Smoked Sermon

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The Barbecue Company's Grill & Cafe, 4636 South 36th Street, Phoenix, 243-3771. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

No one has any trouble praising greatness. But mediocrity rarely gets its due.

Perhaps history's most inspired defense of mediocrity came in 1970, from Senator Roman Hruska. The Nebraska Republican had a natural empathy with, and affinity for, the second-rate.

The occasion: In a controversial move, President Nixon had just nominated the little-known Judge G. Harold Carswell to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Carswell's principal qualification seemed to be his willingness to vote cases along whatever lines the administration might suggest.

His nomination outraged the legal community, who thought he was little more than a hack whose skills were best suited to traffic court. Distinguished judges, scholars and law-school deans, insisting that Carswell had no place on the nation's highest court, set up a howl heard all the way to Washington.

A Nixon windsock, Hruska took the Senate floor to defend the nominee. In ringing tones, Hruska made his point: "There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers, and they are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?" Yes, Hruska allowed, in the grand scheme of things, it might be better for the country to have the nation's finest legal minds on the Supreme Court bench. But, he declared, "We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos."

Hruska's twisted logic didn't convince his colleagues, who rejected the Carswell nomination 51-45. But his argument made a lasting impression on me.

After all, in the real world, mediocrity rules. So why not just lower our standards and get used to it?

That, apparently, is the logic driving the astonishing number of new barbecue parlors flooding the Valley. It seems like anyone with a smoker, a hog and a recipe for beans feels qualified to open a rib house these days. And, to my distress, most of these enterprises seem perfectly content to plateau at mediocrity.

One place that's setting its sights somewhat higher is The Barbecue Company's Grill & Cafe. No, it hasn't quite achieved greatness. But this kitchen is clearly aspiring to it.

For about a decade, The Barbecue Company has flourished as a catering operation. Then, last year, the proprietor added a retail outlet. Barbecue lovers should rejoice.

The restaurant is no bare-bones barbecue shack. It's a big, airy place, neat, clean and tidy. Dozens of trophies attesting to barbecue prowess are on display. So are sauces, spices and tee shirts, which are all available for purchase. Mosey over to the life-size cutout of John Wayne. It goes with the rest of the Western theme, which includes lots of cowboy paraphernalia hanging on the walls.

This kitchen puts together some kick-ass barbecue. Whether it's ribs, brisket, pulled pork, turkey, chicken or side dishes, the food here smacks you upside the head with flavor.

The cook favors St. Louis ribs, larger and meatier than baby backs, though somewhat less tender. It's a wise choice. I don't want the meat to fall off the bone--the beast in me prefers to give it a gentle tug with my teeth. And that's all these lovely bones require. The ribs are moist, gristle-free, perfectly charred and lightly coated in a tart, sharp, ketchupy sauce that can make you pucker and smile at the same time. The proprietor calls it Arizona-style, and it's a style I can definitely live with.

Beef brisket is outstanding, beefy, tender and deeply smoked. It's particularly irresistible in The Dynamite, a hoagie roll lined with hot sauce and explosively crammed with meat, onions, peppers, melted jack cheese and jalapenos. This sandwich lights a fire in your mouth that you won't want to put out.

Moist and mild, the pulled pork isn't as brash as the brisket. But it still furnishes lots of flavor. So does the smoked poultry. Thin-sliced smoked turkey often turns out dry and leathery, but that's not the case here. You'll gobble up this bird.

The sides show some flair. Give the beans time to grow on you. The kitchen prefers to use chile heat, not brown sugar or molasses, to give them their energy. These beans ain't for wimps. French fries are hot, crispy and zestily seasoned. Coleslaw is imaginatively freshened with a sprinkling of blue cheese. The skin-on potato salad is homemade, and tastes like it.

The Barbecue Company makes its own desserts, too. Unfortunately, there's no sweet potato pie or peach cobbler, traditional barbecue sweets. There is a surprisingly good cheesecake and right-out-of-the-oven cookies, though the bland, flavorless pecan pie doesn't make the grade.

The message from The Barbecue Company's Grill & Cafe: Having a swine time. Wish you were here.

Black's Smokey Hog BBQ, 2010 East Broadway, Phoenix, 305-9693. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Black's Smokey Hog BBQ looks like it came out of Central Casting, Rib Shack Division. It's set in South Phoenix, next door to the South Phoenix Baptist Church. Its proprietor, the Reverend Bernard Black, is the pastor there.

