Spit Happens

Joe's Real Barbecue, Arizona Barbecue Cafe & Market, 301 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert, 480-503-3805. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Barbecue is a boy thing, my companion wants me to know. After all, it involves great slabs of meat, bone-in or torn in great handfuls from a still-steaming carcass. And there's fire, he bleats: that hot, smoky, lusting beast that no mere woman can tame. Best of all, there's sauce. Messy, fire-engine red, a real man's concoction that kisses sweetly, then jumps up and bites you savagely in the butt.

Well, grunt, I reply. More power to you, if you want to spend hours burning dinner in the backyard. While I may not agree with my friend's gender-based appropriation of an entire cuisine, I know that time spent arguing with him is time lost eating. Let him have his dreams; I'm going to Joe's to feast on fine barbecue cooked by experts.

Jeremy Vasquez of Joe's Real Barbecue knows how to fire up a grill.
Lokey
Jeremy Vasquez of Joe's Real Barbecue knows how to fire up a grill.

With his Walter Mitty-inspired chef persona, my dining buddy wouldn't last long working at Joe's Real Barbecue in downtown Gilbert. This is quiet 'cue, civilized 'cue, prepared and served by cheerful folks in little white paper hats. Presentation is polite, with hand-carved slabs of top quality meats carefully trimmed of all fat. There are no raging fires here, but streamlined ovens with under-chambers of Arizona-grown pecan wood. The sauce offers a timid peck on the cheek, slinks in with a furtive smack on the hiney, then runs away.

This 'cue takes no prisoners, but it succeeds oh so well by just asking nicely.

Housed in a historic 1929 building on Gilbert's main strip, Joe's is fashioned after a 1940s-style barbecue joint. A retro John Deere tractor takes center stage, supported by a clever built-in ice cream shop and murals of Gilbert's early farming heritage. Display shelves are stocked with cherished nostalgia treats like Gold Rush bubblegum, candy dots on paper, sugar lips, Boston baked bean candy and jawbreakers. I want them all.

Twangy fiddle music plays in the background. It's cute at first, then turns maddening. Suddenly I have new sympathy for my beloved grandma, who once suffered a cross-country trip packed in a car with her six young daughters playing dueling banjos with their mouths. My companion is eyeing the toy gun display next to the ice cream parlor, and I can see the thought bubble above his head: "If I use jawbreakers as ammo, I bet I could take out all the speakers."

Were the weather a little warmer, we would have escaped to the picnic tables in the restful little park outside. Another option is takeout, served individually or "in quantity" from a window along the sidewalk.

Fortunately, the rest of the concept works better than the noise. The format is cafeteria. The magic is in the meat.

With "real" barbecue, the trick is in keeping the heat away from the beef, pork, fish, chicken, vegetables or what have you. At Joe's, the wood fire is kept in a chamber separate from the meat. This indirect heat gently cooks for as long as 12 hours to seal in juices, while the swirling smoke imparts a sweet, mild flavor to its intended. With no harsh heat to sear and no lid lifting/meat turning required, the meat stays moist.

Joe's uses pecan hardwood, harvested from our own Grand Canyon State. A preferred wood among many professional chefs, pecan infuses a medium fruity taste that is much richer and smoother than such harsh woods as hickory. Thanks, Joe, from those of us who like to taste the food more than the lumber.

Ordering is easy. Grab a tray and fix your beverage. Mosey up to the sparkling clean service line and look over the offerings. Joe's menu reads like a Weight Watchers exchange plan: select one bread, one, two or three meats, one or two sides. Dress up your dinner at the condiment bar of chopped onions and peppers. Snag some thankfully huge napkins and a clutch of moist towelettes, and you're in business. Don't worry about cleaning up -- this is a classy joint that buses the tables.

It's a good thing Joe's opts for slow smoking, because with the fastidious fat trimming, the meat could easily suffer a dry death. As it is, the best of the bunch does sport some succulent marbling. Aptly, it's those barbecue potentates, pork spareribs (half slab $9.95/full slab $15.95/three ribs with any meal $3.50). Crisp-edged and glorious, these hefty morsels surrender to the fork in the blissful joy of achieving their very piggy best.

My companion and I are at odds over the jumbo beef brisket sandwich (all jumbo sandwiches $5.95). Thick-sliced, it tastes dry to me, but he insists that brisket should never be served otherwise. My preference is for pulled meat -- I think it helps tenderize the thick chest muscle meat, and the stringy result embraces more sauce. Joe's accommodates me with a fine chopped beef option and giddily good pulled pork on lightly toasted, buttered soft rolls.

