Cafe Reviews

In a Slather

Lib's Ribs, 2545 North 32nd Street, Phoenix, 508-8220. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

When you come from a tightknit religious family in New York, as I did, you have two options growing up.

You can conform: Get good grades in college, then study medicine or the law, marry a brunette you met at the neighborhood synagogue, and set up your household in the same zip code as Mom and Dad, so you can see them three nights a week.

Or you can rebel: For me, that meant bringing home D's and F's, wandering around the globe, scoffing at middle-class values, marrying a Midwestern blonde and setting up a string of households so far from New York that the time difference made even telephone contact with the folks a chore.

My youthful rebellion had a culinary edge, as well. I discovered barbecue. In our strictly kosher home, my mother would sooner have invited Yassir Arafat to Sabbath dinner than serve pork, which Old Testament dietary law proscribes. But my faith wasn't rooted nearly as firmly as hers. Years of religious training melted away the moment I first inhaled the scent of barbecue. Yes, I knew the ancient sages would not have approved. But, as I excitedly gnawed on baby back bones, nibbled on rib tips and wolfed down pulled pork and hot links sandwiches, I asked myself, country-song style: "How can it be wrong, when it tastes so right?" Tempted with such righteous barbecue, even a vegetarian rabbi, I thought, would have had a hard time maintaining the faith.

Time, of course, brings change. These days, I'm too weary to rebel. Instead, I'm the picture of 9-to-5, mortgage-paying, family-raising, bourgeois respectability. My parents' words come out of my mouth: I insist my kids get good grades; I urge them to consider a professional career; I don't want them to move too far away; and, while they can marry whom they please, they know I've drawn the line of potential partners at felons and Republicans.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is my lust for good barbecue. And the lusty fare at Lib's Ribs gets my engine revving.

This place looks the way a genuine rib parlor ought to look: impoverished. It's set in a run-down strip center, in a section of town that will never be confused with, say, Paradise Valley. I don't think Phoenix Home & Garden will be doing a photo shoot of the interior, either. It's tidy, but spartan. Decor includes one oilcloth-draped table, a few metal chairs, two potted plants and a soda machine. You order through a window in the wall.

The friendly proprietor hails from Ohio. When I asked her to describe her style of barbecue, she said she just followed her mother's recipes. I've never heard Ohio barbecue mentioned in the same breath with the barbecue out of Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Kansas City or Chicago. But the food here is good enough to put Ohio on the barbecue map.

The ribs are outstanding: exceptionally meaty, tender and charred up to a crisp edge. These bones are so good that the sauce seems almost superfluous. But it complements the ribs perfectly, just a bit sweet and understated enough to let the meat's quality shine through.

Rib tips are the featured part of the bargain-priced "Po-man's meal." Most of the rib tips I've encountered in this town are inedible chunks of fat and gristle, better suited as a dog treat. The rib tips here, however, are laden with meat and uncommonly tasty. $2.98 doesn't take you gastronomically far these days, but this plate takes you farther than most.

Sandwiches are also impressive. Barbecued pork somehow manages to be both mild and flavorful. The hard-hitting barbecued beef is smokier and more robust. And you'll need both hands to handle the hot links sandwich, which doesn't stint on quantity or quality.

Everyone knows that serious barbecue parlors take their side dishes and desserts seriously. This place sure does. The French fries are honest-to-God spuds, not a processed potato product. The fried yam strips are the real, right-out-of-the-fryer deal. Collard greens, zipped up with bacon, transported me to rural roots I never had. Homemade potato salad, touched up with pickle relish and mortared with mayo, isn't for the faint-hearted. But it's irresistible. The beans are first-rate, too, boosted with bits of pork. And the sweet potato pie ends the meal on the right note.

Nobody is ever going to use the words "elegant" and "Lib's Ribs" in the same sentence. But you can't eat elegance. If you're in a fever to get down, get messy and pork out in the privacy of your own home, Lib's Ribs has got the cure.

Dickey's Barbecue Pit, 4532 East Thomas, Phoenix, 954-7082. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Dickey's has been serving barbecue in Texas for almost 60 years. A few months ago, Arizona's first franchise unit, headed up by an outgoing Texas transplant with a heavy twang, began firing up the hickory wood smoker on Thomas Road.

This is no shack. It's a big, family-friendly place, with comfy vinyl booths and checked oilcloth on the tables.

Food is dished out cafeteria-style. After I grabbed my tray and got into line, I told the proprietor that I was looking forward to a good meal. "If it ain't good," he replied confidently, "I'll give you back your money."

Happily, that won't be necessary. While the fare isn't head-swivelingly, jaw-droppingly and overpoweringly mesmerizing, it's really quite good, much better than other chain-outfit barbecue.

