A Special Sauce

Despite a move and familial strife, the Original Mr. K's keeps serving some of the area's best barbecue

When I reviewed Mr. K's BBQ nine years ago, I wrote: "Mr. K'S BBQ may be the most unattractive restaurant I have ever eaten at. ... Having said that, Mr. K's BBQ has some of the better barbecue I've ever laid my lips on."

Well, a lot has changed since then. A little more than a year ago, Mr. K himself, Charles Kendrick, joined his daughter, Rhonda, and a business partner to open a new Mr. K's near Tucson Mall. Charles' son, Ray, did not join Charles and Rhonda in the new venture, and instead soldiered on at that old, ugly Mr. K's spot on Park Avenue—which was (slightly) renamed the Original Mr. K's BBQ. Several months ago, Ray moved the Original Mr. K's several miles south, into a more-spacious, less-cluttered spot on Park just a bit north of Valencia Road.

Thankfully, the new spot is a big improvement, comfortwise, over the old one. Well-spaced benches and tables join a TV in the brown-walled, tan-floored space. Decorations are few and far between; some old reviews and honors are posted on the walls, and that's it.

Also, thankfully: The barbecue's still pretty gosh-darned good. The key is the sauce: Mr. K's offers one sauce only, a sweet, peppery concoction. If you like it, chances are you'll like the barbecue, because the meats are tender and juicy across the board—although I was surprised by a lack of flavor in some of the unsauced meats themselves.

The menu has changed very little since my 2003 review. Diners have a choice of meat—pork ribs, beef ribs, chicken, sliced pork, beef brisket, hot links or Southern fried catfish—on a plate with some sides ($9.95 to $12.25), or in a sandwich ($6 to $6.50). The sides include Texas beans, candied sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, potato salad, cole slaw and collard/turnip mixed greens ($1.60 separately for 4 ounces; $2.75 for 8). For a dollar extra (or $2.69 separately), seasoned french fries are available, too.

Oh, and don't forget dessert: Peach cobbler ($2.99), pecan pie ($3.49), sweet-potato pie ($2.99) and cheesecake ($3.50 plain; add 50 cents for cherry or blueberry topping) are up for grabs.

We tried all of the meats, save the catfish, during our two visits. The ribs were splendid—the meat was falling off the bones and melded well with the sauce. The sliced pork didn't offer the smokiness I remember from the old Mr. K's location (I am not sure if my memory is off, or whether something changed), but it was still fantastic, as was the juicy, yummy brisket. The links—smoked sausages, essentially—were flavorful and worked well with the sauce.

The only dud we countered, meatwise, was the half-chicken. The skin was yummy, due to the char and the sauce, but the meat itself—while lusciously tender—had almost no flavor at all. I requested some extra sauce in which to dip that chicken meat, but I should not have needed to do so; some brining, some extra smoking, something could have been done to elevate that chicken.

The folks at the Original Mr. K's really put care into their sides, and it shows; at too many barbecue joints, the sides are treated as a second-rate afterthought. The potato salad was tangy thanks to just the right amount of mustard; the Texas beans were hearty and nicely seasoned. (I had to pick out a bay leaf, which I did not mind.) The greens had the perfect amount of salt; in fact, they were the best collard/turnip greens I've ever had. The corn on the cob was adequate (although the Original Mr. K's deserves a slap on the wrist for serving the corn with some margarine/spread thing, rather than real butter). We did not get to try the coleslaw.

As for those candied sweet potatoes ... wow. The cubed sweet-potato chunks were fantastic, seasoned perfectly (including what I believe was the perfect amount of cinnamon) and delightfully sweet without being cloying. I'd make a trip to the Original Mr. K's for these alone.

All of the plates come with cornbread, and it joined the chicken on the disappointing list. On the first visit, it was dry and chalky; on the next, it seemed almost underdone; on both, it was surprisingly bland, with not even a hint of sweetness.

I said not to miss dessert, and I meant it. The cobbler is to die for; in my review nine years ago, I noted that it was too sweet, but the sweetness was perfect here. Our only complaint was that the lovely crumble aspect of cobbler was missing a little, as the cobbler was all steamed up, served in a plastic-foam bowl with a lid on top. (All of the plates, bowls and serving utensils at Mr. K's are disposable, by the way.) The sweet-potato pie, on the other hand, was almost too sweet, though I enjoyed it. The pecan pie was very good, but it would have been even better if heated ever so slightly.

A word of warning: Do not attempt to eat at the Original Mr. K's if you are wearing white, or are wearing something that can't survive a bit of barbecue sauce. This food is messy; they should almost consider adding showers to the bathroom.

While not everything is perfect at the Original Mr. K's, it's been one of Tucson's top barbecue joints for almost a decade and a half—and it remains so today. Put on some casual clothes, and head on down to the southside the next time you're craving some tasty barbecue.

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