Where There's Smoke, There's Barbecue

A rib-tickling roundup of the Old Pueblo's lip-smacking barbecue.

In the beginning there was man, meat and fire--the fixings for early barbecue. Fast forward and not much has changed except each culture and region professes to have its own unique taste veiled in secret ingredients and techniques. Just like impenetrable discussions of religion and politics, no one opinion exists as to what makes good barbecue. Some swear by the wood used for smoking hickory, mesquite or pecan. Others argue it's the dry marinade or the mop (wet marinade). A few espouse that the secret is in the sauce.

Throughout history, the quest for good barbecue crossed over racial and political lines. In Los Angeles I've driven into the bowels of the 'hood based on word-of-mouth raves but here there's no 'hood to speak of. Barbecue can be found in ugly strip malls, major thoroughfares and eclectic shopping areas. Most barbecue joints feature anti-ambience--where aromas entice while cheesecloth tablecloths and picnic tables suffice.

Tucson will never be a Q haven like St. Louis, Kansas City, Texas or the South yet it offers a worthy array of choices. For this review I consecutively galloped to six restaurants choosing house specials limited to one serving. Sometimes I added a few extras specific to each menu. As for brew, we drank iced tea.

Here's the list in the order in which we ate our barbecue Bacchanalia:

Tom's BBQ

An Arizona chain, Tom's is Chicago-style barbecue where beef and pork are smoked for up to 12 hours over mesquite wood. Our brisket dinner ($6.49) produced a mountain of thinly sliced meat covered with tangy/smoky/sweet sauce including creamy coleslaw, smoky melt-in-my mouth beans and a dinner roll sitting in a pond of meaty juice. A side order of red beans and rice ($1.59) proved to be equally smoky and bursting with goodness. Tom's caters and will smoke your ham or turkey.

Soul Feathers

One of the few joints without a male name is owned by Barbara Olsen. This little purple place sends mesquite wood smoke signals to passing traffic. Our sampling was the half-rack baby back pork rib platter ($10.50) along with a choice of two sides. I opted for potato salad--red potatoes with the skins intact and bits of celery combined with a creamy mustard dressing--and ranch style beans. A great choice, the potato salad celebrated homemade creativity in the kitchen while the beans were less smoky and more nondescript than Tom's. Pork ribs proved to be ample, moist, tender, juicy and not reliant on the side of sauce which was too tomato-ish for my taste. Soul Feathers caters and delivers.

Rod's K.C. Barbeque

K.C. stands for Kansas City where meats are hickory-smoked and marinated. Our dinner was the #4 Rib Tip Pak ($11.25) and included one pound of rib tips, half pint of barbecue beans and half-pint coleslaw. Two people can easily share this dinner. Tips were moist, flavorful and crisp on the outside. No sauce was provided and none was needed. Coleslaw was a tad sweet. The beans redolent of chili powder and fresh greens ($3.50) were wholesomely smoky and appropriately salty from chunky pieces of ham. Contrasting mouthfuls of spicy, smoky, sweet and salty volunteered sensory explosions. Rod's caters and specializes in smoking wild game.

Art's BBQ Restaurant

Probably more down home than most, our North Carolina shredded barbecue pork dinner ($8.49) came with two sides and hushpuppies. Pork was served on a substantial bun in its own saucy juices and the effect positively comforting. A side of meaty black-eyed peas was a welcome respite from beans. Hushpuppies (fried corn in batter) were a cross between a peppery croquette and a cake donut hole. Art's caters and bakes from scratch.

El Paso Bar-B-Que Company

El Paso is an upscale Southwest chain with inviting ambience serving the "taste of the new West." Here I ordered the pecan-smoked half-rack baby back ribs ($13) which was the most expensive and the least enjoyable. Over-charred ribs had the least amount of meat. Honey-butter glaze disguised the meat flavor and proved too sweet. A side of generic potato salad smothered in mayo resembled the grocery store variety. Creamed corn tasted like fresh kernels off the cob swimming in a delicious cream sauce. Unfortunately two sidekick sauces couldn't save the ribs. Catering available.

Jack's Original Barbeque

Jack's has been a Tucson tradition since 1950. The sampler plate ($8.95) deeply satisfies any carnivore's habit with ample slices of beef, pork and ham--one meaty rib and a generously spicy hot link in a medium blanket of sauce. Impaled on a stick for easier eating, the corn-on-the-cob sat in a pool of butter. A side order of fried okra ($1.50) affirmed crispiness without greasiness. Full service catering.

For dessert Jack's peach cobbler ($2.15) was good but Art's peach cobbler ($3.50) was better. Jack's was more like a peachy stew while Art's peaches held their texture and the ratio of peaches to biscuit was greater. As Tom's light and fluffy sweet potato pie ($1.79) floated into our tummies, it garnered the exclamation point for an unforgettable feast.

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