Has Daniel Vaughn ever discovered a sketchy-looking barbecue restaurant he was too afraid to enter?
“Absolutely not,” said the hard-working Texas Monthly food writer, the country’s only “barbecue editor” who has reviewed more than 800 barbecue restaurants in barbecue country.
We were conversing by phone on the subject of today’s topic – gas station barbecue – and a theory a reader once shared with me: “The uglier the restaurant, the better the barbecue.”
That’s untrue, Vaughn said laughing. “You’ll hear so many other rules – the parking lot should have an equal amount of Mercedes and beat-up pickup trucks. There are so many rules people place on what barbecue joints should look like in Texas. But generally, the rule is that what the person grew up eating at, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.”
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My take, as well as his: There’s really no way of gauging whether a barbecue restaurant is any good until you get yourself three bones deep into a half rack of ribs. And, after all, one of the country's most discussed barbecue restaurants is in a gas station in Kansas City.
Today, I encourage you to suspend prejudices you might harbor against gas station dining. Forget those mystery meat burritos and five-day-old hot dogs. I’m about to tell you about two barbecue restaurants inside gas station mini marts that are staffed with guys who know their way around smokers and sticky ribs.
Rib Ticklers Smokehouse BarbequeInfo: 5515 38th Ave. NW, Gig Harbor; 253-858-RIBS. Serving lunch and dinner Mondays through Saturdays, closed Sundays.
Just beyond the beef jerky display, turn left near the Red Bull fridge. Once you hit the self-serve coffee, you’ve reached the ordering counter for Rib Ticklers, an eight-month-old barbecue restaurant tucked into the back deli space of a Valero gas station in Gig Harbor.
Rib Ticklers is not Dennis Ofsthun’s first rodeo with barbecue – or even his 10th. He’s collected awards from American Royal and Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, while operating restaurants from Washington to California since 1988. That’s the year Ofsthun and two others – who he still counts as friends, but no longer business partners – opened the original Rib Ticklers in a converted fish stand near the Gig Harbor waterfront. They moved into a full-service restaurant space the following year (in El Pueblito’s current home). That restaurant operated until 1995.
But you have to go back 30 years to the beginning of Ofsthun’s love for smoked meats. He struck up a friendship with Willy Harris, the North Carolina native who ran Smoky Hill BBQ in Lakewood.
In a remarkable stroke of serendipity, after Harris died, the lawyer tasked with settling Harris’s estate drove by a sign announcing the upcoming Rib Ticklers. He stopped and asked if they’d like the smoker and recipes from Harris. You bet they did.
Ofsthun describes his barbecue style as grounded in Texas smoking techniques with nods to Harris’s North Carolina roots.
Ofsthun operates his gas station restaurant with his step-son Jake Herron and family friend Laurel Duffin.
You’ll find a micro menu of pork ribs, pulled pork, tri-tip and chicken. The only sides: baked beans and slaw.
Meats come out of two different smokers: the competition smoker out front fueled by hardwood, and another in the back operated with hickory pellets.
During three anonymous visits, I found solid barbecue with minor inconsistencies ranging from uneven seasoning to slightly dry meat. I recommend this restaurant with few reservations.
Meals and plates came with baked beans and slaw. The light-on-the-sweet sauce on the beans held peppery heat. Soupy dressing didn’t cling well to the snappy cabbage, but I savored the piquant pluck of the slaw’s mayo dressing. A bonus cornbread on one visit was savory, the texture pebbly. Meals came with three sauce choices: mild truly was, spicy delivered a sting, and turbo should be approached with caution (by the bottle, $5-$6).
A three-rib meal ($10) on a first visit offered smoke-kissed baby backs heavily seasoned straight to the bone. On a return visit, I found more mildly smoked ribs, the seasoning less penetrating. Both offered a pleasantly consistent chew – just enough resistance to hold meat to the bone. The sauce was an enhancement, not a slathering. (Ofsthun happily serves meats without sauce – just ask.)
I wanted the tri tip ($9.75 a plate) to be more juicy, but the depth of its smoke held my interest. The pulled pork’s texture wowed ($8.75, plate), but relied too much on sauce for flavor. A smoked chicken sandwich ($6) on a brioche-style bun didn’t need the side of turbo sauce for moisture – it stood on its own.
Rib Ticklers has seating for 10 or drive-thru service for you car eaters.
Dowd’s BBQ and Southern CuisineInfo: 10505 Steele St. S., Tacoma; 253-830-2086. Serving lunch and dinner daily Mondays through Saturdays, closed Sundays.
Martin Dowd offered two words for diners wanting to avoid “the stigma of eating in a gas station.”
“We deliver,” said the North Carolina native, a man with a broad smile and habit of closing every conversation with “God bless you.”
Dowd’s second barbecue restaurant mimics the first he opened in 2003, tucked into a Chevron off Pacific Highway in Fife. In 2010, he moved to the current Parkland 76 Station on Steele Street.
For Dowd, it was the best of times when he moved to the larger Parkland location because he doubled his menu. But it turned into the worst of times in 2013 when he temporarily lost his smoker during an expansion. But that expansion provided a concrete pad for his custom-built smoker that he fuels with a mix of hardwood hickory and fruitwood.
Enter the gas station mini mart, go past the register and veer left. In the back, just past the soda fountain with only one working tap – it’s Pepsi or bust, diners – find the 26-seat restaurant.
The native of North Carolina credits his business partner-mother, Joyce Davis, and his deacon, Charles Branch of Eastside Baptist Church, for cooking lessons and direction. Employee Monique Umble and “a host of loyal friends” assist Dowd.
Dowd described his barbecue as North Carolinian in foundation, but tinged with Memphis flavor and Texas kick.
Dowd’s barbecue menu offers smoked pork ribs, rib tips, chicken, brisket and pulled pork, but also oozes Southern tradition: greens, fried okra, candied yams and hush puppies for sides; fried fish, chicken wings, gumbo and pork chops for entrees.
Three anonymous visits proved that the earlier in the day you visit, the better the meats and selection. Lunch was a bargain – nine specials priced $7.95. (But he says he’s increasing prices soon.)
Execution was mostly consistent. The meat was oversauced, but Dowd’s happy to make it without. I recommend Dowd’s with few reservations.
Lunches came with two homespun sides: molasses-sauced baked beans with a kicky notch of spice, and a puckery potato salad – was that sweetened pickle juice in the dressing? Dinners came with a choice of two sides from the barbecue or Southern menu. Ham hock added flavor to collard greens. Corn kernels studded the cakey, lightly sweetened cornbread.
Smoke permeated a pulled pork sandwich ($7.95 lunch), but it tasted a touch under seasoned.
The sliced brisket ($13.95, dinner) seesawed between supple and dry; the serving was sloshy with sauce, I should've ordered without.
A three-bone rib lunch ($7.95) on one visit and a rib-and-chicken combo ($8.95) on another showed Dowd’s finesse with the one-two punch of a salty rub and a long trip on the smoker. Flavor penetrated to the bone; the meat was clingy. I’m a fan of meaty resistance – no slippery fall-apart ribs here.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.