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TOTALLY BASTED

Hap's Real Pit BBQ, 101 South 24th Street, Phoenix, 267-0181. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Sunday.

American pork producers have spent a fortune promoting their product as "the other white meat." If you believe the advertising, pork is chicken without the feathers--low-fat, nutrient-rich and healthful. After contemplating their message, credulous consumers may be forgiven for wondering why doctors don't simply hand all their patients a couple of pork chops with the advice, "Take two and call me in the morning." I suppose it's possible that pork can be the key to a long, vibrant life. But not the way I like the meat. I love barbecued ribs, smoked to carcinogenic levels and slathered with sauce. Craving ribs is one thing. Finding good ones is another. Urban folklore suggests that the best ribs come out of run-down shacks, perched in the least scenic parts of town. If my latest tour of Valley barbecue dens is any indicator, urban folklore has a foundation in truth. There's certainly nothing structurally imposing about Hap's Real Pit BBQ. It's a trailer. Customers stand outside and communicate their order to the proprietors through a window. As you might expect, the trailer's not parked in front of Scottsdale Fashion Square, either. For the past nine months, it's been sharing space with a car repair place, a bone's throw from the adjacent Adult Shoppe, at the southeast corner of 24th Street and Jefferson. Out front, a big, black smoker, a bright yellow garbage pail and a single table with four chairs provide atmosphere, while traffic furnishes the background music. Many words spring to mind to describe the site. "Picturesque" is probably the most charitable.

On the other hand, once you sink your teeth into Hap's food, your interest in the scenery is going to fade. This is seriously good barbecue.

The slab of ribs, the principal object of my affection, is first-rate, meaty and tender, with a smoky taste. The barbecue sauce adds to the effect. It's got tart and sweet undertones, punched up by a lingering hot bite. And the price is certainly right, too, just $9.99 for a full slab, $5.99 for a half. Clearly, when there's not much over head, there's not much overhead.

But what sets Hap's apart is everything else on the menu. It's all homemade, and it's all absolutely scrumptious. Check out the phenomenal pulled pork sandwich, heavy with big, juicy chunks of shredded meat without a trace of gristle. I particularly adored the pork's crispy edge. The barbecued chicken sandwich is just as addicting. The bird comes moist and slightly charred, full of deeply satisfying down-home taste. The excellent brisket is just about in the same league. If there's any shortcoming, it's perhaps a bit too lean. Still, it sports a beefy kick. Even the hot links, often a barbecue afterthought, are worthy, armed with a potent, spicy zing. If you dream about wallowing in barbecue, the rib tips ought to fulfill your fantasies. These are big, meaty hunks from the fattier end of the rib, a perfect combination of animal protein and animal fat. Be thankful they don't come with a nutritional analysis.

The parade of good stuff doesn't stop here. Hap's side dishes are tempting enough to make you put down your ribs or sandwich. Topping the list are the incredible beans, a blend of three different varieties redolently flavored with ground beef, bacon and, I think, a hint of molasses. Without doubt, these are as good as I've ever had. If I were a restaurant owner with beans on the menu, I'd come here and take notes. Substantial mashed potatoes taste like they come from fresh-peeled spuds, not out of a box. Even the potato salad and coleslaw show some flair. The homemade pies make me think that the proprietors could just as successfully operate a pie shop. Both the mixed berry and apple models are dynamite, armed with lots of not-too-sweet fruit wrapped in a mouth-watering pastry crust. I don't live very close to Hap's. So I'm just about ready to ask the owner of the auto repair property it sits on for permission to pitch a tent alongside. Once word gets around, he might have to tear down his business and put in a parking lot. Waldo's BBQ, 4500 East Main, Mesa, 807-1645. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

Located deep enough in the East Valley to be in the Central Time Zone, Waldo's is a couple of restaurant steps up in class from Hap's. But it took two visits to convince me. That's because Waldo's was out of ribs when I drove here the first time. This wasn't five minutes before closing, either, but at 1 in the afternoon. "Will you have some later?" I inquired. "Nothing 'til tomorrow," I was informed. I wondered if I could pull the same maneuver in my line of work. "Where's your column?" my editor would demand. "Sorry, I'm out of words today. Check back tomorrow."

