Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, July 09, 2003
AJ Bellís Barbecue
Two meat, two sides $8.45
Family pack $19.95
(one pound brisket, one pound
ribs, one chicken, three pints of
sides, and four medium drinks)
Iced tea, lemonade $.99-1.50.
Ring in the íQ

Itíll only take a single bite to realize that AJ Bellís knows barbecue.


AJ Bellís Barbecue

823 Cherry Lane, White Settlement. 817-246-7970. Mon-Sat 11am-8pm. Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V.

No matter how many times I eat barbecue, Iím always amazed that the combination of smoke, sauce, meat, and slow cooking can create such a masterful meal. Such an epiphany can be had at AJ Bellís Barbecue.

The brisket is lightly marbled with a quarter-inch smoke ring. The ribs are sometimes overdone but nonetheless delicious; the meat on them makes a person glad to have teeth. And the chicken is moist, tender, and imbued with smoky flavor.

One of owner John Bellís tricks is using pecan wood in the smoker. Pecan is not a radical smoke for barbecue, but hickory is the traditional choice because it burns slowly; mesquite is also used because it delivers an intense smoky flavor. But each wood is inherently flawed. Hickory is expensive. Mesquite is cheap, but it burns hot and can produce a sharp, biting flavor. Pecan, while imparting a gentle, mellow flavor, tends to burn quickly if not carefully monitored. Itís time-consuming and costly to use pecan, but since Bell is all about the taste, pecan is his weapon of choice.

Adding weight to any discussion of barbecue are the questions of wet or dry marinade, pork or beef ribs, trimmed or untrimmed brisket, and yes or no on the poultry rubs. Bell will only admit to rubbing the meat. Although he wonít divulge the ingredients in his rubs, Iíve got a pretty good idea of what he uses.

The chicken my guest and I tried was large, tender, and meaty. The skin tasted as though it had been treated with only olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. The meat was juicy and wore the subtle flavor of pecan smoke like a veil that neither obscured nor defined the meat.

The pork ribs were crusty and overdone but fabulous. The smoky meat fell off the bone in rich, thick strands that, when dipped in hot barbecue sauce, did a dance of tasteful fury on the tongue. It was good in the way that real beef jerky is good. The rib meat was chewy and rich, perhaps marinated in a masala that included paprika and cayenne.

Two bites into the sliced brisket and I stopped trying to dissect the rubs and simply surrendered to the sliced beef. In order to tell you what AJ Bellís brisket is, I have to tell you what it isnít.

Itís not held on a steam table to grow soft and watery, nor is it lean or dry. Bell, who runs the restaurant with his wife Angela, smokes a brisket in a manner thatís textbook perfect. The slices are minimally trimmed so that a layer of fat makes a juicy coating on one side of the meat. Without the fat, the meat would be deadly dry. Bellís staff is adept at carving the brisket so that each portion is equal parts fat and meat.

Unfortunately, Bell 86íd the barbecue bolo (bologna) before my guest and I arrived to sample it. The owner admits that heís had trouble judging quantities when prepping meat for the smoker. Although Iím not a huge bologna fan, my guest was devastated. The upside is that he wonít have to wait until the State Fair of Texas for barbecued bologna. AJís may have it; weíll just have to call in advance.

The side dishes ranged from good to inoffensive. I loved the crisp, deep-fried okra. A bright green lay beneath the breaded crust; the pieces popped with flavor. The cole slaw, made in-house, was delightful, crunchy and not too sweet. The beans and greens were boring. The greens begged for the one thing the meats had in abundance ó smoky flavor.

The building itself is a remodeled drive-in with three walls of glass looking out on Cherry Lane. The dťcor runs to military memorabilia (John Bell was in the Air Force) and tastefully modern Americana. The air conditioner is about as effective as a cranky swamp cooler. When the temps reach the high 90s, consider dining at the picnic tables outside or ordering take-out.

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