Cafe Reviews

Beers and Butt-head

The morons who built my backyard fire pit had everything figured out to the last detail, except for one thing. They forgot that fire – a critical component of any fire pit, I would think – is hot. The first time I used the contraption, it collapsed. The weak concrete caved in, and the bricks – not fireproof, it turned out, just pretty pavers – shattered. It was quite spectacular.

Standing over my smoking pile of rubble, I had to laugh. Because it suddenly occurred to me how something as bizarre as Beer Butt Chicken could make it into this world. The same Neanderthals who'd fashioned my dainty smoker had probably been sitting around one day, half-sauced on Schlitz, and thinking about dinner.

"Hey," said one doofus. "Let's stuff a beer can up a chicken's butt and see what happens. Heh-heh, heh-heh."

Guys. Good Lord.

Whether it's called the cruder Chicken on the Throne, or the classier Beer Can Chicken, the uncomfortable cooking method has recently been gaining popularity across the nation. And now, it's shown up on the menu of downtown Phoenix's La Mesa Pit BBQ, a new enterprise that's taken over the spot vacated by the lovely but unappreciated Cuban cafe Chary's Place. The restaurant is owned by two guys (of course), Dave Soltys and Joe Garza, brothers-in-law married to the sisters who own Focaccia Fiorentina, a very nice Italian cafe a few steps away on Central. These guys have taken their love of traditional, Kansas City-style barbecue and kicked it with a little twist: a second menu of Mexican specialties.

So what's so great about cramming a Coors up the keister of a chicken?

First of all, from what I've heard, the liquid steam keeps the bird from drying out. Second, the yeast and malt in beer supposedly work some kind of science with the poultry, making its skin thin and crispy while keeping the meat juicy. Third, a half-full can of beer is recommended, meaning the chef really should, in all good conscience, drink the other half. Fourth, well, it's really something to see a plucked clucker straddling a Corona (one recipe I have promotes "the aspect of theater, because it looks so damned weird on the grill, people will wonder what brand of crack you switched to").

Of course, this recipe was written by a guy – likely one who pretends to make fire pits for a living. Because when I made a special trip to the tiny La Mesa for a firsthand view of this amazing creation, I found . . . chicken. Just chicken, pulled to pieces and laid out in a steamer table pan. Nice enough as far as chicken goes, but let's be honest: This BBC creation really doesn't taste any different from an everyday bird.

La Mesa puts Bud Light up its bird's behind. Yet instead of treating us to a display of an actual, impaled whole chicken, we get only a crumpled, slightly charred can in the serving station. The rest is left to our imaginations, I guess. I'm bummed that I don't get to see my punctured poultry, but things are fresh, fast and friendly here; the casual, blond wood and fake brick place is a very welcome addition to the starved-for-good-restaurants downtown area.

For the record: La Mesa slow-smokes its spice-rubbed meats over pecan wood, and serves them in generous portions (my tender pulled pork sandwich with a choice of potato salad, beans or slaw is a two-meal affair for me). In traditional Kansas City fashion, sauce is added only upon ordering, and then sparingly, with more served in squeeze bottles placed atop the tightly packed tables. The meat is good stuff, from thin-sliced sweet ham grilled to a crispy edge, to plump hot links, to slabs of beef brisket. Sauce is terrific, too, prepared either mild or hot, thin, and blessedly sharp (grab a pint to go – at $3.75, it's less expensive than most grocery store blends, and remarkably better).

This is good 'cue. So I don't understand why La Mesa's owners decided to split things up with a full menu of boring Mexican items, some halfhearted salads, and a touch of uptown pricing. What's up with $7.25 for an absolutely ordinary toss of mixed greens, tomato wedges, red onion curls, julienne carrot and a fistful of sliced ham, pulled brisket, pork or chicken? I suppose it's the kind of highway robbery one expects in a downtown place, given the mad rush that packs the place at noon for exactly one hour, including savory denizens such as the odoriferous citizen with a stuffed teddy bear who leered at me one lunch. Jeez, just throw in some hardboiled egg, crisp cucumber, a few black olives and those menu-promised but no-show croutons, and maybe I'd think about paying that much.

One of La Mesa's owners is from New Mexico, but the heritage doesn't help the mediocre Sonoran recipes. I absolutely hate the chile verde burritos I get, a serving of two plump bratwurst-size models that look good, but are nothing but dried-out pork chunks blotted with diced green chile. And I pay 50 cents extra for some homemade but stringy tasteless queso blanco melted inside. Tacos have none of the intense majesty of their south-of-the-border counterparts, either, with double-layered corn tortillas open-face under yellow cheese, iceberg, tomato, onion and pork, brisket, or that violated-down-below chicken. With the brisket burrito, all I taste is smoke – this is an instance where I'm happy to keep my meat simply grilled, thank you.

No, stick with the simple barbecue, particularly the baby back ribs, which are thunderously salty, peppery, gnaw-worthy critters. These bones are beautiful specimens, loaded with lots of tender meat. And hungry guys will do well with the "Big Ass" plate, loaded with a choice of pulled pork, brisket, ham, ribs or chicken, plus hearty pinto beans, "frings" (a mix of great crispy onion rings and okay fries), and red skin potato salad or coleslaw.

Follow up with fresh-baked dessert, hefty marvels of cookies, gooey chocolate-chocolate fudge brownies, or a fat slab of chocolate cake.

And here's a bonus for downtown workers trapped in their cubicles: La Mesa caters and delivers (minus the beer cans). Also, and this is important in the world of sloppy barbecue, the place provides takeout packaging so efficient that not a drop of anything spills when I take sharp turns on my drive home.

La Mesa calls itself "pit" barbecue, and I ask to see the setup. It's really just a simple smoker, though I've got to admit it's a lot more functional than the molten mound I've got in my backyard. Hmmm. I could get myself such a smoker. I could get myself a chicken. I could get a beer can, and . . .

Nah. I'll just go to La Mesa and let the guys there do it.