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So-So BBQ PDQ 

Smokin' features tasty ribs and tangy sauce, but its fast-food atmosphere annoys.

I walked into the Speedway Boulevard Smokin' with high hopes. Bob McMahon and his company, Metro Restaurants, know what they're doing. McMahon's Prime Steakhouse and Firecracker Bistro have top-notch reputations, and some of the better meals I've had in Tucson were at the Old Pueblo Grille and Metro Grill Park Place.

As a big fan of barbecue, I was therefore thrilled several months back when Metro jumped into the biz with two locations of Smokin', "A Bar-B-Q Place." While there are a handful of good barbecue joints in the Old Pueblo, there aren't as many as one would expect for a town this size.

But I left Smokin' disappointed. My experience was too hit-and-miss, and Smokin' can't stand up to the rest of its Metro brethren.

I visited Smokin' on a recent Friday night with Hugh Dougherty, The Weekly's new art/graphics manager. Here's how Smokin' works: You walk in, order at the counter and go up to get your food when your name is called. You get your own drinks; you get your own barbecue sauce out of self-serve plastic dispensers on a counter. In other words, Smokin' is essentially a fast-food joint with slightly better food, slightly higher prices and a slightly nicer atmosphere.

And it's chaos when it gets busy. There are supposed to be two ordering lines (one to order food and dine in; another to pay for to-go orders). But there really isn't that much room for the lines, and there is no guidance other than several signs, so it can get hectic.

Fortunately, we arrived before the Friday night dinner rush, so we were spared the chaos. Hugh ordered a shaved pork sandwich ($5.75) along with a side of fresh-cut fries ($1.45) and a side of BBQ beans ($1.45). I decided on a half-rack of ribs ($8.95) which came with two sides; I chose potato salad and the beans over apple sauce or cole slaw. I also got an order of onion strings ($1.45) and a side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing ($2.75). Chicken, salmon, pork and beef are also on sale, along with sandwiches with beef brisket, hot links or pulled chicken. There is also a kid's meal with chicken, pork or beef for $3.95.

We ordered, got our drinks and sat down. With brick walls, an aluminum roof and wooden booths (covered with plastic cushioning), the décor is nice enough, although the track lighting seemed out of place. Prints depicting blues artists such as Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane hang on the walls, and the down-home music adds a nice touch. Hugh, a barbecue-joint purist, noted his disappointment that "there's not one license plate on the walls," but he said that Smokin' redeemed itself somewhat by having a roll of paper towels at each table.

Here's the rub: Several times a minute, the music is interrupted with calls telling people that their orders are ready. And these calls are loud--so loud, in fact, they actually interrupted our conversation. This does not make for a comfortable dining experience.

In impressively short time, our meals were ready. We grabbed our trays and made our way back to the booth, with a stop for sauce along the way. Smokin' offers three different types of barbecue sauce: sweet and spicy Texas, smokey St. Louis and Carolina mustard. We got plastic cups of each to give 'em a try.

Hugh and I were both impressed by our main courses. Hugh noted that his sandwich was "good," if a little fatty. He had kind words to say about the bread as well; the white bun was absorbent, soft and tasted homemade. And with my ribs, the meat was falling off the bones--always a good sign. They had a delicious flavor, thanks to the pecan and mesquite wood they're smoked over.

And what about the sauce, you ask? Hugh and I were again both impressed. The sweet and spicy Texas had a nice little peppery bite to it. The smokey St. Louis was OK--it tasted an awful lot like Bullseye, but I like Bullseye--but the standout was the Carolina Mustard. It was thinner and more watery than the other sauces, but it had an amazing, unique taste, thanks to the--you guessed it--addition of mustard.

While the main courses were all commendable, the side dishes and my salad were all so-so or worse. Hugh's fries were OK--a bit hard and dry--and the corn bread tasted more like yellow cake than true cornbread. The onion strings were truly worthless--crisp, extremely thin strands that tasted like someone hacked up an Awesome Blossom and left it in the sun for a few hours. My salad was acceptable--the citrus vinaigrette was deliciously tangy, but there was a bit too much brown, wilted lettuce in the mix for my comfort.

That leaves that barbecue restaurant staple: the beans. Hugh and I had differing opinions. He flat out hated them, calling them "awful." I thought they were OK, however, with a nice, sweet flavor highlighted by the presence of white onions, but not enough meat.

Because we couldn't stand the loudspeaker interrupting our conversation every 30 seconds, we got dessert to go. Smokin' offers apple pie or pecan pie ($2.50 slice, $7.95 whole pie), so Hugh got a piece of the pecan and I got a piece of apple. The pies were a nice end to the meal--Hugh praised the pecan as the best part of the whole dining experience, while I found my apple pie to be perfectly cooked with a crisp crust, albeit with an overabundance of cinnamon.

Our experience at Smokin' was a total mixed bag. I'll go back for a takeout order of ribs with that Carolina mustard sauce, for sure, though I won't dine in again, thanks to the blaring loudspeaker. But I can't help but be disappointed, because I know Metro Restaurants can do better than this. Seeing as Smokin' hasn't even been around for six months yet, perhaps there's time to improve.

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