I've never managed to stop at the Turnagain Arm Pit's humble but inviting digs on the Seward Highway, though I've regretfully driven past it for years. For me, the building's rustic sprawl implies authenticity and substance over style. The name itself seems to say that they take their barbecue seriously, but not much else. So when their new location sprang up in the parking lot of the University Center mall, I was excited to make up for lost time.
I began by picking up some takeout for my husband and a friend who were spending the weekend working on a house project. I called ahead and, with the help of a very cheerful employee, decided on a pound of sliced brisket ($20), a full rack of baby back ribs ($26.50), an order of "wagon wheels" (deep-fried jalapeno slices, $6) and a pint of spicy barbecue sauce ($10) (they offer three varieties: original, spicy, and mustard).
My favorite thing about barbecue is the rich, smoky flavor that only the right equipment and time -- lots and lots of time -- can achieve. Good barbecue tastes the way it smells and is something I've never been able to achieve at home. Turnagain Arm Pit captures this elusive quality in spades. The meat is cooked "low and slow" and really delivers on the smoke.
The ribs, firm and meaty with a good, earthy pork flavor, were a hit. Chewy and satisfying, they were too flavorful to drown in the spicy, cumin-y sauce. We used it -- but sparingly. That said, the real star of the show was the brisket. The tender, porous slices of beef had the perfect balance of fat and lean, with an almost buttery flavor and texture. Again, we used the barbecue sauce conservatively.
The wagon wheels, recommended by a friend who understands my lowbrow weaknesses, were a fun side and disappeared quickly. The crispy bites of jalapeno had a pleasant low-level heat and after-burn that was mitigated by the aioli dipping sauce.
The ribs came with a choice of two small sides. I chose collard greens and a piece of cornbread. The greens were disappointing. Though well-cooked and tender, the heavy presence of vinegar was overpowering, and while I could see flecks of ham in the dish, I couldn't taste them. The cornbread, however, was a winner. This isn't the more savory, chunky, corn-y style of cornbread. It was sweeter, with a pound-cakey texture -- more like a dessert than a side. But it was sliced and shared and I was given grief for not ordering more.
I should mention that though the menu recommends a pound of brisket for four people, they were not referencing the kind of people I eat with. A second pound would not have gone amiss with my crowd. There were no leftovers to be had, so my fantasies about a brisket-and-egg breakfast went unfulfilled.
The following week, I took my daughters and a friend for lunch. We were greeted and seated quickly, and a friendly waitress had our drinks on the table right away. We were all rather charmed by the restaurant's thoughtful remodel. Rough-cut wooden signs -- including an image of the original roadside location -- flank the walls. Vintage-style mason-jar light fixtures hang over artfully "weathered" tables. The tables are covered in checkered oilcloth and a roll of paper towels stands drolly at attention next to the variety of barbecue and hot sauces. Drinks are served in mason jars. There's a pleasing attention to detail, but the thing that will really complete the room can't be purchased or installed. Like good barbecue, the room needs time. I think I'll prefer the space when some of the shiny newness has worn off and it looks more lived-in.
We began our meal with a side of deep-fried pickle slices ($6), and while we enjoyed the novelty of this state-fair favorite, we could only bring ourselves to sample one or two. With a thin cornmeal coating, they tasted like nothing more than warm pickles. These would make a nice garnish, but as a whole side dish they didn't make much sense.
My daughter and her friend decided to have a rib-off -- each ordering a half-rack of both styles on the menu ($16.50 each). There was no "winner" as they cut and traded ribs across the table, but the St. Louis style was declared to be leaner and "denser" than the baby backs. The girls were decidedly less shy about slathering their portions with sauce.
My other daughter, who never met a mac and cheese she didn't like, was pleased with her large portion of this side dish ($6). Long strings of cheese clung to her fork with each bite. I, personally, found it a little strange. While I could see the ample amounts of cheese, I couldn't really taste it. There was a strong presence of garlic that I couldn't account for. I would have preferred a sharper cheese flavor and less of the aromatic garlicky taste.
I ordered the restaurant's signature sandwich: the Boar Tide ($15). The sandwich consists of a generous pile of pulled pork atop a hamburger bun, crowned with a "plank" of bacon. While I would have preferred a hand-made bun with a less commercial, sweet flavor, the concoction comes close to sandwich perfection. The pork is served un-sauced, so it's just begging for a dousing of one or more of the restaurant's signature sauces (I recommend a healthy hit of the mustard-based sauce). The pork is tender, with intriguing little crispy bits from the charred outer-portion of the meat. The bacon provides crunch, texture, and salt. As you eat, the bun becomes more pliable and soaks up the juices and sauces so that the last bite, weirdly, is the most delicious.
A quick word about the prices. Meat is expensive and barbecue is labor-intensive cuisine. Having said that, the prices seem a bit steep. The "just enough" takeout for four adults came in at $69, and lunch (including drinks and desserts that I was too full to try) rang in at a whopping $80. In other words, scratching that barbecue itch can be a bit of a splurge -- both calorically and economically.
For some, a stop at the Turnagain Arm Pit in Indian is a summertime ritual -- a place to fuel up before a weekend of hiking, fishing or camping. But if, in the midst of a brisk, snowy February, you're longing for a reminder of warm, lazy days full of wood-smoke and picnics where you lick your fingers clean, then Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ is the place to get your fix.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent