

The menu even features “Build Your Own” BLT and Mac and Cheese options with a variety of “add ons” for the BLTS from specialty bacons like jalapeno and cherry-smoked to “add ins” for the Mac and Cheese such as salmon, smoked pork belly or brisket, jalapeno peppers, multiple cheese options and more. Side dish selections extend beyond the usual suspects as well and include inspired options such as Grilled Cauliflower Steak with cheddar cheese and whiskey onions; Smoked Sweet Corn with Cholula-lime butter; Smashed Red Goat Cheese Potatoes; and Sweet Potato Fries with maple aioli.

For those with a sweet tooth, Bootleggers decadent dessert menu does not disappoint. Sweet selections include individually baked Fresh Fruit Cobbler with Cinnamon Toast Crunch topping; the Jack Daniels Brownie, served warm with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce; and Fried Ice Cream served in a cinnamon-sugar coated tortilla bowl and topped with chocolate syrup.

Of course, what restaurant could call themselves “Bootleggers” if they didn’t have a respectable cocktail list? Bootleggers raises the bar when it comes to its specialty libations with creative names including the “Dirty South” featuring house-infused blueberry bourbon, Bonal, lemon, demerara syrup and figgy pudding bitters; and the Flim Flam Sazerac made with Bulleit Rye, sugar, Peychaud’s Bitters, lemon twist and absinthe. The clever cocktail list and its creative ingredients may summon thoughts of the Prohibition days, and indeed Bootleggers has its own speakeasy of sorts hidden within the restaurant. The secret room has its own bar and private bathrooms; and while its always available to the public, it can also be rented out for private events. As a whole, the restaurant gives off a speakeasy vibe that is reminiscent of days gone by — and with good reason. Much of the restaurant’s wood details, including the ceiling beams and wood panels, as well as some of the windows, are from a 100-year-old barn that stood on some of Slade’s family property in Montana and was transported here to become part of the restaurant.

Much like using original wood and windows in its construction, Bootleggers American Smokehouse has the magic touch when it comes to taking something old and making it new again. Within the same year of opening Bootleggers’ Phoenix location, Slade says the current Scottsdale location became available. “It had many of the same qualities that we like about the Shea location, with similar bones and similar opportunities,” he says. So just like that, he took the concept of Bootleggers, still in its infancy, and applied the same time, effort and focus on quality and consistency to their second location in Old Town.

While staying busy with the two locations, Slade says there is still room for expansion. He is currently looking to bring Bootleggers to the East Valley in Gilbert or Chandler. And while barbecue die-hards know that great barbecue is worth the drive, it’s especially nice when it’s right in the neighborhood. For more, visit