Cafe Reviews

Ribber, Phoenix

Buck-A-Rue Bar-B-Que, 15840 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 971-6107. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Every one of life's pleasures, someone once said, is illegal, immoral or fattening.

I don't get most of my pleasures by violating either the law or the Ten Commandments. But I put in a great deal of time doing penance on a health-club exercise bicycle, atoning for the sins of the flesh. That's because my supply of flesh is always threatening to get out of hand.

One of the worst temptations I face is barbecue. Sure, I know it's "bad" for me. Smoked pork ribs are to good health what Chernobyl is to clean air--or what the Arizona Legislature is to enlightened government.

But you can't reason with a craving. Everything about the barbecue process excites me, maybe because it all seems so primitive and wonderfully uncivilized. I can dispense with cutlery and use my paws to get a handle on dinner. Am I coated with sauce? That means I employed proper eating technique. (By the time I get through polishing off a rack of baby-backs, even a heavily congested rabbi could pick up and identify my scent.) And I get to wield my incisors, ripping off chunks of rib meat and joyfully gnawing on the bones.

Three new Valley barbecue joints have recently opened for business, aiming to awaken the beast within me. One aroused my animal lusts; one managed to get my juices flowing; and one made me suspect that vegetarians may be on to something after all.

A sign in the window of Buck-A-Rue Bar-B-Que says the place will cater any occasion, including bar mitzvahs. I have to wonder exactly how much bar mitzvah business Buck-A-Rue attracts. Feeding bar mitzvah guests slabs of pork ribs is like feeding Big Macs to celebrants at a Hindu wedding. I also have a hard time imagining someone like my Aunt Norma returning to her table after dancing the hora and saying, "Please pass the cowboy beans."

But if any place could pull off this kind of catering coup, it just might be Buck-A-Rue. This is smokin' good barbecue.

Like most first-rate pork parlors, Buck-A-Rue operates out of a nondescript storefront, on a nondescript stretch of road. (In this case, it's Cave Creek Road, just south of Bell.) Inside, the proprietors have opted for the ranch-house-implement look: saws, saddles, horseshoes and hoes hang from the walls, along with the inevitable beer signs. I'm not sure why they bothered with decor at all. There are only a half-dozen tables--most of the business must be takeout. You can also sit at the bar, then wander over to toss a few darts.

Once the ribs are in front of you, however, I seriously doubt whether anything short of a grenade will move you from your seat. The young man who served me called these bones "kick-ass." He was right--they're tender, meaty (but not fatty) and appealingly furnished with a charred edge. They're also brushed with a magnificent barbecue sauce, more tart than sweet, that works in perfect harmony with the meat, without threatening to overpower it.

Most of the other barbecue-parlor staples are just as compelling. Barbecue chicken is another glory, perfectly smoked, plump fowl, juicy and tender. Beef brisket isn't too lean--thank goodness. If there's no marbling, the meat tends to get dried out. Buck-A-Rue's brisket goes down real easy. But the real revelation is the smoked-turkey sandwich, the best I've gobbled down in this town. You get lots of thick-sliced bird, as moist as can be, placed on a kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato, onion and barbecue sauce. It's good enough to serve at Thanksgiving.

The only routine meat? That would be shredded pork. My batch simply wasn't juicy enough.

The platters come with a generally attractive assortment of sides. The potato salad is right on target, freshened with dill and not buried under a lava flow of mayonnaise. Pasta salad also works, zipped up with crunchy bits of broccoli and pepper, then dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. However, the two kinds of beans--baked and cowboy--need some perking up. They're one-dimensional.

I was stunned to note that grilled vegetables accompany all dinners. Why bring veggies into a rib joint? That's like bringing your Sunday-school teacher to Vegas. When you're enjoying guilty pleasures, who wants to be reminded of the straight and narrow?

Happily, whatever health benefits the tasty mix of broccoli, squash, cauliflower and mushrooms may have initially possessed are eliminated by the time the kitchen finishes pouring a bucket of butter over it. You can sop it up with a fragrant green chile corn muffin.

If you somehow haven't filled all your appetite cracks, the bread pudding with whiskey sauce will finish the job. This dessert is very rich, very sweet and very filling.