Waldo's is a sit-down place, with red vinyl booths and waitress service. The room is filled to the rafters with Westernalia--rifles, lariats, neon cactus, a rack of antlers. The only thing missing is the stuffed head of the Lone Ranger. At the counter, you can buy tee shirts imprinted with a P.E.T.A. logo for $11.95. But don't scratch your head wondering if you've stumbled into the underground Mesa branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The shirt makes clear that P.E.T.A. stands for "People for the Enjoyment of Tasty Animals." And Waldo's does dish out some tasty meat. The star here is definitely the slab of baby back pork ribs, which was worth the return visit. These meaty beauties come packing a strong, smoky mesquite wallop, and they're juicy and tender in the bargain. The barbecue sauce, a tingly, vinegary concoction that slowly grew on me, doesn't get in the way. Much less impressive are the heftier country ribs. These bones are substantially fattier than the lean baby backs, and curiously bereft of smoky barbecue flavor.

Most of the other menu items are perfectly adequate, though not as beguiling as the baby back ribs. The barbecued beef sandwich offers slightly dry meat with a pleasing charred tinge. It helps to put on a moisturizing coating of additional barbecue sauce. The same technique works for the mild pork sandwich, as well. But nothing could perk up the chicken sandwich, which suffered from chewy fowl that tasted as if it had been sitting around for a while. The broasted potatoes are the clear winner among a very good assortment of side dishes. They're thick, crunchy, starchy wedges with a right-from-the-fryer taste. Cowboy beans simmered in a beefy broth, and fresh coleslaw also send out the right signals. And the apple dumpling, a thick pastry shell stuffed with sweetened apples, sends you home with a good taste in your mouth. The baby backs and broasted potatoes, Waldo's headline acts, make this East Valley show worth catching. Just make sure they're performing before you show up.

The Horny Toad, 6738 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, 997-9622. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Folks looking for a barbecue experience in a more substantial restaurant setting might consider trekking out to the Horny Toad. It's got an inviting, homey, Western-lodge look--rough wood interior, captain's chairs, fireplaces. It's also got a touch of sass. Both the "Sorry, We're Open" sign over the front door, and the mounted jack rabbit's head in the back dining room got us chuckling. I wish the barbecue dishes had just as much sass. Like most restaurants that cater to tourists, the Horny Toad seems to go a bit out of its way not to antagonize anyone with hard-hitting flavors. The hot-wings appetizer, at a pricey $4.95, is neither particularly hot nor particularly meaty. If you're determined to munch on something before the meal arrives, you're probably better off with the basket of puffy onion rings. The kitchen certainly knows how to fire up a slab of pork ribs. These mild critters came off the mesquite charcoal at just the right moment, burnished with a tasty singe. But the barbecue sauce accompaniment is a real snoozer, bland enough to have come from an oversize generic can. These ribs deserve a little more respect. The same tentativeness afflicts the barbecued chicken. The Horny Toad has tracked down some hefty creatures--the half-chicken serving is enormous, as well as remarkably juicy. But the bird sported almost no barbecue fragrance. When I eat barbecued ribs or chicken, I want to be able to smell it on my hands after I've put down the last bone.

The other barbecued offering, beef ribs, doesn't have the quality of the pork or chicken. I know beef ribs tend to have some fat on them, but the fat-to-meat ratio on these bones seemed out of reasonable proportion. The sides also are stuck in the flavor doldrums. Seasoned fries had some oomph, but the mashed potatoes, cowboy beans and coleslaw sported no more than institutional zest.

At dessert time, though, the Horny Toad gets it exactly right. The two homemade sweets we sampled--a luscious strawberry shortcake, and hot apple cobbler--hit high notes that the barbecued meats never quite reached. The Horny Toad can carry a tune, but it doesn't really sing.

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The Horny Toad

6738 E. Cave Creek Road
Cave Creek, AZ 85331

480-488-9542

www.thehornytoad.com


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