Cafe Reviews

Barbecue Pith

Billy and Clyde's, 5035 West McDowell (Crossroads Chevron), Phoenix, 602-272-5852. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Some day, after digging up a prehistoric site, trained archaeologists will scratch their heads, trying to make sense of what they unearthed.

They'll be going through a pile of woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tiger and mastodon ribs. The bones will show signs of human teeth marks. Nearby, they'll locate a mound of hickory-wood cinders, a Styrofoam cup half-filled with potato salad and a sign reading "Jurassic Pork."

Scholars believe that human civilization didn't begin until Homo sapiens learned to harness fire. They say fire enabled the cave dwellers to keep warm. Fire provided light. Fire let them turn clay into pottery and shape metal into weapons.

I have a different theory. I believe that when man first raised himself up on his hind legs, rubbed two sticks together and kept a fire going, he didn't care about warmth, illumination or tool-making. His first thought was to fling meaty animal bones onto the flames, fire them to a sizzle and then start gnawing. Quickly thereafter, other highly developed bipeds came up with the ideas for barbecue sauce, Texas toast and napkins. Civilization, as we know it, was under way.

How do I know this? Because that's how we're genetically programmed. Despite millions of years of evolutionary progress, our genes are still wired the way they were when we were hunter-gatherers. That's why modern man enjoys the same pleasures his earliest ancestors did: mating, making war and watching Dick Clark on New Year's Eve.

And that's why we still have an irresistible impulse to eat barbecue. The whole process awakens our most basic instincts: the aroma of smoked, charred meat; the toothy tearing into of meaty bones; and the smear of barbecue sauce on hands and face. So, driven by an urge I couldn't control, I went porking out at three barbecue parlors, getting in touch with my primitive self.

Everyone knows that food and gas often go together. But they're rarely so pleasantly teamed as they are at Billy and Clyde's. That's because Billy and Clyde dish out their Texas-style, hickory-smoked barbecue from a very unusual location: inside a Chevron Food Mart, a very busy west-side gas station just off I-10. Fill up at the pump, then fill up at the counter. Some of the fare is high-octane.

By far the best thing here is the pulled pork, available as a sandwich, as a dinner plate centerpiece or by the pound. The last route is the one I'd take--the only accompaniment this heavenly meat needs is a fork. The pork comes in big, juicy chunks, not shredded too fine, with the edges slightly crisped and full of deep, rich flavors. Only my professional obligation to sample everything else on the menu kept me from filling up my own tank with it.

Rib tips are a worthy runner-up. They're often a mess--fatty, greasy, inedible bits of bone, with almost no pork on them. The tips here, though, are wonderful, meaty, nicely charred and almost as large as whole ribs, for about a third of the cost.

The slab of ribs, however, doesn't generate quite as many thrills. Yes, the bones have plenty of meat, which requires just a bit of gentle tugging to pull off. But Billy and Clyde's needs to crisp the ribs up a bit more if they hope to enter the big time.

The sauces, however, don't need any work at all. The mild version has plenty of sweet notes, but it also ranges up and down the flavor scale. The hot sauce, meanwhile, is a melodic blend of tomato, vinegar, brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce, laid over a red chile pepper bass line. This sauce doesn't seem very hot at first. But in about two minutes, your tongue will be tingling and you'll be mopping your brow.

Spoon some over the smoked chicken. This bird--moist, meaty and tender--can soar. The beef brisket, in contrast, doesn't get off the ground. It's thoroughly undistinguished, fatty and a bit tough. And the best thing you can say about the hot links is that a sandwich brings enough of them to keep your cholesterol level elevated until Labor Day.

The sides here also need some tweaking. The coleslaw and potato salad may be homemade, but they're also ho-hum. Beans are a disappointment, just one-dimensional pintos with no sweet or tangy energy. Why not perk them up with sausage or molasses? Neither the dry cornbread nor the Texas toast is worth filling up on. But the rice is. It's Cajun-style dirty rice, and it's very tasty.

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Howard Seftel