Two great rib joints bestride Orange County like a smoking colossus. By coincidence, the one in the eastern part of the county is a sort of eastern-style barbecue and the one in the west is totally California.
The eastern rib, Richard Jones Pit Barbecue in Anaheim Hills, is a purist's barbecue. The meat does not come slathered with sauce. A sauce is provided if you insist on putting anything at all on this magnificent, hardwood-smoked meat, but it's an austere sauce that seems to be mostly vinegar, catsup and red pepper, nothing sweet and syrupy.
So the meat remains the center of interest. Everything has the telltale pink tinge of long-smoked meat and is almost indescribably smoky. (If you were to let the sliced turkey cool down, it would be perfectly welcome as smoked turkey at a cold buffet.)
A dense pork sausage and an interesting "Texas pit burger" that has been finished off on a broiler are especially notable. The beef brisket, though, tends to be a little dry, like a roast allowed to cook well done.
But everything pales before the ribs, which are just about the best I've ever eaten. The beef ribs are not only full of concentrated beef flavor, they're the only ones I've ever had where no meat got stuck in my teeth. The pork spare ribs were, if anything, even better: moist, meaty and with a natural sweetness I'd only found in the best Chinese barbecued ribs.
The chicken, with its smoke-darkened skin, also stands out. Richard Jones has apparently solved a problem by curing the baby back ribs, which tend to be bland but meaty. Here, they're like delicate and ultra-tender smoked ham on tiny rib bones.
As for side dishes, there are pleasant beans in tomato sauce, a little less sweet than the usual pork and beans, along with simple grilled garlic bread and fresh mayonnaisey coleslaw.
Physically, Richard Jones is a plain-looking place with a little comical Texan decor (an armadillo doll hanging from the ceiling) and some patio seating. Sandwiches are $2.95 and $3.95 and barbecue plates $5.49 to $9.99. Lunch versions of the barbecue plates run $4.95 to $6.95.
The Stuf'd Chicken is very California, even aside from its adherence to the venerable Orange County tradition of putting a quaint spelling of the word "stuffed" in a restaurant name (there's a justification--the chicken here is roasted with a stuffing). For one thing, it has a sort of health-food mentality. There are no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in the sauce, and an effort is made to cut down on cholesterol in things. The coleslaw has a thin, sweet dressing rather like a health-food salad. You can even get frozen yogurt.
It's also California in its heedlessness of tradition and its openness to experimentation. The chicken--cooked on a rotisserie according to a process the owner developed, rather than being barbecue-smoked--is indeed very good, unusually moist and tender, with a strongly sage-flavored bread-crumb stuffing. But the spare parts of the chicken are used in some non-traditional ways, such as a remarkably good chicken burrito, a light and ingratiating one with no beans, just chicken, guacamole and cooked onions. There's even (gasp!) a chicken salad croissant sandwich. You can also get good chicken wings in a tart hot sauce with rather funky blue cheese dressing on the side.
But the surprise winner, considering the name of the place, is the beef ribs, which are meaty, tender but not falling apart and enriched with a powerful beef flavor. One of its secrets is probably that, like Richard Jones, the Stuf'd Chicken does without a strongly flavored sauce. There's just a little bit of understated sauce, one that is apparently mostly tomato and brown sugar. These are major ribs (though how health-foody, I can't say--they drip with grease, or at least oil). The pork ribs, unfortunately, tend to be both chewier and less flavorful.
The Stuf'd Chicken is rather like a fast-food restaurant, complete with drive-through window, but it does have breezy patio seating upstairs with a view of some Sunset Beach apartment houses. As for prices, rib portions run $5.95 to $12.95 and chicken $2.25 to $7.49. There are combinations of meats and side dishes at $2.99 to $15.75. Sandwiches are $1.75 and $2.45.
Richard Jones Pit Barbecue Restaurant
5781 Santa Ana Canyon Hills.
Open for lunch and dinner daily, breakfast Saturday and Sunday.MasterCard, Visa, Diner's Club and Carte Blanche accepted.
THE STUF'D CHICKEN
16685 Pacific Coast Highway, Sunset Beach.
Open for breakfast Saturday and Sunday, for lunch and dinner daily.