The meaty slab of ribs had no shortcomings I could detect. If it did have any, the wonderful barbecue sauce it's brushed with would probably have covered them up. This sauce showed real character--thick, tart and tomatoey, with an unmistakable bite.

Sandwiches are well-stacked with a quarter-pound of meat. (You can also buy meat by the pound.) Pork loin is very lean, which cuts down on both calories and flavor. But it's surprisingly moist. The hot links are nothing special. But the beef brisket and smoked turkey are. The marvelous brisket delivers a primally satisfying animal-protein rush, one that inspires chest-thumping delight. And the juicy sliced turkey breast is good enough to grace a Thanksgiving table.

Dickey's offers a big selection of sides. Some are worth stopping over. Steamy au gratin potatoes, coated with a thick layer of gloppy yellow cheese, taste better than they look. Black-eyed peas, seasoned with ham hock and butter, are flat-out delicious. Potato salad is a bit mushy, but it's redeemed by fresh dill, hard-boiled egg and a pleasing mustard-mayo dressing. I wish the jalapeno beans were spicier--hey, Texas, Arizonans can take the heat. There's just enough oomph, however, to keep them interesting. But there's nothing interesting about the dreadful fried okra pellets. In this instance, the kitchen just isn't trying.

Desserts include an incredibly sweet peach cobbler, and a terrific pecan pie that will provoke dueling forks unless everyone in your group gets his own piece.

Dickey's had the foresight to get a beer license. Along with napkins, I believe a cold brewski is an essential barbecue meal component. Here's looking at 'cue, kid.

Joe's Real BBQ, 301 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert, 503-3805. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Joe's Real BBQ is such a great-looking place that the food almost seems secondary.

The operators, Joe Johnston and Tim Peelen, were the entrepreneurial geniuses behind the Coffee Plantation. (They sold their stake in 1993.) In the late 1980s, when they opened the first Coffee Plantation on Mill Avenue, they foresaw that the Valley was ready for a coffee-house explosion. Now, in the late 1990s, they believe the Valley is ready for a barbecue explosion.

That surely seems true in the East Valley. Joe's has been packed since it opened three months ago. On a recent Saturday night, hungry diners were lined up all the way out the front door, waiting more than a half-hour to reach the front of the cafeteria line. At the takeout window, eager customers were waiting 10 minutes just to place their orders.

What's the attraction? Certainly the nostalgic setting. Joe's is housed in a beautifully restored 1929 brick building, in what's called "downtown" Gilbert. The barnlike interior features handsome dark wood tables, a John Deere tractor and a colorful, WPA-style agricultural mural depicting happy rustics working in fields and groves. In nice weather, you can bring your food outside--there are picnic tables lined across an expansive grass lawn. The bucolic scene charmingly evokes America's rural past.

Unfortunately, the barbecue can't always keep up with the decor. The least compelling item here is what should be a barbecue parlor's star attraction: the slab of ribs. These bones are meaty enough and skillfully charred, but the meat isn't terribly tender and not particularly flavorful. Perhaps the pecan wood which Joe's burns is a little too mild and subtle. The nondescript barbecue sauce doesn't help. It's too middle-of-the-road--sweet and thick--without any backbone. I got the feeling that it was designed by a committee, which tried not to offend anyone.

The brisket also falls short. It's so lean that it's almost as dry as peanut butter. No doubt, fat-obsessed customers will be pleased. Barbecued-beef lovers won't. The innocuous beef/pork sausage doesn't make a lasting impression, either.

What works? Pulled pork, moist and juicy, shows some flair. So does the smoked turkey. But the best thing here is the turkey/jalapeno sausage, which sports a surprisingly snappy taste.

The sides show more energy. The beans are great, a blend of four different varieties perked up with pork. Skin-on potatoes, drenched in cheese, are addicting. Sweet corn niblets are better than the usual, frozen-since-last-summer corn on the cob most barbecue parlors inflict. Coleslaw is crunchy and fresh-tasting. And the lemon cake dessert--sweet, tart and tangy--hits all the flavor buttons.

Joe's play-it-safe, appeal-to-the-masses barbecue probably won't win over purists and connoisseurs. But that's not who the market-savvy proprietors are trying to lure. Judging by their success here, you can expect to see other Joe's Real BBQ places popping up elsewhere in the Valley.

Lib's Ribs:
Barbecued-beef sandwich
Slab of ribs
Sweet potato pie

Dickey's Barbecue Pit:
Beef brisket sandwich
Slab of ribs
9.49 (per pound)

Joe's Real BBQ:
Turkey/jalapeno sausage sandwich
Slab of ribs
Lemon cake


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Howard Seftel