It's hard to resist the allure of a good rack of ribs, even if you know you're going to need a dozen wet-naps to clean up afterwards. Many professional BBQers spend a lifetime trying to perfect their baby back recipe.
Since we didn't have that long to wait, we checked out two local restaurants -- one a dedicated BBQ joint, the other a pub with a weekly rib special -- to see if their ribs would stick to ours.
In One Corner: Wally's American Pub N' Grille
5029 N. 44th St. in Phoenix
"Serendipity" is the name of the game at Wally's in East Phoenix. It's the kind of cozy, well-hidden neighborhood joint that you wander into by accident, perhaps after shopping at the neighboring AJ's Fine Foods or finishing a game of tennis at the nearby courts. You also might meet a new friend there, or find an old one you haven't seen in ages.
Outside is a lovely plant-covered patio overlooking the courtyard and a chain Italian restaurant. The inside of Wally's is like a modern version of Cheers. There's a slim dining area filled with pub tables covered in checkered linens and a massive wooden bar with a small second-story dining room hidden above it. On my afternoon visit, there were several regulars at the bar and one transplant who'd only been in Arizona a few days. Like me, he just stumbled on the place while looking around for grub in the area.
By pure luck I'd wandered into Wally's on Sunday, the one day of the week their BBQ rib Blue Plate Special is offered. Sweet! I ordered up a half-rack with fries and watched the bartender clean a few glasses and chat with patrons while I waited for my entree. The ribs arrived about ten minutes later, a good-sized, meaty portion with a nice outer char. That's what I like to see with slow-cooked ribs. As my southern friends would say, "If the outside ain't crispy, the inside ain't tender."
I tried to pick up a rib with my hands (the only real way to eat 'em!), but the meat slid right off the bone. Hmm. A good sign? I switched to the fork-and-knife treatment and was pleased with the tenderness and moistness of the meat. The outer skin was as crisp as diner bacon, with a delicious salty-sweet rub that didn't require tons of BBQ sauce for flavor. I barely needed the accompanying BBQ sauce. It had a delightful smokiness, without being too sweet, making it a worthwhile condiment to use sparingly.
My dining companion, who missed the meal but cleaned up my leftovers later, commented that he knew the pork fat was there but couldn't really taste it. Pigs aren't the leanest creatures after all. But Wally's did an excellent job of "breaking down" the fat by slow-cooking overnight, a technique used at barbecue cook-offs to guarantee tender but not fatty meat. The accompanying fries were crisp and light on grease, and the cole slaw has a sweet tang and a light texture that made it good to the last bite.
"Whoa! It'll be hard to top these," remarked my friend. "I'll toast to that one," I replied as we clinked glasses.
In the Other Corner: Bobby-Q
8501 N. 27th Ave. in Phoenix
At Bobby-Q (formerly Bobby McGee's, the kitschy American restaurant where the servers dressed in Halloween costumes year-round), what you see is what you get. The place is basically a huge shack with wooden planks and muted cowpoke decor that manages to give off an upscale cowboy steakhouse vibe rather than looking like a Rawhide wannabe. There's a huge wraparound patio with built-in wooden banquettes that's great in cooler weather and a nightclub slash bar in the back.
The main dining area is dimly lit, with recycled bricks and rustic old doors on the walls. An odd spotlight over our table made my dining companion and I feel like we were on stage, or unwitting participants in some kind of reality TV show. BBQ Wars? BBQ House? Big Brother & the BBQ? As the name implies, Bobby-Q is all about barbecue. Their pride and joy is the massive wood-burning smoker out back, which bellows sweet smoke night and day as they slow-cook ribs and brisket.
Three types of ribs are offered (baby back, St. Louis and Texas beef). We opted for the baby back at our server's suggestion. Our half-rack arrived shortly, sharing a large oval platter with a hefty baked potato and buttered corn-off-the-cob. Mmm.....Southern comfort food. The outer layer of meat had only slight grill marks, and the meat was a strange grey and pink marbled color, but I wasn't willing to let looks stop me from digging in. Again, the meat fell right off the bone, leaving me and my partner to pick up the pieces with our forks.
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The first thing I noticed was that the meat wasn't hot. It wasn't cold either, more lukewarm and very tender but not at all crisp. Disappointing. I love the crackle in your mouth feeling of a well-done but still juicy rib, and they missed that at Bobby-Q. The upside was the tenderness of the rib meat. "It's very juicy," remarked my friend. "There's a lot of fat though. And not enough seasoning." There was definitely some visible gristle on the ribs, and it's hard to like a mouthful of blubber even when it's slathered in tangy sauce.
Which brings me to our other complaint: the ribs relied too heavily on the sauce. The thick, tomato-based sauce was smoky and rich, with a sweet undertone. It was good -- reminiscent of the "secret sauce" my Kansas City transplant friend Chris uses in his 'cue. But without it, the ribs were definitely in need of a heavier spice rub (and maybe a little more time on the grill).
The Winner: Wally's American Pub & Grille. It's worth the wait until Sunday...