The sign outside Phat Turtle says “Kansas City, Arizona.” If it weren’t for the palo verde trees flanking the front door, you might think the barbecue joint was in a stuccoed suburban development outside KC. When you get inside, that impression only grows stronger—Phat Turtle might be on the northern fringe of Phoenix, but it’s awash in arrowheads, with nearly every surface painted red or gold. Finally, you get the menu and order some barbecue. The only hint that Phat Turtle is in Phoenix instead of Prairie Village is the existence of real-deal burnt ends made from the point of the brisket, a delicacy that’s hard to find even in its birthplace given its popularity and the cut’s scarcity.
It’s been 25 years since Phat Turtle proprietors Mike and Kelly Sloan moved away from KC, but their ability to recreate a classic local ’cue joint from these parts is uncanny. Maybe it’s their time in the duplication business—Mike comes from a printing family and worked as a chemist in the printing industry for many years. Both originally from Kansas City, the Sloans moved to Minnesota in 1997. After leaving the printing business, they lived full time in an RV for a few years before eventually landing in Tucson, Arizona. After a quick move to Florida and back, they ended up in Cave Creek, north of Phoenix, just before the pandemic hit.
“We definitely missed our Kansas City style of barbecue, so we ended up going to all the barbecue spots around town and saying, ‘Well, it’s really good, but it’s not what we remember from back in Kansas City,’” Kelly says. “That’s when we decided we should start our own barbecue place.”
The Sloans learned to cook on a backyard smoker and started developing recipes that lean on KC’s reputation for sweeter sauces and a more direct presentation. On the phone, Kelly mentions the old KC Masterpiece restaurants, a chain of four sit-down spots owned by the late Dr. Rich Davis, a child psychologist turned entrepreneur who originated the best-selling KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce. I never made it to a KC Masterpiece restaurant, but I have to imagine Phat Turtle does a pretty fair impression. I visited in August and enjoyed the burnt ends on a sandwich with a side of extra-crispy fries.
By happenstance, Phat Turtle also landed in a town known for attracting outlaws (Hells Angels founder Sonny Barger and rapper DMX) and Midwestern football bars. This place is also home to two landmark NFL bars: the Buffalo Chip Saloon (Packers) and Harold’s Cave Creek Corral (Steelers). Phat Turtle can be added to the mix, opening in time to take advantage of the Mahomes and MaAuto era. It has a massive billiards room that gets rowdy during Chiefs games. It got supercharged when former Chiefs kicker Nick Lowery, a three-time Pro Bowler in the eighties who was inducted to the team’s ring of honor, stopped by to watch a few games
“He lives out here now, in Scottsdale, and came by a few times and said ‘this place is great’ and started telling his friends,” Kelly says. “He pops in every once in a while, and that really helped it grow.”