One of my favorite things to do in Arizona is take the tour of Colossal Cave just east of Tucson. It has been overshadowed these days by the draw of Kartchner Caverns, but I still like taking the 45 minute tour down into the cave to see the beautiful formations.
Several years ago, I visited Colossal Cave on a very cold and damp January morning. I had pulled into Tucson, grab breakfast at Waffle House (bacon and eggs, a waffle, and a double hash browns scattered, smothers and covered). I then drove over to Colossal Cave. There were only five of us on the tour, so our guide was very good about letting us ask many questions and showing us some of the antechambers inside the cave that normally get overlooked.
When we returned to the surface and to the outside world, we all stopped in our tracks and just surveyed the scene that caught us like a deer in the headlights. While we had been tromping around the cave, Mother Nature and Jack Frost decided to work their magic and we arrived to a winter wonderland as 2-3 inches of snow had fallen across the higher elevations of the Sonoran Desert. It was amazingly beautiful, but my mind had such a tough time wrapping itself around the sight of a giant Saguaro cactus covered with snow. (It was the same feeling I had when I walked into Chino Bandito my first time and saw that I could order a Sweet and Sour Chicken Quesadilla or an Egg Foo Yong Burrito.)
Along the same lines, I was a bit hard pressed to believe that I could find decent barbecue in the State of Arizona. My most recent tries had been so abysmal or underwhelming that I had resolved myself to the conclusion that good, solid BBQ could not be found in Arizona. Then, I received an email from a BBQ joint owner telling me that he had great BBQ. Uh-huh. Yeah. Right. So he invited me to try his place. My jaw hit the floor when his email said that the place was in...
Wikieup. Yes. That Wikieup. For all intents and purposes, Wikieup was always seen as the halfway point on the drive from Phoenix to Las Vegas. Once you made it to Wikieup, you knew the rest was downhill. Honestly, that really was the only reason Wikieup existed, in the minds of many Phoenicians and Las Vegas types. There isn’t much in Wikieup to begin with. A gas station or two, a “trading post” and some scattered mobile homes.
So, I was rather skeptical at the thought of a good BBQ joint in ... Wikieup.
Even more skeptical were my Dad and Dave when I asked them if they would drive up to Wikieup for BBQ with me. There was that uncomfortable pause and then they both agreed. But I knew they were thinking I had finally gone over the edge. So, we got into the car, hit the freeway and found ourselves in downtown Wikieup about 2.5 hours later.
We couldn’t miss Eat at Joe’s. The place looked like a little house with a large porch. The bright red and white sign was visible from the highway about a half mile before we got to the place itself. We pulled into one of the spaces in front and parked. As we headed for the door, Dad and Dave were both commenting that this had better be worth it. I agreed. Two and a half hours for BBQ was quite a risk.
We entered and were immediately told to take any open table by a very nice woman. All of the tables were picnic tables that were either singles or grouped together for larger parties. We took a table toward the front next to a window and began to review the menu. The woman who welcomed us also was our server, so she took our drink order. Dave just had water while Dad figured that since he wasn’t driving, he would have a Bud Light ($2.00). I asked for a Diet Coke, but our server offered me Diet Pepsi stating that the place normally has Diet Coke, but they were out. So, of course, I ordered the Iced Tea ($1.20).
She disappeared into the back for a moment and we reviewed the menus. It didn’t take us long to decide what we wanted. Dad immediately wanted the 1/2 Slab of Babyback Ribs ($13.95). Dave thought the Garlic Mojoes Dinner ($8.95) sounded interesting. I went with the Heaven on a Bun Sandwich ($7.95). All of our meals came with a choice of two side dishes. Between the three of us, we ended up with Potato Salad, Cole Slaw, BBQ Beans, and Mashed Potatoes with Bacon and Onions. We placed our order once our server returned with the drinks.
As we waited, I told Dave and Dad that I loved the fact they had washcloths as the napkins. Eating BBQ, whether it be ribs or a pork sandwich, was messy business - if you knew what you were doing! So, this was a nice surprise because paper napkins just end up being worthless. Dave and Dad were more intrigued with the various photos and items on the walls, and the glass display case that featured a variety of knives for purchase.
The interior was spotless and decorated with various musical instruments. I also noticed that they must have some sort of entertainment as a few instruments with amplifiers were on the south side of the restaurant. It was very charming and comforting inside. What really made us laugh, however, was the most eclectic mix of music. During our experience at Eat At Joe’s, we heard Disco, C&W, Blue Oyster Cult, The Beatles, and a couple of torch songs. In Wikieup.
