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No slight intended to that toddlin' town of Mesa, but few are the delectations that would motivate me to drive down to that burg in 110-degree-plus heat, with the monsoon on my tail. Exceptional barbecue is one, and exceptional barbecue Mesa now has with the opening of a Big City BBQ this past June in a shopping complex on Alma School Road, just off U.S. 60.
Many of you are certainly familiar with Big City's year-old Tempe location, ironically located next to the hippie heaven of Whole Foods Market on Rural Road. The Mesa eatery boasts the same stellar menu but in larger, nicer digs, with polished wooden tables, a gray-beige-cream color scheme, and a bar for its forthcoming liquor license. Pleasant ambiance is always a plus, but if Big City was serving chef Rasshad Brown's fare from a tin shack in the middle of B.F.E., I'd still have my stomach's radar set for a heaping, sauce-slathered pile of Brown's beef brisket, pulled pork, ribs or rib tips.
See, I've been burned on many occasions when it comes to barbecue in Greater Phoenix. One might think that an area once known far and wide for its cattle would have superior BBQ stands on every corner. Quite the opposite. Since moving here almost two years ago, I've rushed to try nearly every recommendation made to me when it comes to 'cue, and been disappointed each time. Makes you want to call in Bobby Flay for an intervention.
5118 S. Rural Road
Tempe, AZ 85282-7045
Tempe location: 480-756-5702. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
Mesa location: 480-844-1010. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.
Then a pal and Big City fan suggested the Mesa location. I assumed the worst, prepared myself to grin and bear it, and was nearly floored when the comestibles in question were worthy of repeat visits. Is there hope for the Valley vis-à-vis such BBQ-shellacked viands? There is as long as Brown and his business partners Len Wechsler and Richard Helman are in business.
Brown's sauce is a thick, mahogany-colored, Midwestern-style creation that comes in either original or hot. You can have it poured over the meats or on the side. I like to order the original for a topping, with some hot in a separate bowl so that I can mix it in as I please. The hot sauce alone on the meats so overwhelms the taste of the pig, cow or fowl flesh that you miss how superb most of the meat is on its own. Brown's team has spent so much time dry-rubbing the meats with spices, then smoking them for hours with pecan wood, that it's a sin not to be able to experience how juicy, soft and palatable they are in most cases.
The only offerings I did not enjoy were the turkey and the pulled chicken. The chicken was really dry and smoky, and the turkey was, well, turkey. Regular readers will know that turkey is my personal kryptonite, and I'm convinced that bird deserves to be the mascot of the antichrist. But Brown & Co. assure me that the turkey is one of their biggest sellers, so have at it if the gobbler doesn't make you gag. Brown's tomato-based sauces can make almost anything taste good, except perhaps poultry, where they seem to have met their match.
I preferred the brisket and the pulled pork, both of which were silky and savory. Pulled pork is a big deal in North Carolina, but there my brethren mix the swine strands with a vinegar-based sauce that's way different from Brown's prep and serving methods. Still, I appreciate that he has pulled pork on the menu at all. Nevertheless, the brisket edges out the pork just slightly on savoriness alone.
Brown's pork spareribs are also excellent. Partly charred, and with that sauce, those ribs are sure to cause more lip-smacking than a Polygrip shortage in an old-folks' home. I must confess, however, that I wished they had more fat on them. They seemed quite lean to me, and if they'd had even a thin layer of pork blubber, that would've made them the best ribs I've ever suckled. The rib tips, on the other hand, were plenty fatty -- gristle heaven, once again proving that the worse things are for your health, the more they massage your tongue's taste receptors.
Both the slices of smoked ham and the hot links were above average, though I didn't care for them as much as the tips, ribs, brisket or pulled pork. Proceed with caution when it comes to the hot links, because they will turn your oral cavity into a three-alarm blaze, especially should you have them dribbled over with Brown's hot sauce. You could practically light a cigar off the entree if Big City allowed smoking in the joint.
Side-wise, the fried okra was not nearly as scrumptious as I'd anticipated, and the mac 'n' cheese was gooey and ordinary, not cheesy enough. Maybe Big City doesn't have time to do a real baked mac 'n' cheese with Wisconsin Cheddar, considering that the setup is for speedy service. On the other hand, the rice and gravy was more than adequate, and the candied yams, black-eyed peas and mixed greens were as good as any you'll get Down South. Both the black-eyed peas and the mixed collard and mustard greens are stewed with a combination of bacon, ham hock, pork fat, red onions and apple cider vinegar, just like back home. Southern expats and those who love soul food are sure to be members of the "clean plate club" after finishing these sides.
The cornbread is okay, though I'd prefer it with a crisper crust, perhaps baked a bit longer. Desserts are hit or miss. My personal faves were the pecan pie and the sweet potato pie, the filling of the latter being so creamy you could almost pass it off as cheesecake. BC needs to do something about the peach cobbler, though. It's blah as is, not sweet enough, and the crust doesn't taste completely done. "Sugar biscuits" are hunks of fried dough rolled in cane sugar. I liked them, though not enough to choose them over the pies next time I go.
Because go again I will. The Mesa location does have a grill section that the Tempe location doesn't, but basically the draw is the same: the barbecue. With both outlets in operation, you could say Greater Phoenix is finally a "big city" for BBQ at long last.