At Buck-A-Rue Bar-B-Que, they serve no swine before its time. I say, it's time.

Gecko Grill, 2401 East Baseline, Gilbert, 892-8099. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Set in a strip-mall storefront amid the gleamingly sterile subdivisions of Gilbert, Gecko Grill doesn't sport the funky character of the traditional down-and-dirty barbecue joint. About a half-dozen tables lined with oilcloth fill the small room. A television blares in one corner. Magazines, cards and checkers are available for amusement. If these don't divert you, you can stare at the wire gecko sculpture on the wall or direct your gaze to the restaurant's single potted plant.

Unfortunately, of all the items on Gecko Grill's limited menu, the ribs are the least compelling. Instead of being lifted to hog heaven, I felt like I was trapped in pig purgatory.

The problem? The ribs splintered every time I put my teeth to the bone. I don't know why every bone in this rack snapped like a twig at the merest tug, but it significantly interfered with my enjoyment.

Too bad, because the ribs were coated with an absolutely scrumptious barbecue sauce, thick and fruity, with a sweet-and-tart zing. It comes in three strengths: mild, medium and hot. The hot is particularly awesome--the chile kick provides a great boost.

Its full powers are revealed when brushed on the deeply flavorful chicken, a lovely bird with a juicy interior and a crispy edge. This fowl is fair. The shredded-pork sandwich is also a turn-on, with its mound of moist meat dripping out the sides of a bun.

I didn't expect much from the top-sirloin-steak sandwich, which usually turns out, in places like this, to be a mass of inedible gristle. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by about six ounces of tender beef, soft enough to gum.

Sandwiches come with potato chips and warehouse-club-quality coleslaw. The rib and chicken platters are more effectively teamed with a nifty twice-baked potato draped with cheese and beans drenched in the same wonderful barbecue sauce that zips up the meats.

I hope Gecko Grill can get its rib act together, because everything else is quite good. As Bonnie Raitt sang a few years ago, let's give them something to pork about.

Memphis Blues & Barbecue, 1264 West University, Mesa, 688-9334. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to close.

This down-home roadhouse sure looks like it holds great barbecue promise. You hear either live blues entertainment or recorded Janis Joplin spilling out over the music system. A colorful mural of a guitar player strumming in the desert decorates the back wall in the dining room.

The bar area showed signs of life. But some touches had us scratching our heads, like the cloth napkins stuffed inside glasses at the tables. Barbecue with cloth napkins? We also wondered why we were the only people eating here.

It didn't take us long to figure out that mystery. Not to put too fine a point on it, the food here ranges from third-rate to awful.

Memphis Blues & Barbecue serves some bayou-accented dishes, as well as the usual barbecue-parlor fare. In retrospect, appetizers like hot wings and Memphis gumbo signaled what we were in for. For instance, the menu promises that the wings come with veggies and a dip. They didn't. And the gumbo, a bland mix of underheated potatoes, mushy rice and zipless sausage, should have alerted us that the kitchen was apparently content just to go through the motions.

The main dishes proved it. It's almost impossible to make ribs boring, but somehow this place pulled off this dubious culinary achievement. The meat had no smoky aroma, no charred texture and no discernible flavor. The barbecue sauce turned out just as snooze-worthy.

Pulled barbecue was instantly forgettable, devoid of zip or energy. So were the smoked hot links, about which the menu boasts, ". . . and we mean HOT!" Somebody must be kidding. What we got looked and tasted like a ballpark frank.

With the beef brisket, however, the meal turned ugly. Thick, tough slabs of meat required a chain saw to cut, the bicuspids of a wolf to chew and the courage of a lion to swallow. Side dishes furnished no letup to our letdown: charmless beans; employee-cafeteria-quality coleslaw and potato salad; dull steamed collard greens; and over-the-hill green chile corn bread.

This place is aptly named: If you want Memphis barbecue and the blues, you'll get them here.

Smoked-turkey sandwich
Rack of ribs

Gecko Grill:
Rack of ribs (platter)

Memphis Blues
& Barbecue:
Pulled barbecue (sandwich)
Rack of ribs

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Howard Seftel