Barbecue joints come with primal thrills other restaurants simply can't match. You don't need much in the way of cutlery. Knives and forks, like clothes and government, are badges of lost innocence.
And just gazing at a platter of ribs inspires a kind of vicarious satisfaction. You may not have participated in the actual hunt, but the inert pile of meaty bones symbolically trumpets mankind's cerebral superiority over the animal kingdom. You can't get the same sense of power staring down at, say, a wedge of spinach lasagna.
Then there are the delicious oral sensations you get from stripping the flesh and gnawing the bone. Finally, you don't have to worry about fussy conventions of civility, like keeping barbecue sauce off your shirt or face.
When, to all these pluses, you add the indisputable fact that ribs are best washed down by cold brewskis, it's hard to understand how the Yellow Pages restaurant section can contain listings for any other type of fare.
Crazy Ed's Satisfied Frog looks like every Eastern dude's idea of a cowboy barbecue saloon, from the red-and-blue-checked oilcloth on the tables to the sawdust sprinkled on the floor. Hanging from the walls are three primary elements of Western trophy decor: a buffalo head, a deer head and a television set tuned to ESPN.
Menu novelty is not what keeps this place packed even during the summer doldrums. If "deep-fried" is one of your favorite adjectives, the Satisfied Frog's appetizers will furnish just the right noun.
Thin-sliced green chiles come breaded and crisply fried. So do the big mushrooms and zucchini. Each has a fresh-cooked-up taste, without the usual frozen, commercial texture.
But people weren't waiting an hour for a table on a sticky Wednesday night to get at the appetizers or the house salad. They were lined up for the big platters of mesquite-smoked meats and fried chicken.
The time was well spent if they opted for the pork ribs. These are succulent critters, meaty and tender. I particularly enjoyed their slightly charred touch, which gave them an appealing bit of crunch.
The beef ribs don't have quite the same fall-off-the-bone qualities (they rarely do). But these bovine bones sport the same crispy heft that I admired in their porcine mates.
The best that can be said about the inoffensive barbecue sauce, though, is that it doesn't get in the way too much. With these ribs, it's a case of subtraction by addition.
The barbecue beef brisket doesn't quite measure up to the ribs. Not only don't you get the satisfaction of wielding your food by hand, you have to work around a fair amount of untrimmed fat.
Actually, the whole fried chicken is probably the best dish on the menu, once you get past the daunting sight of it. The cut-up bird comes unceremoniously piled up on a plate, high enough to come with its own Sherpa guide. It looks like something that flew around Jurassic Park.
But it's greaseless, moist and crisp. Too bad the menu doesn't offer a half-bird option.
The Satisfied Frog doesn't do nearly as well with other parts of the meal. The pan-fried hunks of potato are surprisingly resistible. And despite the presence of onion and pepper, the cowboy beans had absolutely no discernible flavor.
You won't have to wait until you weigh yourself the next morning to be sorry you ordered dessert. Melancholy sets in after the first bite. The strawberry shortcake is short on berries and long on whipped cream, enough to hide a hacksaw. The Kahl£a pie is a leaden caloric blob.
Believe it or not, you can get cappuccino here. Don't. It's concocted from a powdered mix. I'm not a believer in frontier justice, but I'll overlook my principles when the perpetrator of this coffee crime is apprehended.
The only liquids you should be drinking here are the excellent, home-brewed suds. The chili beer, in particular, is a fiery hoot--a whole hot pepper comes lodged in the bottle. It's even exported to England and Japan.
Bill Johnson's Big Apple Restaurant, 16810 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 863-7921. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Bill Johnson's rib house, "where the pavement ends and the West begins," is also into cowboy chuck-wagon kitsch. The theme starts at the entrance, where the doorknobs are shaped like six-shooters. Waitresses sling pistol-packin' holsters around their hips and kerchiefs around their necks. Steer horns are mounted on the wall and ornate, red-hooded saloon lamps hang from the ceiling.
This 37-year-old place (with five Valley branches) celebrates a romanticized notion of the Old West. According to the menu story, pioneer families pushed westward, braving "hostile Indians" and "the cold swishing thud of an Apache arrow" to create a "new way of life."