The place, which opened earlier this year, is almost Germanically spic-and-span. Tables and booths are done up in bright red and yellow laminate. The television is on. A sign on the wall says "no profanity" and "no loitering." And I laughed out loud when I checked the marker board for the daily special. It offered a "Lite meal": two ribs, beans, corn bread and sweet potato pie. When this kind of "lite" eating shows up in a rib house, you know our national calorie obsession has gone way too far.

I was really rooting for Black's Smokey Hog BBQ. But after making my way through the menu, my hopes and enthusiasm flagged.

Still, it took a while for disillusion to set in. That's because I started with chicken, one of the smokiest, tastiest birds I've torn into recently. Order the chicken sandwich, and you'll get pieces of breast, leg and thigh still on the bone, set between two pieces of white bread. It's about as down-home as you can get. Hot links are also marvelous, juicy and packed with flavor.

The Texas-style ribs, though, let me down. Hard. To be blunt: The meat on these bones is simply too tough and fatty. I'm willing to make allowances, but only up to a point. And this slab not only went up to that point, it took a flying leap over it. No matter how masterfully the reverend smokes, chars and sauces his ribs, they'll never be topnotch until they come from higher-quality hogs.

Beef brisket, another barbecue-parlor staple, is also a disappointment. It's the same problem: chewy, gristly meat that keeps interfering with pleasure. This place needs to keep its eyes out for better cows, as well as hogs.

Too bad, too, because the unusual barbecue sauce here is wildly intriguing. It's tart, sweet and highly scented, with notes of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. After the initial shock, I was won over. But it can't overcome the lackluster ribs and brisket singlehandedly.

The best side dish is the mix of collard and mustard greens. The beans could use some perking up, perhaps with a bit of sausage or brown sugar. Don't bother with the corn bread--it's very dry.

I wish everything here were as good as the homemade peach cobbler. It's ooey, gooey and delicious. In contrast, the sweet potato pie is too dense and not quite sweet enough for my taste.

Black's Smokey Hog BBQ looks and feels exactly right. I look forward to the day it tastes exactly right, too.

Gallagher's Bar-B-Q, 7575 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 997-0084. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The name says "Bar-B-Q," but that's a little misleading. Gallagher's is mostly a neighborhood meeting spot and watering hole, a place for locals to shoot pool, toss darts, play video games, watch sports on television, smoke, drink and flirt. Eating ribs, brisket, pulled pork and smoked poultry seems only incidental to the other action.

It appears to be a good business formula. The dining room, set in the back, is usually pretty quiet. But the front, bar area is usually bustling with the 21-to-35 demographic, looking to kick back after work or have a good time on weekends.

The food is just as good as it has to be. That means you can order anything in perfect confidence--it will be reasonably hearty, reasonably tasty and reasonably priced. But there's no reason for barbecue lovers to make a special effort to come here and eat it.

I don't have any specific complaints about the St. Louis ribs. They're as meaty, crisp and tender as you could wish. But they have no character, no regional flair. A generic barbecue sauce, also lacking individuality, doesn't give them any boost. Bland beef brisket exhibits the same defects.

The kitchen tries to zip up pulled pork by offering it in a sandwich energized with a Carolina-style vinegar sauce. But the kitchen doesn't really have its heart in it--the sauce showed very little spunk.

(Note to entrepreneurs: If someone ever sets up a Carolina barbecue parlor in the Valley, I'll be there opening day.)

Smoked turkey is serviceable enough, although it could have been less dry. And you'd better make sure your beer mug is full if you order the hot links. They're incredibly salty.

The best thing here is the side of barbecued beans, tangy, sweet and flavorful. Thick-cut steak fries and chunky potato salad also go above and beyond the call of side-dish duty.

Gallagher's doesn't have the kind of barbecue memories are made of. If you're looking for hog heaven, you'll have to look elsewhere.

The Barbecue Company's Grill & Cafe:
The Dynamite
Ribs (half rack)

Black's Smokey Hog BBQ:
Chicken sandwich
Ribs (whole slab)

Gallagher's Bar-B-Q:
Beef brisket sandwich
Ribs (full rack)


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