Great, just what I need: a good barbecue joint just across the parking lot from the gym.
But that's exactly what I have in the form of Dickey's Barbecue Pit, a fast-casual chain that has opened in the same shopping center as LA Fitness on First Avenue and Limberlost Drive.
Dickey's got its start in Dallas in 1941, and today, it's a chain reaching into 28 states (with another Southern Arizona location planned for Marana). At the Tucson Dickey's incarnation, you'll find largely decent meats, some better-than-average side dishes and a décor largely focused on marketing, with all the subtlety of the Buy n Large Corporation from WALL-E.
The meat offerings include barbecue brisket, Polish sausage, pulled pork, sweet pork ribs, smoked turkey breast and Italian-marinated chicken breast. Side offerings include cole slaw, potato salad, Caesar salad, barbecue beans, a baked potato, waffle fries, macaroni and cheese, and something called baked potato casserole. Throw in enhanced versions of the baked potato and the Caesar salad, chicken nuggets for the kids and pecan pie for the dessert, and you have Dickey's menu.
Diners can get meat on a sandwich ($4.99; add a side or two, and the cost is $6.98 or $7.69; be warned that a baked potato counts as two sides), or plates with two sides and a meat ($8.99), two meats ($10.99—and the ribs count as two meats) or three meats ($11.49). Of course, you can make arrangements for catering and takeout for large parties, too.
Dickey's is a fast-casual joint, meaning you order at the counter, and the friendly folks in Dickey's employ will bring food to you in plastic baskets when it's ready, generally after an acceptably short wait. You have to get your own drinks, your own sauce (consisting of original, sweet and hot-and-spicy varieties) and whatever other accoutrements you want (like lemon, jalapeno peppers, scallions and cheese) from a table near the register.
The meats we sampled—and we sampled 'em all—ranged from OK to outstanding. The brisket had a nice flavor, but was a bit dry; the same thing goes for the ribs. On our lunch visit, Ryan said the pulled pork was "good," while Curtis declared it "decent but not very exciting"; I'd call it fine, yet not necessarily distinctive. The Polish sausage was also a matter of debate; on our dinner visit, Garrett found it underwhelming, while I thought it was actually quite delicious—with a lot of subtle but different flavors—when mixed with the original sauce. That sauce ranks in the top quartile of barbecue sauces I've had. The sweet sauce was also tasty, while the hot and spicy sauce was neither particularly hot nor spicy.
The meats that really hit the spot were the two you'd seem least likely to find at a barbecue joint: the chicken and the turkey. Note that these opinions are not unanimous: On our lunch visit, Charlie called the chicken "sub-par," but I'm going to say that Charlie needs his taste buds checked, based on the chicken I devoured on my dinner visit. The slices of moist, perfectly cooked chicken breast benefited from just enough marinating in Italian spices. It was perfectly delicious without the sauce (not that the sauce wasn't welcome). The turkey was also moist and had a wonderful smoky flavor. On my next Dickey's visit, I'll skip the mammals in favor of the birds.
While Dickey's meats didn't impress me as much as the meats at some other barbecue joints around town, I found the sides to be atypically enjoyable. It seems like far too many places focus all their efforts on the meat, and therefore churn out mediocre side dishes. But at Dickey's, the worst of the sides were passable, whereas the best of the sides were quite delicious. Among the passable were the coleslaw (which was too watery), the beans, the Caesar salad and the macaroni and cheese. Among the delicious were the mustard-y potato salad, which kicks the crap out of the stuff in the plastic containers you can buy at the supermarket; the crisp and masterfully seasoned waffle fries; and the baked potato casserole, which suffers from a stupid name—this is mashed potatoes topped with scallions and cheddar cheese on the planet where I live—but benefits from being damn tasty.
I also recommend saving room for dessert: The pecan pie ($2.29) far surpassed what I expected to get from a chain barbecue joint; it was sweet without being cloying, and even had a respectable crust. If pecan pie doesn't float your boat, one of Dickey's claims to fame is free ice cream, compliments of a soft-serve machine where you can help yourself.
The one thing I truly despised about Dickey's was the look of the restaurant itself. On one hand, the place is clean and bright (muted reds, oranges and browns make up the color scheme) with two TVs—tuned to NBC and ESPN on my visits—offering entertainment. I didn't even mind the country/Western music. On the other hand, the place is chock-full of marketing ploys everywhere you look. Posters tout Dickey's catering, the fact that kids eat free on Sunday, etc., etc. Then there are the oh-not-so-clever quotes, attributed to founder Travis Dickey, painted on the walls here and there. Some samples: "So good even vegetarians eat it in secret," and my personal nominee for Inane Made-Up Quote of the Year, "If life gives you Dickey's barbecue, eat it!"
Aside from these abominable decorations, Dickey's is worth checking out, thanks to the yummy sauce, the delectable bird meats and the surprisingly good sides. It's also a great way to replenish those calories after a visit to the gym.