The menu at No Sauce AZ Smokehouse is based on favorites from the Auburn Gresham neighborhood: pork tips, turkey tips, ribs, chicken wings, and pulled pork. Unless you ask for sauce, you don’t need it.
In 2013, No Sauce founder Albert Johnson made some chicken with no sauce—his signature—for a nightclub gig, and a patron argued with him about the preparation.
“He said, ‘Where’s the sauce? Where’s the sauce?’ Like he was offended. And I said, ‘you don’t need no sauce.’ Well, he got a drink, grabbed some chicken, ate it quickly, and he said it was the best chicken he ever had. He said, ‘your name is no sauce now.’”
The name stuck. No Sauce officially launched in Arizona in 2018 as a pickup truck and a tent. Johnson frequented farmer’s markets, setting up his small outdoor kitchen.
“This was my first time actually going out and selling food,” Johnson said. “I thought ‘farmer’s markets have vegetables—they aren’t going to be interested in my food. This is not going to work.’ Well, we sold out that first day. That really put a fire under my foot.”
Though he had been barbecuing since he was a kid, messing around with his Weber Grills, Johnson never imagined this would be his job. “When I first started cooking, it was because of the love of barbecue, and the passion of talking to people working their smokers, and to see people eat and smile,” he said.
From then on, No Sauce was being booked across Phoenix. Johnson learned some tricks of the trade along the way from fellow smokers, many who had nothing in common with him beyond the love of BBQ.
“In the barbecue world, food is a connection to peace. Doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe, almost everyone likes barbecue.”
Two years into starting No Sauce, he won second place at a citywide festival in Yuma, Arizona. Attendees booed the decision, proclaiming No Sauce as the winner.
“Tears just started coming from everywhere. I was proud of myself. It felt crazy.”
He bought a food truck with the hope of more flexibility and greater gains. It was a successful year, but then a personal separation motivated him to move back to his hometown of Chicago. A few months later, he was getting a haircut just doors down from No Sauce’s current 79th Street location, and saw the building storefront was available. “It seemed meant to be.”
No Sauce finally had a permanent home. Describing the new venture as being “scared to death,” Johnson quelled his fears by remembering the success in Arizona and the confidence he brought to his cooking.
Quality control is everything for him; he comes in at 6am to start smoking.
“If you have a good portion of meat that has been smoked properly, then you’re in heaven. Smoking that meat to perfection, it does something to me mentally. It really came from my experiences in life. The smoker makes me happy. I don’t consider it work. If you have a good product, people are gonna buy it—and I have a great product.”
Johnson still makes his food truck an active part of his business. Each Friday, he takes the truck to a local car show, brings a manageable amount of food and always sells out. Then, he closes up and enjoys the car show. For right now, the truck is a side project, but he could see it growing.
All the No Sauce recipes currently exist only in Johnson’s head. Eventually, he will pass on his knowledge so he can expand. But for now, he’s just showing what he can do, one day at a time. His cooking credo is to keep the food fresh and stick to what you know.
“It’s been a hard road, but I never felt defeated,” he said. “It took a lot to get to where I am and feel good about what I do. I know they say Texas has the best barbecue, but I have the best barbecue.” (Nicole NeSmith)
No Sauce AZ Smokehouse 2055 W. 79th St. Wednesday-Saturday 11am-8pm, Sunday 12–6pm. (773) 891-4684. nosaucebbqaz.com