Cafe Reviews

Slab Report

Tickle My Ribs, 13610 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 869-7427. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Life in an affluent section of town has its appealing certainties. Residents can generally expect the parks to be well-tended; the school district to be adequately funded; the trash to be picked up on schedule; car insurance rates to be competitive; and crime to be under control.

On the other hand, despite these obvious advantages, high-income folks who never leave their comfortable neighborhoods miss out on life's infinite variety of charms. They'll never hear anyone mournfully sing the blues. They'll never meet a Democrat. And they'll never inhale the smoky fumes from a barbecued-rib joint (for recommended rib joints, see Second Helpings).

That's because barbecue storefronts traditionally operate in the less swanky parts of town. Why? For the same reason that Neiman Marcus and Lexus dealers set up shop in upscale locations: They want to be near their savviest customers.

Some bold barbecue entrepreneurs, however, are aiming to turn conventional wisdom on its head. During the past few months, several have targeted the tony northeast Valley.

I'm surprised. Capitalist economics teaches us to identify a market opportunity and take advantage of it. But is there a rib market here? A year ago, I don't think you could have found a single rib house in the entire northeast quadrant of the Valley. After all, nobody is likely to confuse Via Linda with Tobacco Road, or suburban Scottsdale with the south side of Chicago.

Now, suddenly, three new pork parlors have popped up, sporting ritzy Scottsdale zip codes. The Bible teaches us that it's futile to cast pearls before swine. I wonder about the advisability of casting swine before clientele outfitted with pearls. Can you eat high on the hog while living high on the hog? Can rib houses and three-car garages mutually flourish?

These frontier outposts of barbecue civilization don't furnish a definitive answer. At the moment, though, I'd say the prospects aren't too encouraging.

The best of the new trio is Tickle My Ribs, operated by a former bagel baker who's opted for a career change. Outside, he's jazzed up his minimall storefront with a misted patio. Inside, he's jazzed up his wooden, picnic-style tables with jars of artificial flowers. The television in the corner is tuned to sports, while the music system is hooked up to Motown. He's into merchandising, too--you can buy hats, tee shirts and boutique barbecue sauces.

Tickle My Ribs features two kinds of pork bones: baby backs, and slightly larger spare ribs. Both are very meaty, smoky and crisp, though they come up just a bit short when it comes to fall-off-the-bone tenderness. You can coat them with your choice of barbecue sauces: an inoffensive mild sauce and an inoffensive hot sauce that lacks heat but which does carry a pleasant, vinegary sting.

As is almost always the case, rib tips are a less effective gnawing alternative. That's because they've got less meat and more fat than the ribs. Go ahead and spend the extra couple of bucks on the baby backs.

Other rib-house staples demonstrate barbecue competency. The deeply smoked chicken may be a tad dry, but it's exceptionally plump. Sandwiches have a Scottsdale twist. Instead of the traditional mushy white bread, all of them (except the hot links) come on lightly toasted French rolls. I usually don't like to mess with tradition, but I consider this a progressive step.

The sandwiches are well-fashioned, too. Best is the barbecued beef, smoky, meaty and filling. Pulled pork isn't quite in the same league--it's a little too mild for me. And while the hot links aren't hot, they are smokin' good, full of the wonderful, high-fat juices that signal your brain that it's having a good time.

The proprietor evidently puts time and effort into his side dishes. Beans are first-rate, seasoned with onions and smoked meat and zipped up with an addictive sweet-and-sour tang. The French fries may not be fresh-peeled spuds, but they're right-out-of-the-fryer crispy. Coleslaw is fresh and crunchy, not soggy and mayo-drenched.

And, believe it or not, the potato salad is trumpeted as "fat-free." It seems to me that virtuously eating fat-free potato salad at a rib house is like virtuously obeying only the even-numbered Ten Commandments in Sodom and Gomorrah: What's the point? And for the record, I have to report that the potato salad is only moderately successful.

Desserts, however, are completely successful. The righteous pecan pie, heavy, sweet and nutty, ends the meal on a high note. So does the lighter sweet potato pie, packed into a flaky crust.

Good as it is, Tickle My Ribs doesn't match my ideal of hog heaven. But if you live in the northeast Valley, it's the closest you're going to come.

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Howard Seftel