The quest for such a place has become a personal challenge of sorts. I find myself constantly checking and rechecking the area, much like one who keeps opening the door to his empty refrigerator on the chance that somehow, the food fairy has miraculously visited.
My diligence has finally paid off. I've found Dillon's Restaurant, plopped down last year on the remote strip of Thunderbird just west of Loop 101.
Dillon's is primarily a barbecue joint, and owner Rich Dillon knows his stuff. A former meat packer in Missouri, he previously was a bigwig at K.C. Masterpiece Barbecue and Grill out of Kansas. All his food is prepared fresh daily for each shift -- both lunch and dinner, he says (although, with the meat taking up to 18 hours to smoke over pecan, I'm not quite sure how chef Peter Salazar pulls this off). True to Dillon's Midwestern background, he brings all his ribs in from Iowa.
The place looks like it was born in the Midwest, too. From the outside, it looks like someone's home, with a green picket fence, old-fashioned gables, white slump block and a shake roof. From the inside, it's living-room-inviting, with parlors decked by French doors, plush flowered carpets, cozy floral-patterned sofas in the foyers, country-style art on the walls, and everywhere, clever pig figurines. I love the lush green plants and the cozy fireplace stocked with candles during the hot summer months.
There's a sports-style bar off the foyer, oddly enough, but it's not intrusive; once my companions and I settle into our meals, we never know it's there, even though one evening we're seated right outside its side entry.
Of course, it would take a nuclear explosion to distract us from Dillon's onion rings, absolutely some of the most delightful crispy critters I've ever chewed on. It amazes me how decadent a stark pairing of vegetable and batter can be; the sweet onion rounds practically float off our polka-dot tablecloth under their joyously crispy coating. The so-called ancho chile sauce served alongside tastes like spicy Thousand Island dressing to me, but then, these rings don't need any gilding, anyway.
Spinach enchiladas aren't exactly barbecue-house regulars, but nobody at my table is complaining. We're all too busy stuffing ourselves on an oversize tortilla bursting with fresh creamed spinach, Jack cheese and, supposedly, marinated artichoke hearts under a creamy, mild chile-spiked sauce. Add in more artichoke, and I'd make this dish -- available as an appetizer or an entree -- a regular part of my diet.
A Dillon's specialty, Southwestern smoked stew, needs exactly nothing to make it marvelous. Stocked with tender nubbins of beef and pork, plus tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and celery in a thick broth, it's feisty with lots of cracked pepper and the billowing aroma of smooth smoke. Parting may be sweet sorrow, but I'm downright depressed when I have to pass my bowl to share among my companions. The only failing here -- I don't find any of the menu-advertised homemade seasoned croutons, which would lend a quite pleasing crunch.
AWOL croutons handicap an entree-size chicken club salad, too. Too bad; they'd be just the thing to spark up an otherwise predictable toss of romaine, iceberg, purple cabbage, carrot and lusciously ripe tomato slices. I like the salad's crisp fried chicken breast strips quite a bit, though, served admirably juicy and grease-free. Toppings of ham and chopped bacon are smoked on-site, and taste of it -- fresh and full-flavored. I drench it all with a spunky ranch dressing that's surely never seen the inside of a bottle, shutting my mind against the enormous calories contained within. This dish is just too good for me to care.
Calorie-cautious diners would do well to stay as far away as possible from Dillon's Brontosaurus beef rib platter. Remember the opening of Flintstones cartoons, where Fred stops at the local park-'n'-eat rib joint? And how the waitress staggers out with a rack of ribs so huge that when she places it on his "car" door tray, the entire vehicle tips over? That's our table collapsing in the background.
No exaggeration -- I have never in my life seen anything as monstrous or as mouth-wateringly macho as this rib plate. The table creaks when our server places the portion in front of my dining companion, and I swear, I can barely see him peeking over the top of this pile of 13 meaty bones. Servings average about four pounds, we're told.
The only challenge with this meal, other than finding sufficient gullet room, is how to eat it. Don't wear your Sunday best -- even with the bib thoughtfully provided, a rubber suit is highly recommended. The rack overflows the plate, the sauce seeps all over everything, and the gargantuan bones defy convenient cutting. Indeed, a few ribs into his meal, my companion is completely covered in sauce -- his face, his hands, his elbows, his sleeves; likely, he finds residue in his belly button upon returning home.
The ribs are worth it, loaded with meat, their edges smoked pink, and wet with a rousing mild sauce.
Those who don't like so much fat will do better with Dillon's smoked salmon fillet. This is a restrained serving, basted with lemon-herb barbecue seasoning, dolloped with sauce on the side. The choice tonight is Cajun barbecue, and it's a good one: thick, peppery and not in the least sweet. The sauce is good enough to eat with a spoon; too bad the fish is, well, fishy, and a bit too flabby to be just off the boat.
Perhaps Chef Salazar is too caught up in his pulled pork to be monitoring the seafood. The pork, it seems, is his pride and joy, it being the meat that takes almost 20 hours to come out of the smoker. The shoulder emerges tender and moist, doused in Dillon's hottest barbecue sauce. How hot is it? It elicits barely a quiver from iron-mouth me, but my much more fragile dining companion has tears in her eyes.
Dillon's may be barbecue, but it offers a couple of exciting entrees that kick it closer to fine dining. Smoked rack of lamb is a tender treat. Portobello mushroom salad is well crafted, as is salmon salad (the fish is fresher this time), zipped with marinated artichoke hearts and Parmesan. And prime rib is an appreciated upgrade, infused with mild-mannered charms of pecan wood, just enough fat to keep it flavorful and so tender it tears on my teeth.
But my all-out favorite dish here is that spectacular "steak of the lake" -- catfish. Chef Salazar treats these fillets with finesse, bringing me two healthy creatures dipped in a wonderful batter he's mastered and served with a tartar sauce that has my tongue tingling with relishy tang. The fish is dusted with parsley, gloriously salty and spunky with squeezes of fresh lemon.
Such care in the kitchen makes it surprising -- and shocking -- that an appetizer of pork rib tips is so very dreadful. It's on the menu the first time I visit, then disappears -- and for good reason. It's a full pound of grossly overcooked, completely inedible pig stumps basted in too much sauce. Go for a serving of smoked sausage instead. I'd happily camp out with this dish, noshing on the thick slices, savoring the crisp snap of their casings and sipping a glass of Dillon's bargain-priced wine.
Dillon's dinners don't come with salad, but splurge the extra $3.99 for a bountiful blend of the same greens seen in the chicken club salad, enhanced with chopped hard-boiled egg, tomatoes and house-smoked bacon bits. Here is where those curious croutons finally make their appearance, and yes, they're good.
Dinners do come with a choice of two sides -- some better than others. My pick? That trusty barbecue buddy, baked potato, and the grilled vegetables. Barbecue baked beans aren't particularly exciting, and coleslaw is like any other coleslaw I've had before. Steak fries are fine, thick and mealy as they should be, but no big whoop. Twice-baked potato salad, meanwhile, wilts on the vine, done in by too strongly flavored smoked bacon bits and Cheddar under an ineffective mantle of tangy mayo.
Just be sure to save room for Dillon's desserts. Wimps may be too groggy to force any down after such substantial meals. But we tackle homemade cobbler, a manageable square of fresh blueberries and peaches under a nontraditional pie crust. It's served warm enough to melt the vanilla ice cream alongside, and rich enough that our table of four leaves completely content after sharing a single piece.
Can Dillon's change an age-old West Valley lore that there's nothing good to eat on that end of town? Probably not. Does it give me new hope, and renewed reason to keep opening that refrigerator door? Oh, yeah.