Barbecue Pith

Billy Joe's doesn't look much like a down-home rib shack. That's because it's a recently converted sports bar, with booths, tables and bar seating, lots of televisions, industrial carpeting, fake greenery, pool tables and pinball machines. The place is clean and tidy, but almost devoid of barbecue atmosphere.

Nevertheless, don't let the lack of ambiance deceive you. Billy Joe may not know much about interior design, but he sure knows something about pork.

That's quickly evident once you rip into the hickory-smoked baby back ribs. These aren't the meatiest ribs you've ever had, and what meat they do have isn't the tenderest. But the kitchen cooks them up perfectly, with a delightful crispy char. And they also get a boost from a glazing of sweet and pungent barbecue sauce.

The St. Louis ribs are just as deftly prepared. But though these bones are meatier than the baby backs, the meat itself isn't in the same class. If you're here to gnaw, gnaw the baby backs.

Billy Joe also knows his way around pulled pork. Simmered in barbecue sauce, the meat kicks in with fragrant subtlety. I could eat this by the pound, and I did. The smoked beef brisket, though not quite as alluring, still has definite charms, if you can overlook some of the untrimmed fat.

There's a noticeable quality drop-off, however, when you get to the other barbecue items. Why anyone would prefer the fatty, lackluster, sliced pork shoulder to either the pork ribs or pulled pork is a mystery I couldn't solve. The beef ribs are monstrous, but heft is pretty much all they have going for them. They certainly can't compete with the hog bones. And the smoked ham isn't smoky enough, tender enough or, frankly, tasty enough.

Several sides help get the meal back on track. The beans, pepped up with bacon, are thick, rich and addicting. Hot, crisp, thick-cut fries, thin-sliced sweet potato fries and red beans and rice deliver total satisfaction. Coleslaw, potato salad and breaded okra pellets don't.

And in the unlikely event you're still hungry after your ribs, pulled pork, beans and fried potatoes, go back and fill your appetite cracks with more of the same. The dessert alternative--peach cobbler and bread pudding--isn't much of an option.

An ode to Billy Joe's? No--it's good, but not great. But I don't mind singing its praises.

The Rib Shack, 7919 East Thomas, Scottsdale, 480-947-6440. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

The Rib Shack used to be part of the Tom's BBQ empire. But last November, the owner decided to go it alone. "I wanted to do my own thing," he told me.

He does his own thing in a neat, well-kept storefront, with gleaming red vinyl booths adorned with celebrity photos, red-checked tablecloths and light jazz piped in over the music system.

They say good things come in threes. That's how it works at The Rib Shack, where you'll want to focus on a trio of impressive menu items.

The pulled pork takes top honors, with its beguiling aroma and layers of flavor. I especially liked it in sandwich form, where a half-pound comes piled on a bed of crunchy coleslaw. The $4.49 price is right, too.

I'm also impressed with the smoked turkey. Too often, rib-house poultry arrives dry as dust, with all the juices sucked out of it. But this moist, delicately flavored bird doesn't lose anything in the smoking process.

And if you prefer more in-your-face flavor intensity, check out the smoked, honey-cured ham. Smoky, salty and pungent, it will give carnivores a thrill.

Unfortunately, the rest of the menu won't. There's nothing memorable about the mesquite-smoked ribs, except the chewy meat. I don't mind using my jaws, but these bones required too much work.

The two beef items don't do much for me, either. Both the thin-sliced beef shoulder and thick-sliced brisket have appealingly beefy flavor. But both cuts are way too gristly and fatty. Too much meat was simply inedible.

I don't know why the smoked chicken couldn't be in the same class as the smoked turkey. But it's not. I also couldn't work up any enthusiasm over the bland chopped-chicken sandwich.

The sides are diverting enough, although not quite enough to bowl you over. The beans strike a nice balance between sweet and chile accents. The potato salad and coleslaw taste like they were just made up fresh. The red beans and rice, however, could have used a little more oomph.

A note on the barbecue sauces: The mild version isn't very complex, but it does provide a modest flavor boost. But keep away from the hot habanero chile sauce. No, it's not the heat--it's the disagreeable bitterness. This sauce was so unpleasant that I have to believe somebody left something out of the recipe in the batch I got.

It's not easy getting into hog heaven. To get there, The Rib Shack will have to rely less on faith and more on good works.

Billy and Clyde's:
Rib tips dinner
Pulled pork
(one pound)

Billy Joe's Bar-B-Que:
Pulled pork
(one pound)
Baby back ribs (Full slab)

The Rib Shack:
BBQ turkey sandwich (large)
Smoked ham (one pound)


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