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Southern comfort: The Hot Mess excels at South Carolina-style barbecue, sides

A shrimp and grits entree is one of the South Carolina specialties served at the Hot Mess. (Richard S Dargan/For the Journal)

Once dominated by chains, Albuquerque’s barbecue scene has witnessed the arrival of several homegrown operations in recent years.

Nexus Blue Smokehouse, a spinoff of the brewery along the Interstate 25 corridor, opened on Broadway SE last year. SA BBQ, with its sandwiches and smothered baked potatoes, now operates out of two shipping container developments: Green Jeans Farmery and Tin Can Alley.

The Hot Mess, at Lomas and Nakomis NE, near Tramway, is the latest addition to the mix.

South Carolina natives Larry M. Jenkins and Alzander Zanwé Staley Sr. launched the place in June and brought on Staley’s son, Alzander II, to help run things. All three were on hand on a recent weekday evening, filling orders and periodically heading outside to tend to the massive smoker, which, with its long metal barrel and towering smokestack, resembles a small submarine.

The Hot Mess occupies one end of a long-neglected strip mall behind a stand of idle gas pumps left behind by the convenience store that used to be there. The owners have spruced up their corner of the place, slapping white paint over the brick façade and dressing up the marquee over the entrance with a bright sign over a silvery metal backdrop. The interior, with its tile floor and drop ceiling, feels spacious, especially with COVID-19 restrictions limiting the number of tables.

South Carolina is purportedly the birthplace of barbecue, and Jenkins and the Staley Sr. have brought some of those traditions to their new place in the form of peppery spice rubs, low and slow cooking and vinegary tomato-based sauces.

The compact menu leads off with a few salads and appetizers such as smoked chicken wings ($7.99 for six) and fried chicken gizzards ($8.99).

Meats are available in half-pound and pound servings and on sandwi

Fruits of the Hot Mess’ smoker: Pulled Pork, bottom, and Beef Brisket.

ches. At $5.99 for a half-pound of pulled pork and $7.99 for a similar portion of brisket, prices are a bit lower than those at longtime East Side barbecue joints Mr. Powdrell’s and County Line.

The Bernie Jean Meat Sampler ($18.99) provides a good introduction to the place. For the takeout version, you get pulled pork, smoked brisket and a half-rack of ribs wrapped individually in foil.

The pulled pork and brisket were both outstanding, smoky and fall-apart tender, with a crisp bark on the outside that concentrates the flavors of the rub. They’re so good you don’t need sauce, but you’ll want to add some of the Hot Mess’ versions, available in regular and hot. Both are thick and moderately sweet with some tang from the vinegar. The hot version gives off a pleasant burn. With the leftover sauce and meat, you can make an epic sandwich the next day.

The Hot Mess’ ribs blend smoky meat with tangy, sweet barbecue sauce. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The half-rack of baby back ribs ($11.99) successfully matched smoked meat with tangy, sweet sauce.

Three dishes make up the South Carolina-style entrées on the menu: catfish, fried chicken and shrimp and grits.


Southern fried chicken, made to order, at the Hot Mess. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The fried chicken is available in a two-piece dark meat for $5 or a two-piece mix for $6. The thigh and leg I had were moist, with a thick, crisp coating that had the granular texture of breadcrumbs. Unfortunately, the skin was still a bit rubbery.

Served in a shallow aluminum pan, Southern shrimp and grits ($11.99) is a colorful presentation, the shiny pink tails of the shrimp poking through a layer of cheese topped with green onions. The creamy, salty grits, insinuated with crispy bacon shards, were exceptional. Only the overcooked shrimp prevented the dish from being a home run.

At $3 for a half-pint, the sides represent a good value. The potato salad had a good balance of dressing and starch, and the coleslaw veggies were fresh and crisp. The noodles in the baked macaroni and cheese are cooked well past al dente, giving it a casserole-like texture. The collard greens were tender and fiery, easily the spiciest thing I tried on the menu.

The Hot Mess has three desserts: pecan pie, peach cobbler and apple pie. The pecan pie ($4) was well done, with a substantial layer of gooey, translucent custard to cut the dryness of the pecans.

I ordered at the counter, and the food came out in about 15 minutes. The fried chicken will add to your wait time, because they make it to order.

The operators of the Hot Mess plan to open a takeout-only spot on Wyoming near Kirtland Air Force Base. Until then, head east on Lomas until you see a hulking smoker. The fruits of it – particularly the brisket and pulled pork – make the trip worthwhile.

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