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.

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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