BONE APPETIT

Fortunately, Bill Johnson's food is more reliable than his history.
The green chile appetizer, breaded and fried, is slathered with an appealing layer of cream cheese. If you listen closely, you can hear your arteries hardening, but who said frontier eating would be easy?

Meals here come with soup or salad, each of which falls significantly short of perfection. The vegetable-beef soup comes well-stocked, but it's way too salty. The salad gets done in by the house "cinnamon French" dressing. The line between culinary inspiration and insanity is often blurred, but cinnamon French dressing clearly oversteps it.

The main dishes offer a more convincing case about how the West was won.
The pork ribs are outstanding, extremely tender and lean. The beef ribs are even better, with big gobs of juicy meat dripping from the bone. We happened to hit a night with an all-you-can-eat beef-rib special for $8.95, and I suspect we put a serious dent in the daily profits.

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Bill Johnson's Big Apple

16810 N. 19th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85023

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: North Phoenix

But the barbecue sauce--Bill Johnson's own brand--is disappointing. It's sweet and bland, devoid of zing.

But this place does more than ribs right. The sandwich of brisket, pork, ham and smoked turkey is a bargain winner at $4.75. So is the moist barbecue chicken. The leathery steak sandwich on white toast, however, should have taken an Apache arrow at the kitchen door.

Don't shy away from the side orders, either. The sweet cowboy beans smack more of the church potluck than the chuck wagon, but they're tasty. So are the mashed potatoes and hot, thick fries.

Solid fare and reasonable prices are not flashy restaurant concepts. They'll never substitute for trendy or innovative. But they will attract customers, even after 37 years.

El Paso Barbecue Company, 4303 West Peoria Avenue, Glendale, 931-2438. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

There's no mistaking the object of worship at El Paso. Open up the front door and walk past a templelike row of wooden columns. Beyond them, in the center of the dining area, housed in a wooden chapel, stands the shrine. It's the restaurant's big, black smoker.

Above the chapel entrance are displayed the symbols of this barbecue cult: a steer skull flanked by the flags of Arizona and Texas. A wooden cowboy stands silent sentinel alongside.

El Paso's dining room is a woodsy, airy place, decked out with representative samples of the John Wayne school of art: bronco busters, covered wagons, Indians. Peppy, perky staffers lead you to an oilcloth-draped table, thoughtfully furnished with an entire roll of paper towels.

The place is absolutely packed with diners, who are themselves incredibly well-packed: almost everyone here looks like a "before" picture from the Jenny Craig clinic.

Unfortunately, the food doesn't live up to the decor. Launched by the Furr's cafeteria folks out of Texas, El Paso Barbecue Company features unmemorable, characterless, corporate barbecue. It's not bad, just monumentally uninteresting.

St. Louis-style pork ribs, from the meatier front end, are tender enough, but nothing to squeal about. Beef ribs--El Paso calls them a specialty--don't justify an hour's wait to get at them. Pulled pork, lean shreds of smoked pork, is on the dry side. So is smoked chicken. Even a squirt of barbecue sauce (there are four kinds, in plastic squeeze bottles) doesn't do much good.

The barbecue end cuts don't even fall in the serviceable range. These chunks of brisket have a heavy, institutional look--they're all the same size and shape, with cafeteria-style flavor.

Strangely enough, the side dishes have much more zip than the meats. Potato salad and coleslaw taste like someone made them from scratch. The French fries come out sizzlingly hot and crispy. And the nifty cowboy beans have a beguiling sweet and tart touch.

Our fresh-scrubbed server--every staffer here looks like an Up With People understudy--sang the praises of the Grand Canyon mud pie dessert so effectively we felt compelled to try it.

But dreadfully sweet chocolate sauce over inferior ice cream in an Oreo crust is not what I want lingering on my lips at the end of the day.

El Paso Barbecue Company provides white-bread Americans with mild, unthreatening fare in a wholesome family environment. It'll make a fortune. Buy stock. Eat elsewhere.

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