Barbecue Pith

Billy and Clyde's, 5035 West McDowell (Crossroads Chevron), Phoenix, 602-272-5852. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Some day, after digging up a prehistoric site, trained archaeologists will scratch their heads, trying to make sense of what they unearthed.

They'll be going through a pile of woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tiger and mastodon ribs. The bones will show signs of human teeth marks. Nearby, they'll locate a mound of hickory-wood cinders, a Styrofoam cup half-filled with potato salad and a sign reading "Jurassic Pork."

Scholars believe that human civilization didn't begin until Homo sapiens learned to harness fire. They say fire enabled the cave dwellers to keep warm. Fire provided light. Fire let them turn clay into pottery and shape metal into weapons.

I have a different theory. I believe that when man first raised himself up on his hind legs, rubbed two sticks together and kept a fire going, he didn't care about warmth, illumination or tool-making. His first thought was to fling meaty animal bones onto the flames, fire them to a sizzle and then start gnawing. Quickly thereafter, other highly developed bipeds came up with the ideas for barbecue sauce, Texas toast and napkins. Civilization, as we know it, was under way.

How do I know this? Because that's how we're genetically programmed. Despite millions of years of evolutionary progress, our genes are still wired the way they were when we were hunter-gatherers. That's why modern man enjoys the same pleasures his earliest ancestors did: mating, making war and watching Dick Clark on New Year's Eve.

And that's why we still have an irresistible impulse to eat barbecue. The whole process awakens our most basic instincts: the aroma of smoked, charred meat; the toothy tearing into of meaty bones; and the smear of barbecue sauce on hands and face. So, driven by an urge I couldn't control, I went porking out at three barbecue parlors, getting in touch with my primitive self.

Everyone knows that food and gas often go together. But they're rarely so pleasantly teamed as they are at Billy and Clyde's. That's because Billy and Clyde dish out their Texas-style, hickory-smoked barbecue from a very unusual location: inside a Chevron Food Mart, a very busy west-side gas station just off I-10. Fill up at the pump, then fill up at the counter. Some of the fare is high-octane.

By far the best thing here is the pulled pork, available as a sandwich, as a dinner plate centerpiece or by the pound. The last route is the one I'd take--the only accompaniment this heavenly meat needs is a fork. The pork comes in big, juicy chunks, not shredded too fine, with the edges slightly crisped and full of deep, rich flavors. Only my professional obligation to sample everything else on the menu kept me from filling up my own tank with it.

Rib tips are a worthy runner-up. They're often a mess--fatty, greasy, inedible bits of bone, with almost no pork on them. The tips here, though, are wonderful, meaty, nicely charred and almost as large as whole ribs, for about a third of the cost.

The slab of ribs, however, doesn't generate quite as many thrills. Yes, the bones have plenty of meat, which requires just a bit of gentle tugging to pull off. But Billy and Clyde's needs to crisp the ribs up a bit more if they hope to enter the big time.

The sauces, however, don't need any work at all. The mild version has plenty of sweet notes, but it also ranges up and down the flavor scale. The hot sauce, meanwhile, is a melodic blend of tomato, vinegar, brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce, laid over a red chile pepper bass line. This sauce doesn't seem very hot at first. But in about two minutes, your tongue will be tingling and you'll be mopping your brow.

Spoon some over the smoked chicken. This bird--moist, meaty and tender--can soar. The beef brisket, in contrast, doesn't get off the ground. It's thoroughly undistinguished, fatty and a bit tough. And the best thing you can say about the hot links is that a sandwich brings enough of them to keep your cholesterol level elevated until Labor Day.

The sides here also need some tweaking. The coleslaw and potato salad may be homemade, but they're also ho-hum. Beans are a disappointment, just one-dimensional pintos with no sweet or tangy energy. Why not perk them up with sausage or molasses? Neither the dry cornbread nor the Texas toast is worth filling up on. But the rice is. It's Cajun-style dirty rice, and it's very tasty.

Billy and Clyde's may not be the most elegant place in town. But on the other hand, just try to get your windshield cleaned at Christopher's or Vincent's.

Billy Joe's Bar-B-Que, 1730 East Elliot, Tempe, 480-831-0822. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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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