There are three topics best avoided around the American dinner table if your wish is to eat in peace: politics, religion, and barbecue. Barbecue, among a certain set of avowed meat-eaters, has been known to set off meandering debates on the infinite number of ways to smoke and grill animal protein. You could burn away hours discussing the finer points of American regional barbecue, from Memphis-style pork ribs to Kansas City-style burnt ends to Santa Maria tri-tip. If you really want to get into it, ask the nearest self-proclaimed pit master in sight (there's always at least one in every neighborhood) the secret to slow-smoking a brisket. Just hold on tight to your drink, because this could take a while. Everyone has an opinion about barbecue.
Barbecue lends itself to exhaustive debate partly because making seriously great barbecue is itself demanding work. First-rate barbecue — the legendary slow-and-low wood-fired stuff — is not for the casual-minded cook. It's the kind of obsessive work that makes men and women rise at three o'clock in the morning to bring a smoker to life with carefully aged split logs, followed by hours of constant vigilance to make sure the temperature holds steady. All this labor is for one gorgeous end: slow-smoked bundles of meat, flesh so soft it slips off the bone with a gentle tug from your plastic fork.
No wonder, then, that great barbecue is such a rare and treasured commodity. And no wonder so many restaurants miss the mark when it comes to exceptionally smoky, succulent barbecue. It's easy to screw up barbecue or end up with middling barbecue fare that is neither terrible nor exceptional.
Frasher's Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant that opened last summer in Arcadia, is a case of the latter. The restaurant is the latest venture from longtime Valley restaurateur George Frasher, formerly of Frasher's Steakhouse and Lounge in Scottsdale. Armed with an oversize steel smoker and a menu inspired by Kansas City- and Memphis-style barbecue, Frasher and his team make a good effort by smoking all meats in-house with a steady supply of pecan wood. But somewhere between the smoker and the plate, something has gone amiss.
The dining room attempts to set the right mood for a self-styled "smokehouse." You'll notice rustic, wood-trimmed booths and tables and low-hanging vintage lights in a dark, casual space where blues music fades into the background. The space bears a kind of roadhouse-meets-neighborhood tavern aesthetic that feels appropriate for gnawing on baby back ribs and sipping on domestic beer. There's also a small bar with a handful of stools next to the kitchen, with a flatscreen behind the bartender invariably playing whatever game is on that night. But despite the warm wood and polished concrete floors and colorful barbecue-themed mural at the back of the room, the space still lacks the kind of warm, buzzy feel of a well-worn barbecue shack or neighborhood barroom.
You order at the counter, where the barbecue selection includes turkey, chicken, pulled pork, brisket and tri-tip, a central California cut that seems slightly at odds with the Southern-inspired menu. Sides include baked beans, green chile mac 'n' cheese, garlic mashed potatoes, coleslaw, corn, and French fries. You can have your meat in a combo plate with your choice of sides, stuffed into a hamburger bun, or for the real purists out there, piled all by itself on a plastic plate.
Food comes out fast, often delivered to your table by the same person who took your order. You pick up your plastic utensils from a common table, where you can choose from three house barbecue sauces: Sweet, Tennessee Tang, and Spicy. The sauces are flavorful enough for sprucing up your meats, but not particularly compelling on their own. Occasionally, the kitchen introduces seasonal or limited-time-only sauces.
Barbecued meats are, of course, famously vulnerable to countless hard-to-control cooking variables, ranging from the day's humidity levels to how long the meat has sat out before being sliced and served. But on two consecutive visits, the tri-tip was overcooked and wan, a tough, chewy steak crying out for seasoning. Dunking it in sauce livened up the flavor a bit, but there was no cure in sight for the meat's springy, rubbery quality.
Baby back ribs are a slightly better option. The lean, smoky ribs are coated in a sweet and spicy sauce, adding the kind of depth sorely missing from other cuts. But the sticky ribs also were a bit greasy on a recent visit. And with little meat to nibble off the bones, this is one of the priciest cuts on the menu. Pulled pork, meanwhile, also was too greasy and flat. The strips of tender, slow-cooked pork shoulder could have used some light seasoning to tease out the natural flavors of the meat.
Then there's brisket, otherwise known as the holy grail of barbecued meats. The cut is notoriously difficult to work with, prone to the dangers of both oversmoking and undersmoking. Dry, chewy brisket, a victim of overcooking, is a common pitfall. My lean cut was soft enough to pull apart with a plastic fork. But it was missing the other highly prized elements of a well-smoked brisket: the tar-black, crusty bark, as well as a well-defined smoke ring, the ribbon of pink just beneath the bark where the smoke has penetrated. Mostly, though, the brisket was missing the lush, drippy, succulent balance of flavors that have earned brisket a special place in the heart of every barbecue aficionado.
A two-meat combo plate of chicken and turkey fared better on a separate occasion. The chicken breast was lightly seasoned and a little dry, but moist and flavorful enough to enjoy on its own. The turkey breast was better, slightly peppery and still moist by the time it landed on my table. But the sides, green chile mac 'n' cheese and baked beans, tasted not much better than the pre-packaged stuff. The mac 'n' cheese was runny and flat, with a few tiny flecks of red peppers muddled in the yellow sauce. The green chile part of the dish eluded me. The mildly spicy baked beans, or what they called baked beans, were spliced through with what appeared to be ground beef, more akin to a chili than the traditional side dish.
Speaking of sides, it's rare to come across a helping of corn or coleslaw that will outshine a heap of freshly smoked barbecue. That's no different here, but the overriding problem is a dearth of freshness and seasoning. A side order of corn tastes not much fresher than buttered-up canned corn. Garlic mashed potatoes are smooth and a bit bland, and the limp coleslaw could use a hefty sprinkling of salt and pepper.
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You won't find fresh peach cobbler or homemade pie at Frasher's, but if you wish, there is one dessert on the menu: St. Louis-style gooey butter cake. It's a sliver of dense, yellow wheat cake topped with a cheesy, cloyingly sweet frosting. Aside from the preternatural sweetness of the cake, the primary offense is that my slice had gone stale at the edges, making it hard to slice through with only a bendy plastic fork. Tough gooey butter cake can be forgiven, though. Barbecue that's sometimes too dry, too bland and a bit too expensive for what you get? That's another story.
3222 East Indian School Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily
Two-meat combo with two sides $14
Half-rack baby back ribs $16
Pulled pork sandwich with one side $8
Gooey butter cake $4