HOG HEAVEN

Mr. T's Bar-B-Q, 1539 East Buckeye, Phoenix, 256-9322. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Growing up Jewish in a kosher home, I never saw pork, except for Sunday nights at the Chinese restaurant.

After college I moved away, spending five years teaching in Muslim countries, where pork is also verboten. My students, with typical adolescent cross-cultural sensitivity, liked to ask me, "Mister, Americans eat pig?" I'd nod yes. Then they'd grab their throats, make a few gurgling noises and collapse to the floor in mock horror. I first started serious porking in Oakland in the 1970s, when I discovered Flint's BBQ. Somewhat brusque in their service (What you having, white boy?") before they got to know me, and wielding knives that could fell a redwood, Flint's staff members hacked up and served outrageously glorious slabs of pork ribs. Making up for years of lost time, I ate them so often friends could whiff my barbecue emanations before actually catching sight of me. Since then no barbecue hut has been able to match Flint's heavenly hogs in my mind. Maybe, like a first kiss, the novelty intensified the effect.

But a new rib palace, Mr. T's Bar-B-Q, is reviving a lot of memories.
Housed in a defunct Kentucky Fried Chicken building out by the airport, this is the cleanest barbecue place I've seen in a while: spotless tables, a gleaming floor and a rest room that looked positively antiseptic.

And it cooks up outstanding ribs.
Great ribs, to my mind, must meet four exacting criteria. Mr. T's covers them all.

First, the bone must be surrounded by enough meat to cushion a ten-foot fall. And huge, fatty globs don't count.

Next, you must be able to rip tender meat from the bone with the merest tug of your lips. The meat here was so accommodating, it seemed to leap from the bone into my mouth on its own steam.

Third, and this is an intensely personal demand, I like my ribs with a crispy edge: not burnt, but singed with flame. The crunchy exterior and soft interior at Mr. T's make a delightful combination.

Finally, ribs must come slathered, but not drenched, in a mouth-tingling barbecue sauce. Mr. T's hot sauce (there's a mild one for wimps) goes to work on the human body the same way alcohol does: You don't feel its effects for several minutes. Then, your mouth begins to pucker and peppery pellets seem to shoot off inside.

I tried to charm the proprietress into revealing the secret of the sauce, a thick blend surprisingly light on tomatoes. "Kind of Texaslike," I drawled companionably. She nodded. "Yup, we're from Texas." "Sure is good. What's in it?" Unfortunately, just as this brilliant thrust was about to bear fruit, she turned and dashed away to check on some ribs. Mr. T's offers other smoked meats besides ribs, although none is in quite the same class. The beef brisket is not thin-sliced, but kind of hunky. It has the same crisp edge I admire so much in the ribs. The barbecued chicken had plenty of meat, but lacked that inner bubbling juiciness that keeps this dish from tasting dry. The pork-link sandwich, though, is a real attention-getter, particularly if you ask for hot sauce on the sharp-tasting sausage. All dishes and sandwiches come with appropriately mushy white bread.

The side dishes here won't bowl you over, but they do more than just take up space. The beans pack a cayenne-pepper wallop, while the mayo-glazed potato salad offers a pleasing, sweet-pickle-relish taste.

Those intent on shortening their life spans an additional few weeks can finish up with warm, moist peach cobbler and first-rate sweet-potato pie. Take two, but don't call me in the morning.

Lovejoy's Kansas City Pit Bar-B-Que, 15414 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 993-7472. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

I headed north from Buckeye Road and Texas-style barbecue into Kansas City rib country with my friend Bob, a fellow pork-deprived Brooklyn rib junkie, in tow.

