IT'S AS AMERICAN as apple pie, baseball or Independence Day fireworks. It's as personal and idiosyncratic as fashion design, art or music. It inspires fiery debate about its relative merits and critical components. It makes cardiologists cringe.
What could possibly inspire such wild response?
One word: barbecue.
With that single utterance begins a maelstrom of controversy, starting with the correct spelling of the word itself. Is it "barbecue," B-B-Q, Bar-B-Q or none of the above? Is the origin French, Spanish or some derivation of an Old South colloquialism? Is the capitol of this culinary art in Memphis, Kansas City, Texas or one of the Carolinas?
Scratch the surface of barbecue and you will soon discover that the answer to any of these questions is solely dependent on who you ask. If there's any aspect of barbecue that is exclusively objective, I've failed to find it. It is as individual and varied as DNA.
While Tucson cannot yet be counted as an American mecca for barbecue, it's encouraging to note that we are blessed with our fair share of appealing choices. Two companions and I roamed the city for days, sampling sauces, ribs and side dishes until we were ready to burst. Our goal was to conduct an informal survey of Tucson's best and brightest spots to enjoy this American icon and then rank them accordingly.
As I've already mentioned, there's nothing objective about testing barbecue. It all boils down to our tastes and preferences. The results of our unofficial survey will surprise some and infuriate others, but no matter. Here is our take on Tucson's premier barbecue hot spots:
Art's BBQ Restaurant & Trading Post (450 N. Main Ave.): Hands down, Art's is the favorite in our quest for the Holy Grail of good barbecue. Located in a tiny storefront near the railroad tracks and almost directly across the street from Tucson Electric Power, Art's serves North Carolina-style barbecue along with an impressive selection of homemade side dishes. Of the places we tried, Art's was the only one that spent as much time and love on the sides as it did on the meats, resulting in the best overall plate of food in town.
Let's start with the meat. The ribs at Art's are first rate in every way. This is the only place in town that was found to use a dry rub of spices, lots of salt, pepper, garlic, paprika and perhaps just a pinch of sugar on the meat, which in this case is then smoked to a delicate state of wood-scented splendor. Once the meat is thoroughly cooked, and just prior to serving, the ribs are topped with a dark sensuous sauce that is equal parts tangy, spicy and vaguely sweet. The combination of smoked meat, spice rub and sauce is incredible. If barbecue was a painting, Art's would be turning out a steady stream of Picassos. (Yes, it's that good.)
We would have loved to try the featured North Carolina barbecue (lean pork shoulder, smoked and thoroughly cooked, which is then pulled apart, seasoned with lots of spice and sauce and heaped onto a Kaiser roll, where it may be topped with coleslaw and capped with the remaining half roll), but someone had come in before us and cleaned the place out of every last scrap. Apparently, the fellow was having folks for dinner and wisely decided to treat his guests to BBQ à la Art. Although we hardly needed an excuse to return, the absence of the house specialty that day provided us with a reason to go back sooner rather than later.
And those fabulous side dishes: handmade hush puppies, those Southern cornmeal dumplings fried gentle amber and lightly seasoned with parsley and a bit of onion. Ranch beans made from scratch, complete with flecks of onion and garlic. Collard greens cooked as well as you're likely ever to have them, tender and flavored with onion, red chile, salt pork and a dash of vinegar. Coleslaw with carrots, onion, chopped dill pickle and a hint of chile heat. The only dish we didn't get to was the potato salad, which we'll be sure to sample next time.
Homemade sweet potato pie and lemon pound cake are frequent dessert offerings, each one worthy of a blue ribbon at the county fair. Even Velda's sweet ice tea is right on the money. There isn't a single thing we'd change about Art's, from the country-store atmosphere complete with scoops of Thrifty ice cream to the kind graciousness of Art and Velda themselves (Vel's Catering is right next door, the same great food brought to your next party). Art's BBQ & Trading Post is Tucson's best-kept food secret. We are officially letting the cat out of the bag.
Jack's Original Barbecue (5250 E. 22nd St.): Okay, it's the best known and most popular. It always wins the local accolades for best barbecue. But you know what? Jack's is deserving of each and every award that graces the walls of this humble eatery. Open since 1950, Jack's has become something of a local legend, winning not only the attention of this community but also attracting the roving eye of no less a personage than Willard Scott of NBC's Today Show.
How does such a thing happen? Consistency, consistency, consistency. Well-traveled barbecue aficionados will probably not find anything at Jack's to rival the set of ribs they nibble in Austin or Kansas City, but they won't be able to find too much to complain about either. The ribs are a tidy set of lean bones with meat infused with a satisfying dusting of smoke served with a solid-performance barbecue sauce on the side, to be added at the diner's discretion. The sauce is smooth, dark, faintly sweet and zesty with a modest red chile charm.
The side dishes are unspectacular, though perfectly adequate, and the pillowy white roll is an absorbent sponge for excess juices. Modestly priced family packs, beer-battered fish, tacos and daily specials all add to Jack's already considerable appeal.
Rod's K.C. Barbecue (601 N. Fourth Ave.): Nipping closely at Jack's heels is Rod's, a modest little place on Fourth Avenue right next to Magpies Pizza. With just a few tables inside and an additional small cluster on the walled-in patio, Rod's is perhaps better suited to a take-out trade. Sit quietly on any given day and you'll see a steady stream of customers with various requests for meals to be savored at home later.
