Bone Voyage

Thee Pitt's "Again," 14620 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 996-PITT (7488). Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

For some men, it's the flowery whiff of Chanel No. 5. For others, it's the macho scent of a new car. But the aroma that most effectively gets my heart racing is the smoky smell of barbecued ribs. If medical personnel ever have to determine whether I've passed from this world, they don't need to bother searching for a pulse or checking my blood pressure. Just wave a rib under my nose. If I don't respond, don't mourn. I'll be on my way to the Great Barbecue Shack in the Sky.

How do I know? Because deep down, I expect Heaven to fulfill all my earthly longings. The boss will be there (probably just visiting), showering me with raises and telling me that no amount of money could do my work justice. My wife will arrive joyfully primed to watch Monday Night Football. My car mechanic will be there, repeating over and over, "She's running great, just needs an oil change." And we'll all be nourished by an endless supply of divinely smoked pork ribs, untroubled by mortal cares about cholesterol, carcinogens and flossing.

But even the prospect of eternal happiness can't completely take my mind off the flesh-and-blood present, particularly when I'm craving some good barbecue in this world. So I went out looking to find a corner of hog heaven in Phoenix.

The "Again" in Thee Pitt's "Again" refers to when the proprietors once operated a barbecue place in town, more than ten years ago. Then they left for the Midwest, where they accumulated a stack of trophies from contests in Illinois, Iowa, Arkansas and Oklahoma attesting to their barbecue prowess.

Now they've just come back and taken over a strip-mall storefront that's housed two failed rib places in the last three years. Obviously, these folks don't believe location is everything. And after sampling their fare, neither do I. It's easy to see how barbecue fans in north central Phoenix could make this their neighborhood rib house.

One striking element is the spic-and-span interior. The place is so tidy I almost held that against it. After all, exceptional pork parlors more often than not seem to sport a certain down-home, lived-in look. Here, though, there's a dining area with comfortable booths and tables, decorated with jars of artificial flowers and green banker's lamps. There's also a spiffy, five-seat counter by the "Order Here" window, for patrons who prefer to bypass waitress service.

I started feeling good vibes right after the combo appetizer arrived. Cauliflower, mushrooms, zucchini and onions are battered and fried to order. I'm so used to inedible battered veggies poured out of 25-pound frozen sacks that I had practically forgotten how wonderful they could taste when they're freshly made. These are good.

But a rib house makes a name for itself from pork ribs, not veggies. Happily, the ones here are scrumptious. Some of the praise goes to the supplier, which furnishes meaty, tender bones without a trace of fat. The rest of the praise goes to the cook, who infuses the meat with a heady, smoky flavor, which is deftly complemented by a slightly sweet barbecue sauce. I could eat these ribs by the bucketful.

If for some strange reason you elect to skip the ribs, there are two other winning alternatives. The pulled pork sandwich is first-rate, chunks of meaty shoulder served not on mushy white bread, but on a kaiser roll. I'm also a fan of the barbecued chicken, a moist, juicy, sizzling bird.

Less impressive are the beef ribs. These weren't the huge mastodon bones I expected. Instead, the kitchen here uses short ribs, which require an awful lot of jaw and tooth work to extract the meat. Unless you get visceral delight from ripping with your incisors through bone, beef and gristle, stick to the pork ribs.

A word about the sides. It's obvious the proprietors treat them as more than afterthoughts. Beer-battered fries are hot and crisp, the homemade potato salad is thick and crunchy with green pepper and celery, the sweet corn bread is gilded with honey butter. The beans, though, could use a touch of smoky sausage to perk them up.

Thee Pitt's "Again" is clean, friendly, attentive to details and rib-smart. I'd bet it's going to last a good deal longer than its two predecessors.

Mr. Q's BBQ and Pit Stop, 2402 West Glendale Avenue, Phoenix, 995-5200. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

If Hollywood set designers ever have to come up with a low-rent-looking barbecue parlor, they could confidently use Mr. Q's BBQ and Pit Stop as a model. Scenically situated at the majestic crossroads of I-17 and Glendale Avenue, this converted hamburger stand doesn't seem to have wasted any precious capital on restaurant consultants or interior designers.

Seating is outdoors, at well-worn picnic tables and benches by the parking lot. From that spot, customers can admire the stop-and-go traffic or enjoy the fumes from the nearby smoker, belching out the fragrances of smoked meat. Patrons do their ordering at a walk-up window, manned by the friendly owner of the enterprise and, during a couple of late-summer-afternoon visits, a considerable number of flies.

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