The ovens are kind to poultry, as well, with care taken to pluck the birds from their smoky coffins at just the peak of doneness. Chicken breast comes chopped in large tender chunks, while pink-tinged turkey breast is sliced in generous Thanksgiving fashion. Of the two, turkey is my favorite, its edges licked with pepper, its interior ever so slightly smoky.

I feel a touch greedy ordering a three-meat plate ($9.95) for lunch, but on arrival, the quantities are hardly daunting. A few slices of turkey, a smallish turkey-jalapeño sausage and a fistful of pulled pork make for refined dining. The sausage, custom crafted for Joe's by local purveyors, stands out for its intelligent peppering -- just spicy enough to hold interest without inflicting oral harm.

More pigs give their lives for the pit ham, and I salute their sacrifice (one-meat plate, $6.95). These must have been happy porkers to produce such firm and slightly sweet flesh. It's a perfect foil to the slightly mushy, nondescript dinner roll alongside, but what happened to the fantastic caraway and Cheddar bread I receive one time? This crusty masterpiece should be required eating with all entrees.

Sides are uniformly outstanding, with two "don't miss" best sellers, cheesy potatoes and BBQ pit beans. Bathed in a silky sharp Cheddar sauce sprinkled with green onion, the baked Idaho chunks cause a fork war with my dining buddy. He is more generous with my beans, and for this he is allowed to remain at the table. I spoon up every bit of this killer combination uniting kidney, lima and navy beans thick with shards of sausage, chicken and beef.

Potato salad is addicting, with skin-on red potatoes prettily dotted with chopped red pepper, fresh dill and pickle Chiclets in a light mayo-paprika glaze. This same light touch with condiments creates blissfully clean-tasting coleslaw, crunchy with fresh purple and green cabbage and carrots.

My veggie-hating friend even appreciates the fresh sweet corn with butter and the inspired applesauce, thick with chunks of apple in an alarming neon pink hue. A limited special offering of roasted sweet potatoes topped with crunchy brown sugar deserves a permanent position.

Careful readers will have noticed that I have not yet addressed that which makes barbecue an individual personality -- the sauce. That's because Joe's sauce merely gilds an already golden lily. Touted as "a fusion of ideas about Arizona flavors," the mixture reads like fine wine: mildly sweet, slightly tangy, with fruity undertones and just a hint of pepper. It's good stuff, but not the devil's brew that my companion speaks of in his macho rantings.

Even the habanero-spiked version is not scary "I Dare Ya" as promoted, but it does have the clean, hot kick of the world's hottest chiles. Thin and smooth like traditional Spanish hot sauce, it's my choice to punch up the meals.

Rather than criticism, my analysis is meant to show that sauce -- any sauce -- must simply be a complement to an already firm foundation. There are plenty of barbecue joints that gleefully mask low-quality meats and inferior cooking processes with ladles of complicated goo.

Such is the high quality of Joe's basic ingredients, in fact, that the kitchen wisely offers just a light glazing of sauce. You'll probably want to add more, and it's available from heated urns at the end of the line. Turn up the heat, please -- by the time we completed our short walk to the tables, the small paper cups had cooled. Note: If you're getting takeout, be sure to ask for habanero sauce -- only the regular sauce is included.

Lighter appetites (not us!) will appreciate the chopped salad ($4.95) with BBQ ranch dressing and bread (add chopped meat, $6.95). But why waste the calories when you can have a jumbo baker (loaded, $3.95/with meat, $5.95)? Weighing in at a full pound, these Idaho-born babies serve up the firmness that only honest baking can impart. Nestled on a bed of coarse salt to stay warm, the spuds are served to plate with toppings of shredded Cheddar, chives, sour cream and real butter. I lick my lips as the crisp skin cracks open to reveal steamy potato flesh and its perfect nutlike aroma.

With all the sweet flavor of pecan wood and barbecue sauce, dessert may seem like overkill. It is. Chocolate chip cookies (95 cents) and lemon cake ($1.50) are sleepy, but apple crisp ($2.50) is downright abusive. The disappointingly cold innards are good fresh fruit, but the crispy topping is anything but. Chalky and dry, it leaves a bad taste that only Joe's bargain 25-cent cup of coffee can chase away. Opt instead for a homemade ice cream sundae or banana split. My companion coos happily over his choice: an ice cream float, starring Joe's homemade root beer (yes, you can taste the difference).

Or, go my route and finish off with a luscious Stewart's Classic Orange 'n' Cream soda pop. Pulled from an ice tub packed with bottles of Fresca, Limeade and non-alcoholic beers, the magical nectar is a Creamsicle in liquid form.

While Joe's Real Barbecue won't register a Richter on your tongue's spice-o-meter, it will charm you with its dignified approach to delicious, down-home cooking. And as for my companion, I think it's about time he took a 'cue from the professionals.

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