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'Cue 'Cue Train

All dressed up with no place to eat. That's the lament of so many would-be diners in the far west Valley. The rest of the Valley is hardly sympathetic. If residents want creative dining in their neighborhoods, they should live in the right place. At least that's what local restaurant...
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All dressed up with no place to eat. That's the lament of so many would-be diners in the far west Valley.

The rest of the Valley is hardly sympathetic. If residents want creative dining in their neighborhoods, they should live in the right place. At least that's what local restaurant owners seem to think.

Let's admit the ugly truth: The popular notion of the west Valley is of inexpensive housing, low-income families and diners who wouldn't know good food if it landed on their plates.

Besides being mean, that perception is just wrong.

A surprising study released last month shows that the west side has three of the top five zip codes with the highest number of households worth at least $1 million.

If simply having money accounts for good taste, then the west side should have its own Vincent's, Christopher's and Mary Elaine's.

Yet the area remains clogged with chain restaurants, serving the same staid stuff found at any mall in America.

Until Bennett's Bar-B-Que arrived.

Open since last fall, Bennett's breaks new ground in the west side's typical ho-hum dining-out scene, bringing an appealing selection of barbecue, steaks, sandwiches and salads. Based on how busy the restaurant is, it's a hopeful thought that Bennett's may encourage other quality restaurants to follow.

Technically, Bennett's is a chain, with a parent company in Colorado. Yet our hostess is adamant that it's not a chain, not really, since there are only a handful of locations, each is independently owned, and this is the only one in Arizona. Furthermore, custom menus are available, crafted by the individual owners.

Good enough for me, and apparently for the mixed bag of guests, including shirt-and-tie professionals, families, what look to be farmers and lots of handsome young men in Air Force uniforms (Luke Air Force base is nearby).

The decor is an immediate tip-off that there's a corporation lurking in the background. With a setting that's slick, shellacked and smooth, Bennett's feels like a Chili's, down to the preppy server uniforms of khaki shorts, polos and logo-adorned aprons. Lots of polished wood gleams on floors, walls and booths, accented with green checkerboard tablecloths and a large sign offering drink specials for men in cowboy hats. Country music, natch, warbles in the background.

The food doesn't taste chain, however, with more assertive flavorings and a fresher quality than we'd expect from a typical mass-marketed menu. Bennett's was created more than 15 years ago by Bennett Shotwell, a Texan who barbecued as a hobby. Following his recipe, meats are slow-smoked over an open-pit hickory wood fire. Lots and lots of hickory, in fact, resulting in a deep, earthy character to the meat.

While there aren't any surprises in the appetizers, the basics are competently done. I've sampled more than my share of dreary prefab food, but this tastes homemade, including dynamite armadillo eggs -- mild jalapeño peppers that ooze cream cheese, draped in batter and deep-fried to a greaseless finish. Add more spice in the accompanying ranch and jalapeño-style dipping sauce, and we'd have a real winner.

Care has also been taken with fried cheese, a harmless nosh that holds up well under a quick dip in sizzling oil. The gooey squares get a boost from a side of chili spiked with green chile, tiny shards of meat and sometimes mellow, sometimes overpowering smoke flavor. Top the chili with cheese and a dollop of sour cream, pair it with thick, homemade tortilla chips, and it's a satisfying dip.

Fans of the onion blossom and tried-and-true potato skins fare well here, too. The whole onion, splayed into ribbons and battered, hasn't been sitting around waiting for a table to call home, and the skins arrive fresh and fat with Cheddar, sour cream and chopped beef.

Only the chicken wings disappoint, the admirably meaty drummettes oddly flavorless with none of our requested hot sauce. A side of blue-cheese sauce is pleasant if uninspired, but I'm not sure what to do with a little dish that seems to be cranberry chutney.

Ordering entree salads at a steak house can be dangerous, and so it is at Bennett's. Greens aren't a highlight, with a chicken caesar delivering an anorexic breast on wilted romaine with too-salty croutons, Parmesan strings and watery dressing. A Laredo chef salad is a bit more successful, thanks to handfuls of smoked turkey, beef brisket and pork among the cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes and hard-boiled egg.

Bennett's is about barbecue, after all, and that's what the restaurant does best. Founder Shotwell's philosophy is that authentic Texas barbecue features brisket, more so than ribs or chicken, and our server agrees that the meat is the best-seller. I can see why -- it is basted and smoked over smoldering logs for 14 hours, then carved to order. The resulting slabs are fork-tender, edged with just enough fat for a buttery glow, and good enough to eat plain.

Barbecue fans are a boisterous crowd, usually vocal about what makes the perfect meat and sauce. And Bennett's leaves folks open for debate. I admit I'm not much for heavy smoke flavor, and this meat swims in it. Hickory tones are so powerful they come crashing in like cymbals, detectable even before our plates hit the table. Like me, some of my guests find it distracting at times. But several of my 'cue companions crave it, thrilled with the intense, bright-pink flesh.

Some aficionados, too, insist their barbecue be slathered with sauce; I prefer my sauce on the side. Bennett's agrees with me on this one, sending the meat out naked, tucking a heated pitcher of sauce in the basket of crunchy, toasted garlic bread that comes with entrees. The sauce is excellent, blooming with tangy charm that's not sweet. Usually, it's rich with vinegar and tomato spirit, although on one visit, we find the sauce infused with a generous amount of what makes us think of cranberry.

Chicken is moist, skin-on and lightly charred, and the peppered turkey breast remarkably retains a smattering of juices. Pork leans to dry, but is still above average.

There are no failings with the ribs, served as jumbo baby backs or pork spares that have been painstakingly basted, smoked, marinated and braised.

Smoked sausage is flat-out terrific. The chubby links burst with zingy, peppery spice, crisp-skinned on the outside and moist within.

Steak eaters, meanwhile, can find a lot to like about aged, USDA Choice cow done to a turn on the hickory grill.

Dinners come with decent coleslaw, plus a choice of French fries, baked potato or barbecued beans. Pass on the fries -- the skin-on shoestrings are mealy and bland. The baked potato is everything it should be, fluffy and drenched in butter, sour cream and scallions. And the beans get honors for their slightly sugary personality spiked with bits of meat.

If I didn't have to use a tank of gas to drive to Goodyear, I'd be raking in bargains with Bennett's outrageous chuck wagon dinner. This is a belly-buster, an all-you-can-eat fiesta with five meats (pork, brisket, sausage, chicken and pork spare ribs) served with beans, coleslaw, French fries and garlic bread. At just $14.99, I'm curious how the restaurant makes money.

Barbecue wimps aren't left out, although they're not allowed to sit at my table. A chicken-salad sandwich is nice, served on French bread, but why bother? And I don't need to hide my chicken with toppings like sautéed mushrooms and jack cheese, or bacon and Cheddar. Not when the poultry's perfect just as it is.

For some reason, it's a constant struggle to find a restaurant that'll serve a cobbler warm enough. Bennett's sends it out still bubbling, the apples sweet under a cap of flaky crust, cinnamon streusel, caramel glaze and walnuts, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

And here's something definitely worth franchising: Bennett's prices. Dinners max out at $15.99 for an eight-ounce top sirloin and spicy grilled shrimp combo. Lunch caps at $8.99 for four jumbo baby back ribs.

Yes, there are plenty of fine barbecue joints in town, and Bennett's isn't necessarily the best of the bunch. It still smacks too much of a chain concept to me. But the 'cue words -- uh, key words -- here are in town. Until other chefs risk a west-side location to go after the area's millionaire demographics, Bennett's is a fine place to be indeed.

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