Lovejoy's sits in a typically unlovely-looking Phoenix minimall. I expected a grungy or funky barbecue shack. Instead, we were greeted with whitewashed walls, black-vinyl booths and expensively framed posters. But bridge chairs at the tables and a rickety ceiling fan threatening to reduce my height by several inches kept the place from appearing too high-toned. Unlike Mr. T's, where you order at the counter and find a seat, Lovejoy's has waitress service for diners. After the two of us ordered enough for five, our disbelieving waitress scanned the restaurant, perhaps trying to locate the rest of our bowling team. We started off with the variety plate, a platter that will not be sporting a healthy-heart logo anytime soon. It came with burnt ends, charred meaty tips that are as addicting as nicotine and a lot more fattening. Surprisingly good, too, was sliced smoked Polish sausage, which had some zing to it.

And to flesh out, as it were, the three long-end ribs that accompany the burnt ends and sausage, we ordered a half-rack from the meatier short end.

Lovejoy's ribs give vivid meaning to the phrase "eating high on the hog." They're so wonderfully meaty and tender, I could forgive the absence of a crisp edge. The barbecue sauce sparingly brushed on top is a thick, smoky concoction--like Mr. T's, not too heavy on the tomato. But even the hottest variety didn't furnish much of a tingle to my pepper-trained lips. On the other hand, the pleasing scent lingered on my hands for about 24 hours, temporarily boosting my standing with the cat.

Actually, I thought the best thing here was not the ribs, but the fabulous brisket, lots of thin-sliced, rich-flavored beef that comes open-faced on some thick Texas toast. And the barbecue pork sandwich, thick piles of smoky meat, finished a very close runner-up. But the chicken was a bit disappointing, although not because of any flavor lapse. It was a scrawny creature that simply didn't have enough meat on its bones.

If you're going to detour here among the side dishes, plan a stop at the beans. They're not particularly spicy, but they have a sweet molasses touch punched up by smoked sausage. And if you have any room left at all, make believe you never heard of the four food groups and American Heart Association nutritional guidelines, and get some homemade peach cobbler, a hot, mushy, sweet, doughy treat.

Real Texas Bar-B-Que, 2415 West Bethany Home, Phoenix, 249-9985. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

We headed back down to the Lone Star State to check out another shrine to swine, Real Texas Bar-B-Que.

No mistaking this joint's Texas pedigree: The walls sport a skull, antlers and enormous steer horns that wouldn't be out of place on the hood of a 57 Cadillac whose horn toots out "Dixie." It's also got the coldest air-conditioning west of the Red River.

Like Lovejoy's, Real Texas furnishes friendly and perky waitress service. Too bad it's friendlier and perkier than the food.

The pork ribs are nothing to squeal over, a serious drawback in a barbecue restaurant. They're not particularly meaty, tender or flavorful, hardly worth messing up your hands and face.

The sauce is also a letdown--a dark, vinegary mixture with no distinctive taste or bite. Might as well pour on ketchup or A.1. Sauce for all it adds to the ribs.

The sandwiches here are huge, but not terribly distinguished. The pork is best, mild, thin-sliced layers of meat on a hamburger bun that could hold a lumberjack until dinner. The beef brisket, though, seemed to have been sitting a while, its dry texture requiring a gulp of iced tea to send each bite stomachward.

The hot links with cheese tasted like they had just been retrieved from Davy Crockett's knapsack. The tough, stringy sausage resisted my manly attempts to reduce it to bite-size morsels. And the gloppy yellow cheese melted on top added neither taste nor visual appeal. Nothing we'd eaten to this point prepared us for the beef ribs. To my astonishment, they were wonderful, just the way I like them: hefty, juicy, meaty and crispy. I scraped off the sauce and gnawed them to the bone. A kitchen crew that could produce these ribs, I thought to myself, perhaps just wasn't trying hard enough on the other items.

A sampling of the side dishes bolstered this theory. The best of them, the beans, barely merit a passing grade. No seasonings or spice intruded to enliven their bland taste. And if General Santa Anna had been subjected to this Texas-style coleslaw and mashed potato salad, he might have ignored the Alamo altogether and marched his troops right back to Mexico.

Apart from the beef ribs, it's depressing to think the tastiest item here is dessert, but that's the case. Hot apple pie, with thick chunks of fruit drizzled with rum sauce and topped with ice cream, is a sweet success. But it's not what I came here to pork out on.

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