GETTING TO GNAW YOU

There's a branch of the Men's Movement that urges men to get in touch with their primal, hunter-warrior selves. This group likes to go off for weekends in the woods, where they pound drums, dance naked and generally unleash repressed testosterone. But I know an easier way to get that same manly jolt, without risking mosquito bites or behind-the-back comments about my lack of rhythm. It's from barbecue. Hefting the ribs in my paws and ripping the meat off the bone without the aid of cutlery immediately starts the decivilizing process. So does the enormous mess that the barbecue sauce creates on my shirt, hands and face. The wood-smoked flavor also summons up memories of premicrowave society, when meat was cooked over an open fire. And by the end of the meal, I'm surrounded by the symbols of male strength and virility: a huge pile of gnawed-to-the-bone ribs, scraped-clean Styrofoam containers of beans, coleslaw and potato salad, and an empty cup of Diet Coke. Tom's BBQ was my first stop on the journey to reawaken the primitive within. No matter where you live in the Valley, the journey will be short. That's because since he moved here from Chicago in 1988, Tom has opened up more than a dozen outlets. The branch at 32nd Street and Shea is nothing fancy. The building has housed a succession of failed fast-food operations, and I suspect not even Frank Lloyd Wright could give it character. Some framed photos of the home-album variety brighten the walls. There's a patio outside, for folks who enjoy watching streams of traffic funneling toward the Squaw Peak Parkway. The most interesting visual cue is the pile of mesquite wood behind the counter, which fuels the smoker.

The small menu is basic barbecue, and the offerings follow a disturbing pattern I've run into at most Valley barbecue joints: The ribs aren't the best item on it. The pork ribs have two shortcomings. Though they're plenty big and meaty, they lack the fall-off-the-bone tenderness of the best models. I also prefer my ribs to sport a charred, crispy edge, which these critters don't. Fans of beef ribs will also be disappointed--Tom's doesn't offer them. The rib tips don't conjure up the days of swine and roses, either. That's because the gristle-to-meat ratio seemed a bit out of whack. In short, I think Tom's might look for some better-quality pork. If you're determined to gnaw on something with a bone in it, the chicken is the best option. No scrawny birds here, and they have an appealing moistness. On the other hand, the place puts together some of the best barbecue sandwiches I've had the privilege to shorten my life with. The beef brisket is the hands-down winner, and it comes only in sandwich form. The meat is perfect: charred, smoky, beefy and juicy. Close behind are the wonderful hot links, sizzled to a crunch and boosted with a spicy hot punch. Shredded pork is also outstanding, soft enough to gum.

And he-men will happily note that there's no skimping on portion control--the large sandwich is large. Smaller sizes are available for daintier appetites.

I almost always prefer hot to mild barbecue sauce, but I make an exception for this Chicago-style version. The mild sauce is sweet with a compensating tang. The hot sauce, though, isn't very hot--it's more smoke than fire. The side dishes taste a lot fresher than I've come to expect. In particular, the potato salad is worthy enough to come along on a picnic. The sweet-smoky beans also tempted me enough to put down my beef-brisket sandwich occasionally. Don't bother with the single dessert, however, an undistinguished peach cobbler.

Tom's is good. Some first-class ribs would make it even better. Grumpy John's Bar-B-Q, 1811 North Scottsdale Road, Tempe, 946-8892. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

Grumpy John's doesn't look like your basic, down-home rib joint. On the other hand, Scottsdale Road is hardly your basic, down-home thoroughfare. The place is spiffy, with bright red walls fussily decorated with Western gear, old ads and license plates from all over the country. You go through a fast-food/cafeteria-style line that snakes customers up to the counter. A neat, well-stocked condiment section alongside offers pickles, hot sauces, peppers, onions and packages of horseradish sauce. Grumpy John's has one of the most extensive barbecue menus in town. I wish I liked more of it. The ribs, of course, should be the star at any rib joint. The baby backs here don't have star quality, however. Although they're nicely charred, they're way too scrawny. It doesn't take long to find yourself gnawing on bone. The problem with the house-smoked meats is an odd one I've never encountered: Most of them are so lean that they're bone dry. The hamburger buns they come in seem juicy by comparison. The beef brisket, sliced pork and smoked pastrami have all been sitting presliced in a refrigerated metal container, hardly a moisturizing kitchen technique. And they seem to have been trimmed of every speck of fat. Lite barbecue is not a concept that's likely to spark a trend. If I'm going to eat this sort of stuff, I want to hear my arteries hardening as I swallow. The poultry in the barbecued-chicken sandwich suffers from the same shortcoming. It's also kept in a metal container, shreds of chicken drained of all juices. Sure, you can slather on barbecue sauce to moisten the fare, but it's too little, too late.

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