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.

Of course, rib connoisseurs know that it's precisely this kind of unprepossessing shack that's likely to dish out fabulous barbecue. Subconsciously, I suspect, that may have been what I was hoping. But after making my way through the offerings, my enthusiasm never quite matched my expectations.

The slab of pork ribs features plenty of heavily smoked meat, but some of it had trouble yielding to my toothy efforts. I like my barbecue to fall off the bone with nothing more cutting than a glance. The barbecue sauce isn't very compelling, either, long on tang and heat, but a bit short on flavor.

Much more alluring is the luscious beef brisket. First the proprietor whacks off a big chunk of meat, then he trims off the fat before slicing. This beef is moist, a bit charred around the edges, and soft enough to gum.

The pork sandwich is also a pleasing option. Served on an onion roll, it's all meat, tender and juicy. Gnawing on rib tips also provides several contented moments. That's because these rib tips offer more meat and less gristle than I've come to expect. Chicken is competently done, the juices sealed in. The smoked sausage, meanwhile, has more bite than anything else here--it's smoky and hot. You get two big ones on a bun.

The sides are disappointing. The beans, says the owner, are "fat free." Huh? Are there people out there who come to a rib parlor for fat-free beans? They must be the same folks who order cheesecake for dessert, and go ballistic if management doesn't have artificial sweetener for their coffee. Slow-cooked in a Crockpot, these beans do sport a punchy, peppery kick. But they could definitely benefit from an infusion of smoked animal protein. The coleslaw and potato salad, meanwhile, get dug out of a ten-gallon tub.

I want barbecue and fixings that soar. But except for the beef brisket, Mr. Q's doesn't really get off the ground.

Tony Roma's, 13637 North Tatum, Phoenix, 953-9597. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Once upon a time, Tony Roma's rib-house concept was fresh and exciting. Family-friendly, this restaurant chain turned the barbecue dinner into a decorous, sit-down meal. Folks leery about traveling to rib shacks located in less than prime neighborhoods, or folks who lived in places where there were no rib shacks at all, now had a rib destination they could feel comfortable with.

But these days, the concept seems old and tired. The place looks old and tired. And, more to the point, the food tastes old and tired.

First, the concept. These days, rib lovers no longer have to go to barbecue parlors to get a fix. Ribs have become a menu staple, even at semiswanky restaurants. They're everywhere. The rib niche that Tony Roma's used to dominate is now crammed with competitors.

Second, Tony Roma's has the nondescript look of a freeway-exit coffee shop. There's no character to the setting. If you poked your nose inside, you'd never guess this is a rib house.

But these are venial sins. The underachieving fare is a lot harder to forgive.
Take the highly touted appetizer of onion rings, fancifully called "world famous" on the menu. Actually, it's a huge, greasy, off-putting brick that's as unpleasant to look at as it is to swallow. If you must start off with onions, get them in the innocuous onion soup.

Ribs, the signature items, are, for the most part, an undistinguished lot. The baby backs are meaty and nicely crisped up. But they're not helped a bit by an inoffensive barbecue sauce that has almost no detectable flavor. St. Louis-style ribs--larger, meatier, but somewhat less tender than baby backs--also don't make much of an impression. The Blue Ridge Smokies, slathered with a sweet, smoky barbecue sauce, are superior to the Carolina Honeys, which are overpowered by a sweet, heavy sludge. The supposedly fiery Red Hots, meanwhile, are so benign they couldn't raise a blister on a newborn's tongue.

Nor will the other rib-house staples do much to speed up your heartbeat. Barbecued chicken and the barbecued beef sandwich are instantly forgettable. The Roma burger's uncooked interior warranted a health-department citation. The fries on my plate hadn't just jumped out of the fryer, the beans had no flavor, the coleslaw was ho-hum.  

What's Tony Roma's customer profile? I have a hard time imagining the demographic attracted to this restaurant. It sure doesn't include me.

Porking place: Barbecue meister Roger Wagner puts on the hog at Thee Pitt's "Again."

Thee Pitt's "Again": Pork ribs--slab$13.65 Pulled pork sandwich3.65 Chicken dinner5.95

Mr. Q's BBQ and Pit Stop: Pork ribs--slab$12.95 Beef brisket5.75 Pork sandwich3.25

Tony Roma's: Pork ribs--slab$14.99 Barbecued beef sandwich5.99

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