Once a month - at least - for several years and counting, we have lunched at the Original Mr. K's BBQ restaurant on South Park Avenue.
When we discovered the restaurant, not far from the Star's south-side offices, Charles Kendrick had been open a few years, cooking up his family barbecue recipes with his son, Ray. The elder Kendrick had started the restaurant to raise money for his fledgling African American Museum next door. But after a couple of years, he turned the business over to his son and stayed mostly in the background.
This year the 80-year-old decided to make good on a lifelong dream to take Mr. K's 'cue to a bigger audience.
Kendrick and daughter Rhonda teamed up with restaurateur John Foster and in August opened Mr. K's Barbecue not far from the Tucson Mall.
Thus began the tale of two restaurants - following the same family recipes, yet worlds apart in many ways.
Over the past couple months, we visited both restaurants to see how the new Mr. K's stacked up to the Original Mr. K's.
Original has history, character
If you judge by appearances, most people wouldn't give the Original Mr. K's BBQ a second look. It's squeezed into half of a former gas station on the south side, the gravel parking lot flanked by razor-wire fences.
The dining room is a crowded mishmash of tables and chairs that become a tighter fit at lunchtime. The inside and out could use a fresh coat of paint, and no one would argue that it would do well to clear out some of the clutter.
What lures folks here is the aroma of meat smoking in the back.
Ray Kendrick and his business partner run the restaurant, and you can always find at least one of them behind the counter, dishing up barbecue pork and beef into foam containers. Once you get your food, it's strictly self-serve, from the drinks to the cleanup.
Ribs here are soft, sweet and fall off the bone, and we're equally enamored by the sliced pork sandwich. From hot links to chicken there really isn't a bad choice on the menu. The meat arrives sauced, and by sauced, we mean "Don't even try to pick up that sandwich." It's messy, but delicious. If you're unsure, ask them to go light on the sauce. You can always add more.
Hot sauce is available if you want to spice things up.
Sides are almost as good as the main course and run the gamut of Southern specialties, all made in-house. Our favorites are the potato salad, coleslaw, collard greens and sweet potatoes. We also love the hunk of corn bread served with dinners.
New Mr. K's finds audience up north
There's a big wood pile near the front door of Mr. K's Barbeque on the corner of North Stone Avenue and East River Road. It is a reminder to all who enter the completely remodeled Chili's restaurant of Charles Kendrick's 'cue philosophy: Success is in the smoke.
Wide-open dining rooms are lined with wooden picnic tables dressed in checkered tablecloths. It's clean and pretty and spacious, but in some ways it feels more generic chain restaurant than born and bred in Tucson.
Here, service also is done at the counter, but customers line up cafeteria-style. A guy behind the counter slices meat to order and makes up a plate or sandwich, served in butcher paper and foil. (There were plans to switch to metal mess-hall trays, but as of last week, they were still wrapping.)
At the end of the counter are the side dishes, including the resurrection of the Original's collard greens, coleslaw and potato salad. Mr. K's also has county-fair-style (smoked and grilled) corn, candied yams, thick steak fries, fried okra and a creamy mac and cheese.
Food here can be inconsistent. The ribs, for example were dry, difficult to eat and unsatisfying on some visits, succulent, juicy and sweet others. But the smoked turkey - not available at the Original Mr. K's - and sliced brisket were so good on all our visits that adding sauce to them is kind of an insult.
Which is good; we weren't big fans of Mr. K's sauces - one that was smoky and spicy with chipotle peppers, another sweeter with a spicy kick.
The problem is they were inconsistent. Both were flat and lacked punch one day; the next week they were perfectly sweet and tangy. (John Foster said Mr. K's is adding two new sauces: a St. Louis style and a Texas style.)
Service is pretty much limited to the counter help. There are people strolling the dining rooms, but during our visits, we couldn't find anyone when we needed them.
Original Mr. K's BBQ
• Where: 1830 S. Park Ave., 792-9484.
• Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
• Price range: Sandwiches are $6.50 with sides starting at $1.60. Dinners (generally one meat and two sides) range from $10-$12.
• Wine/beer: None offered.
• Kid friendly: It's barbecue, which has no age limit.
Mr. K's Barbeque
• Where: 4911 N. Stone Ave., 408-7427; tucsonsbestbbq.com
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
• Price range: Sandwiches are $7, $8 with one side dish. Dinners top out at $14 for three meats and two sides.
• Wine/beer: You can get beer or something harder: they offer single-serve bottles of alcohol like the ones you find on an airplane.
• Kid friendly: There's a kids menu.
Rick Wiley is the Star's photo editor and Mike Rice is the Star's design editor. Reporter Cathalena E. Burch contributed to this story.