GETTING TO GNAW YOU

Not surprisingly, the best barbecue here is one that didn't come out of a refrigerated container. It's the chopped pork, which sits in a hot chafing tray behind the counter. This stuff has a tasty oomph that doesn't need sauce or condiments to give it life. But if you're going to pour on the sauce, go for the Texas-style hot variety. It's got a sharp, vinegary bite. The mild sauce, in comparison, is bland enough to darken an employee cafeteria. Steer clear of the hot links, a waste of precious belly room. They've got no hot zip or smoky flavor. The links have been presliced into thin, unappetizing strips that make the texture seem wrong, too. Side dishes don't get past routine. The beans flash some heat, but they could use a smoky sausage pick-me-up. Coleslaw and potato salad are ho-hum. And how did the steam tray of mushy green beans sneak in here? Forget dessert, too. The microwave-heated apple pie has no redeeming features. Scottsdale Road could use a no-frills barbecue joint serving head-turning, tongue-tingling, crusty slabs of meaty baby backs and a variety of juicy smoked meats. Unfortunately, Grumpy John's is not that place. Uncle Ben's Bar-B-Que, 692 East Southern, Phoenix, 232-2367. Note: Because of damage from a recent storm, the restaurant is temporarily closed, but is still accepting catering and special orders.

If ever a place looked like it was headed for barbecue stardom, Uncle Ben's is it. First, location. Great rib joints rarely flourish in a high-rent district. Seventh Street and Southern is definitely not a high-rent district. Second, the look. The proprietors clearly haven't been throwing the profits at restaurant designers. The room, bare and neat, is principally adorned by a pay phone, a couple of trash bins and a television on the counter. Third, the friendly operators. They make you feel right at home. And finally, the portions. You'll need the appetite of a field hand to knock off some of the platters. Unfortunately, looks aren't everything. Uncle Ben's doesn't deliver on its promise. The pork ribs, for example, seemed perfect, meaty with a crispy edge. And they would have been, if the meat had been more tender. I needed all 32 teeth to work these bones. The beef ribs are so massive, you'd think they came from an elephant. And the price is certainly right, too, $6.50 for four. But again, you'll need some well-honed incisors to do them justice--these made for some tough chewing. Barbecued beef and pork, available in a white-bread sandwich or in a taco, also fall short of the mark. Part of the problem is preparation--the meats don't come in thin slices, which would have mitigated the chewiness of the cuts. Rather, they come in little cubes and chunks. But the real culprits are fat and gristle. Every mouthful seemed to contain too many jawbreaking pieces of meat. I found myself picking through the sandwich, testing individual morsels with a fork. This is not the way to enjoy a barbecue sandwich. The chicken sandwich is nothing special, either: two legs and a thigh between two slices of bread. And the "Phoenix-style" barbecue sauces--a tepid hot sauce, and slightly sweet mild one--don't provide much of a flavor boost. And except for fragrant red beans and rice, neither do the sides. Macaroni and potato salad are blah. The greens, I think, would have been right on target, except they sported enough salt to fell a moose. I want to root for storefront barbecues like Uncle Ben's. But until the quality improves, I'm going to remain a disinterested bystander.

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