Cafe Reviews

In a Slather

Page 2 of 3

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.

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Howard Seftel