Cafe Reviews

In a Slather

Lib's Ribs, 2545 North 32nd Street, Phoenix, 508-8220. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

When you come from a tightknit religious family in New York, as I did, you have two options growing up.

You can conform: Get good grades in college, then study medicine or the law, marry a brunette you met at the neighborhood synagogue, and set up your household in the same zip code as Mom and Dad, so you can see them three nights a week.

Or you can rebel: For me, that meant bringing home D's and F's, wandering around the globe, scoffing at middle-class values, marrying a Midwestern blonde and setting up a string of households so far from New York that the time difference made even telephone contact with the folks a chore.

My youthful rebellion had a culinary edge, as well. I discovered barbecue. In our strictly kosher home, my mother would sooner have invited Yassir Arafat to Sabbath dinner than serve pork, which Old Testament dietary law proscribes. But my faith wasn't rooted nearly as firmly as hers. Years of religious training melted away the moment I first inhaled the scent of barbecue. Yes, I knew the ancient sages would not have approved. But, as I excitedly gnawed on baby back bones, nibbled on rib tips and wolfed down pulled pork and hot links sandwiches, I asked myself, country-song style: "How can it be wrong, when it tastes so right?" Tempted with such righteous barbecue, even a vegetarian rabbi, I thought, would have had a hard time maintaining the faith.

Time, of course, brings change. These days, I'm too weary to rebel. Instead, I'm the picture of 9-to-5, mortgage-paying, family-raising, bourgeois respectability. My parents' words come out of my mouth: I insist my kids get good grades; I urge them to consider a professional career; I don't want them to move too far away; and, while they can marry whom they please, they know I've drawn the line of potential partners at felons and Republicans.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is my lust for good barbecue. And the lusty fare at Lib's Ribs gets my engine revving.

This place looks the way a genuine rib parlor ought to look: impoverished. It's set in a run-down strip center, in a section of town that will never be confused with, say, Paradise Valley. I don't think Phoenix Home & Garden will be doing a photo shoot of the interior, either. It's tidy, but spartan. Decor includes one oilcloth-draped table, a few metal chairs, two potted plants and a soda machine. You order through a window in the wall.

The friendly proprietor hails from Ohio. When I asked her to describe her style of barbecue, she said she just followed her mother's recipes. I've never heard Ohio barbecue mentioned in the same breath with the barbecue out of Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Kansas City or Chicago. But the food here is good enough to put Ohio on the barbecue map.

The ribs are outstanding: exceptionally meaty, tender and charred up to a crisp edge. These bones are so good that the sauce seems almost superfluous. But it complements the ribs perfectly, just a bit sweet and understated enough to let the meat's quality shine through.

Rib tips are the featured part of the bargain-priced "Po-man's meal." Most of the rib tips I've encountered in this town are inedible chunks of fat and gristle, better suited as a dog treat. The rib tips here, however, are laden with meat and uncommonly tasty. $2.98 doesn't take you gastronomically far these days, but this plate takes you farther than most.

Sandwiches are also impressive. Barbecued pork somehow manages to be both mild and flavorful. The hard-hitting barbecued beef is smokier and more robust. And you'll need both hands to handle the hot links sandwich, which doesn't stint on quantity or quality.

Everyone knows that serious barbecue parlors take their side dishes and desserts seriously. This place sure does. The French fries are honest-to-God spuds, not a processed potato product. The fried yam strips are the real, right-out-of-the-fryer deal. Collard greens, zipped up with bacon, transported me to rural roots I never had. Homemade potato salad, touched up with pickle relish and mortared with mayo, isn't for the faint-hearted. But it's irresistible. The beans are first-rate, too, boosted with bits of pork. And the sweet potato pie ends the meal on the right note.

Nobody is ever going to use the words "elegant" and "Lib's Ribs" in the same sentence. But you can't eat elegance. If you're in a fever to get down, get messy and pork out in the privacy of your own home, Lib's Ribs has got the cure.