Music editor Martin Cizmar's recent blog on his exploits at the Arizona Barbecue Festival left me craving some rib stickin', finger lickin' good food. Whether you prefer your 'cue dry-rubbed Texas style or coated in sticky sweet sauce like they do it in Kansas City, somewhere in Phoenix they've got your fave.
My dining companion and I trekked to two top-rated local barbecue joints to see if their versions of this comfort food would light our fires.
In One Corner: Joe's Real BBQ
301 N. Gilbert Rd. in Gilbert
When it comes to Phoenix-area barbecue, Joe's Real BBQ is definitely the heavyweight. Housed in a historic brick building in downtown Gilbert, this quaint restaurant has nabbed a zillion awards (including a few from New Times) and attracts visitors from across the country.
The restored building is vintage-cozy, with faded brick walls, family-size wood plank booths and a restored 1948 grass green John Deere tractor in the center of the dining area. Grub is served cafeteria style. We wandered through the line with plastic tray in hand, asking the lunch lady to dish out sides with an ice cream scoop. Ah, brings back memories of meatloaf Thursdays at public school. Shudder.
My friend and I opted for the two meat/two side combo of pulled pork, beef brisket, cole slaw and cheesy potatoes: aka, the artery clog special. The slaw and potatoes were scooped into two individual bowls to keep them separated, which my mayo-hating companion appreciated. The beef and pork were served on a large plate, separated by a dam of toasted bread.
The good: The pulled pork was tender. The cole slaw was tangy and rich, with caraway seeds thrown in for an unexpected earthy punch.
The best thing about the way Joe's serves BBQ is that you can customize it with mild or hot barbecue sauces from the fixins bar, served piping hot. We snagged a cup of the sweet mild sauce, which was thin but tasty, with a nice tangy bite to it. Laden with warm sauce, the meat practically melted in my mouth. "This is pretty good pulled pork," said my friend. "It's moist, thought it does need the sauce for flavor."
The bad: Some folks enjoy a healthy dose of fat with their beef, but my middle-class brain just can't wrap around eating a thick wad of gristle. Ugh. The leaner pieces I sampled were a little dry but tasty, especially when coupled with the tangy-sweet barbecue sauce.
The tragic: A table of Mormons turned their heads as my dining companion loudly lamented that "jalapenos are a SIN against potatoes! And cornbread too, in case any other restaurants are listening." Well, reading.
Cheesy potatoes? HA! Clearly they meant cheesy as in "chintzy," not as in "made with actual cheese," because neither of us could taste a drop of cheddar. Truly a sad day for cheeseheads everywhere. We turned back to the pulled pork for comfort.
In the Other Corner: HaP's Pit BBQ
4801 E. Washington St. in Phoenix
After a friend pointed me in their direction, I trekked up to HaP's Pit Barbecue on Washington St. in Phoenix for lunch. The strip mall digs don't exactly have the charm of Joe's, but many a Phoenician has raved about the tasty chow at HaP's.
The inside of HaP's is anything but bland. Sure, the ordering counter looks like every other fast-casual BBQ joint this side of the Mississippi, but the muraled walls are a hoot. Cartoon pigs, barns and cute phrases like "Hand rubbed meat can't be beat" are plastered all over the joint. If nothing else, it's good for an ironic/sadistic chuckle as you consume grilled pig flesh while staring at Porky burning in flames.
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For the best comparison, I ordered up a two-meat combo with brisket and pulled pork, accompanied by cole slaw and a side of (blissfully jalapeno-free) cornbread. Despite ordering my meal "for here," I ended up with a Styrofoam container of grub. I fooled myself into thinking I was so petite that they assumed I'd need a container for leftovers. Whatever gets me though the day...
The good: The pulled pork was tender and juicy, as was the brisket, which was unexpectedly shredded instead of sliced. The downside of having pulled/shredded beef is that it's harder to see the gristle before it's in your mouth, but the meat here was pretty lean. The sauce was solid -- slightly sweet, with a smoky undertone.
The bad: The pulled pork was bland. The brisket left a trail of orange grease, though it did seem to make the meat more flavorful. The runny sauce exploded all over my table when I popped open the container (thankfully, I moved out of the way, or I would've been wearing it to my afternoon meetings).
The Winner: Neither competitor blew me away this time, so I'm taking reader recommendations. If not Joe's or HaP's, where can I find the best lean, sweet and saucy bbq in town?