Owner Rod George is friendly and hospitable, providing guests with samples of any food they are considering ordering. A large in-house smoker does the job, sending draughts of fragrant smoke through the room and into your hair and clothing if you tarry for too long.
Rod's ribs are cooked until the meat is almost falling from the bone, a circumstance that soon leads you to abandon the "pick up in your fingers" mentality and adopt the amenities of a fork and knife. While the meat is delicious (tender, browned and densely rich and smoky), the sauce is something of an oddity. Although tasty, it imparts a vague Italian character, which is fine but generally unexpected when the subject is barbecue.
To clarify this unusual flavor, we brought in two other tasters to sample Rod's sauce. The first was heard to remark, "Tastes kind of like spaghetti," while the second quipped, "It's like pizza." Is it a pinch of oregano? Tomato sauce rather than ketchup? Hard to tell what makes the difference, but if you have an affinity for the sauce, you will absolutely love Rod's.
Soul Feathers (1350 E. Broadway): Not far behind Rod's comes a nifty little place called Soul Feathers. If there can be such a thing as a gentle hippie kind of barbecue, Soul Feathers is it. The interior is accented with angel and Native American imagery. The music is New Age and the owners are soft-spoken and gracious.
Owner Barb Olson has mastered the art of the smoker, which heats up just outside the premises, filling the surrounding air with the aroma of mesquite-cooked meat. Olson's baby back ribs are exquisite -- just the thing for people who insist that their barbecue be fully imbued with wood smoke. Tender, incredibly lean and amazingly meaty for such infantile bones, the ribs are a singular pleasure to gnaw on.
Sides are adequate and the availability of sweet potato pie appreciated. Our only regret was that the sauce lacked zip -- not offensive in any way, but with nothing to particularly recommend it either. If you have a killer sauce recipe in your files, I'd pick up a rack of Olson's ribs, take 'em home and give them the royal treatment they deserve. The combination would undoubtedly be fabulous.
Bobby Dean's Hickory Bar-B-Que (3643 N. Campbell Ave.): Newcomer Bobby Dean's has yet to carve a solid niche into the local barbecue scene, but there's no doubt they're picking up steam. Located at the site of Jack's former second outlet, Bobby Dean's offers much the same kind of unadorned ambience and solid menu choices. Three different kinds of sauces (mild, hot or sweet) make life a bit more interesting and a few additional side dishes (cut corn, green beans, red and white potato salad, pasta or macaroni salad, cucumber salad and pinto beans) give the diner plenty of options. The ribs are solid, but lacking in the extraordinary qualities that characterize the above competition. Bobby Dean's also operates a catering truck on the northwest side of town, near North Hardy Road on Thornydale. If you're up that way, stop by Wednesday through Saturday and give it a try.
Tom's Chicago-Style B-B-Q (5443 E. 22nd St.): Although it may have its appeal, my stalwart gang found little to enthuse about at Tom's, perhaps because the other barbecue contenders are so exceptionally good. What is Chicago barbecue? As near as we can figure, it relies heavily on a sweet sauce and rib tips, which are meaty but a bit more fatty and gristly than the shank of the bone. This, obviously, is an acquired taste, which we were unable to develop during our brief visit. The dark sauce was spiced with something that reminded me of Chinese food. (Five-spice powder? Hoisin sauce?) Whatever this flavor was, it completely overpowered the food and left an unpleasant aftertaste on the tongue. The meats -- tips, ribs and chicken -- were served swimming in greasy slicks, which did little to whet our appetite for more. The ambience is akin to a bus depot -- a dingy, wide open space with booths and a TV tuned seemingly perpetually to Entertainment Tonight. There was no conversation other than the words people needed to communicate their order -- just the assembled crowd sitting on the same side of the booths and tables so that they could have a clear shot of the boob tube. It was an unsettling picture.
I'm sure I'll hear rumors about great barbecue here or there, but this should act as a primer for exploring the hardcore aspects of the local scene. And if there are any entrepreneurs out there, take heed. None of the above places serves beer, as natural a partner for barbecue as coleslaw. A microbrewery/barbecue could be the next king of Tucson-area barbecue.
Art's BBQ Restaurant & Trading Post. 450 N. Main Ave. 388-9295. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed for summer vacation July 18 to August 18. Cash or checks. Menu items: $1.99-$7.99. Jack's Original Barbecue. 5250 E. 22nd St. 750-1280. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Mondays. AMEX, MC, V, DIS, checks. Menu items: $2.65-$25.95. Rod's K.C. Barbecue. 601 N. Fourth Ave. 623-0182. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Cash and checks. Menu items: $1.95-$17.95. Soul Feathers. 1350 E. Broadway. 882-5030. Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Menu items: $3.75-$13.95. Bobby Dean's Hickory Bar-B-Que. 3643 N. Campbell Ave. 327-0720. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AMEX, MC, V, DIS, DC, checks. Menu items: $2.99-$27.95. Tom's Chicago-Style B-B-Q. 5443 E. 22nd St.) 745-1212. Open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Sunday. AMEX, MC, V, DIS. 79 cents-$19.99