Maybe so. But in reality, that new way of life looked a lot like the old way of life: frenzied land speculation, environmental degradation and Indian removal.
Fortunately, Bill Johnson's food is more reliable than his history.
The green chile appetizer, breaded and fried, is slathered with an appealing layer of cream cheese. If you listen closely, you can hear your arteries hardening, but who said frontier eating would be easy?
Meals here come with soup or salad, each of which falls significantly short of perfection. The vegetable-beef soup comes well-stocked, but it's way too salty. The salad gets done in by the house "cinnamon French" dressing. The line between culinary inspiration and insanity is often blurred, but cinnamon French dressing clearly oversteps it.
The main dishes offer a more convincing case about how the West was won.
The pork ribs are outstanding, extremely tender and lean. The beef ribs are even better, with big gobs of juicy meat dripping from the bone. We happened to hit a night with an all-you-can-eat beef-rib special for $8.95, and I suspect we put a serious dent in the daily profits.
But the barbecue sauce--Bill Johnson's own brand--is disappointing. It's sweet and bland, devoid of zing.
But this place does more than ribs right. The sandwich of brisket, pork, ham and smoked turkey is a bargain winner at $4.75. So is the moist barbecue chicken. The leathery steak sandwich on white toast, however, should have taken an Apache arrow at the kitchen door.
Don't shy away from the side orders, either. The sweet cowboy beans smack more of the church potluck than the chuck wagon, but they're tasty. So are the mashed potatoes and hot, thick fries.
Solid fare and reasonable prices are not flashy restaurant concepts. They'll never substitute for trendy or innovative. But they will attract customers, even after 37 years.
El Paso Barbecue Company, 4303 West Peoria Avenue, Glendale, 931-2438. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
There's no mistaking the object of worship at El Paso. Open up the front door and walk past a templelike row of wooden columns. Beyond them, in the center of the dining area, housed in a wooden chapel, stands the shrine. It's the restaurant's big, black smoker.
Above the chapel entrance are displayed the symbols of this barbecue cult: a steer skull flanked by the flags of Arizona and Texas. A wooden cowboy stands silent sentinel alongside.
El Paso's dining room is a woodsy, airy place, decked out with representative samples of the John Wayne school of art: bronco busters, covered wagons, Indians. Peppy, perky staffers lead you to an oilcloth-draped table, thoughtfully furnished with an entire roll of paper towels.
The place is absolutely packed with diners, who are themselves incredibly well-packed: almost everyone here looks like a "before" picture from the Jenny Craig clinic.
Unfortunately, the food doesn't live up to the decor. Launched by the Furr's cafeteria folks out of Texas, El Paso Barbecue Company features unmemorable, characterless, corporate barbecue. It's not bad, just monumentally uninteresting.
St. Louis-style pork ribs, from the meatier front end, are tender enough, but nothing to squeal about. Beef ribs--El Paso calls them a specialty--don't justify an hour's wait to get at them. Pulled pork, lean shreds of smoked pork, is on the dry side. So is smoked chicken. Even a squirt of barbecue sauce (there are four kinds, in plastic squeeze bottles) doesn't do much good.
The barbecue end cuts don't even fall in the serviceable range. These chunks of brisket have a heavy, institutional look--they're all the same size and shape, with cafeteria-style flavor.
Strangely enough, the side dishes have much more zip than the meats. Potato salad and coleslaw taste like someone made them from scratch. The French fries come out sizzlingly hot and crispy. And the nifty cowboy beans have a beguiling sweet and tart touch.
Our fresh-scrubbed server--every staffer here looks like an Up With People understudy--sang the praises of the Grand Canyon mud pie dessert so effectively we felt compelled to try it.
But dreadfully sweet chocolate sauce over inferior ice cream in an Oreo crust is not what I want lingering on my lips at the end of the day.
El Paso Barbecue Company provides white-bread Americans with mild, unthreatening fare in a wholesome family environment. It'll make a fortune. Buy stock. Eat elsewhere.