About 15 minutes passed and our meals arrived. I waited for our server to depart and then started taking pictures of the food. As I finished my last photo, I heard our server tell the cook, “He’s taking photos of our food!” I put the camera away and we went about eating. (As it turned out, the cook was the owner, Joe, and the server was his wife.)
Dad’s plate was covered with a half-slab of ribs that ended up being about 10 ribs total. They were big and meaty with a nice char on the outside and a pinkish hue on the inside. It was on a plate with a warmed roll and butter and then a slice of white onion and some dill pickle chips. On the table were two types of BBQ sauce. One was slightly sweet and the other was tangy. Dad tried a little of both. I leaned over and inquired about the ribs themselves. “Fantastic,” he said. “These are some of the best ribs I have had in years.” It was clear from the dedication my father had in cleaning the bones to their very core, that he did think these were great. He offered myself and Dave each a rib and we gladly accepted. They were indeed fantastic. Hot and smoky, with a wonderful flavor. They were not tough, nor were they fall-off-the-bone. They had a little chew which ended up being very satisfying. I am not the biggest rib fan in the world, but these could change that. Dave agreed with our assessment and we all picked every morsel of meat off the bones.
Dad liked the cole slaw and the mashed potatoes as well. He said the cole slaw was fresh, cold, crisp and not drowning in dressing. The potatoes were quite good, he said, noting that they were served hot and you could taste the bacon and the onion. He noted that the bread was fresh and perfect for mopping up any stray sauce that fell off the ribs.
Dave’s Garlic Mojoes were very interesting. The menu described them as “mesquite smoked pork sausage.” This was nearly a full pound of sausage that was on Dave’s plate. It had been sliced and served with the mashed potatoes, roll, onion and pickle chips. Dave was in heaven from the first bite. The sausage was “perfect,” he said. “I love the garlic in it.” He offered Dad and I a slice and mine had a whole clove of garlic resting in the middle of the slice. I dabbed the sausage in some of the sauces and took a bite. It was outstanding. Slightly spicy, very warm, garlicky and savory, this pork sausage was just a wonderful treat. Dad thought that the Mojoes were actually better than his ribs. Dave also liked the mashed potatoes and cole slaw stating that they were basic preparations that really went well with the meal.
My Heaven on a Bun Sandwich was a mix of pulled pork and beef brisket piled on a sesame seed bun and then doused with BBQ sauce. The thing was so filled with meat, I had to tackle this one with a knife and fork. I loaded up the onion and pickles and dove in. This was sublime. It really satisfied my BBQ cravings because the kitchen had nailed the various components of BBQ perfectly. The meat was moist, the sauce was not boring or sickeningly sweet, and everything had a nice smoky aftertaste. The bun was soft and fresh. If anything could be improved on my sandwich, I would suggest the possibility of having the bun toasted or grilled a bit before serving in order to hold the meat better.
My BBQ Beans were served in a separate bowl and were good with plenty of BBQ flavor and, thankfully, the beans were not cooked down to a mushy mess. The potato salad was very simple: potato cubes, mayonnaise base and some mustard for color. It was cold and a nice contrast to the complex flavors of the BBQ sandwich. I think that is what really made the side better than average. They all seemed to complement the meal instead of trying to compete with it.
As we ate away, the owner arrived at the various tables with patrons in the eatery and presented them with bowls of sauce that had just been brought in from the smoker. The sauce was stellar. It had a tomato base with a slightly sweet edge and a wonderfully smoky aroma. We each tried it and our “oohs” and “ahhs” showed our delight.
After we finished our meals, we talked about how great it was. I thought the entire meal was outstanding and it had trumped anything I had had in Phoenix vis-a-vis barbecue. Dad and Dave both agreed that this was some of the finest BBQ they had ever had. I did consider dessert at one point, but all they served was cheesecake and I really have to be in a mood for cheesecake. I think they should have offered at least one or two other choices, but it wasn’t a big deal to me.
We requested our bill and our server told us that she would ring us up at the register. Our total was $37.31 which included tax. This was a bargain considering the quality of the food and the portion size. We all had full bellies, but we were not stuffed to the point of discomfort. Service was exceptionally friendly (even before they caught us with the camera) and competent.
As we walked back to the car, I took a look at the tiny hamlet known as Wikieup. It literally is a spot in the road. Like snow on cactus, I was trying to wrap my head around having some of the best BBQ in Arizona in Wikieup.
Eat At Joe’s Barbecue
17809 Highway 93 South
Wikieup, AZ 85360
Hours: 11 AM to 10 PM. Closed Wednesdays.
Notes: On mile marker 123.2.
Additional photos can be seen at www.feastinginphoenix.com