AJ’s Rib A Go Go
Near intersection of 86th Avenue and Lake Otis Parkway (behind Heavenly Cup Espresso)
$6-$30 per plate
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 7 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday
884-0558 or 744-6607
Despite all the cuisine available in Anchorage on a daily basis, there’s something about the lure of the unattainable: fighting crowds to visit new places just after they open, or getting a table at an eatery that recommends reservations. This week I finally made it to a spot I’ve been keeping an eye on, one whose cuisine is exquisitely suited to the long summer ahead.
AJ’s Rib A Go Go is an unpretentious food stand, its trailer currently ensconced in a dirt lot off of Lake Otis Parkway just north of its intersection with 88th Avenue. It’s easy to miss in several ways -- it’s situated behind the Heavenly Cup Espresso stand at the northern end of several blocks of more prominent chain restaurants, and I’d also visited twice before during business hours to find AJ’s closed. On a third visit I called to confirm that the stand was open before heading there, which I’d recommend other visitors do based on my own experience. Those in the know clearly make the time to stop by, however, with two other customers making the trek to the trailer shortly after I ordered.
What drew us out of our way was the menu, an inviting spread of Southern barbecue and comfort food perfect for a picnic: slow-cooked pork, chicken and beef brisket plus a few specialty items like potatoes and hot links, served along with several simple but appealing side dishes. It’s a very straightforward selection, offered in enough variations to accommodate a variety of appetites.
When I pulled up at 11:30 a.m., half an hour after AJ’s posted opening time, the woman I spoke with at the window was still getting items ready for the day and a little short on inventory. I intended to sample as much of the menu as I could and ordered a Combo No. 1 ($16), which offers two meats and two side dishes, hoping to get pork spare ribs and beef brisket. She didn’t have either immediately on hand, however, so I went with country-style ribs and chicken plus sides of coleslaw and potato salad.
About 10 minutes later I was handed a plastic bag containing a Styrofoam to-go container, along with plastic utensils and a generous supply of napkins. I paid for the combo plus a can of Pepsi ($1) with a $20 bill, but there were only two $1 bills available in the stand as change, so I took a second can of soda instead to even out the balance. There isn’t any seating at AJ’s itself and I didn’t want to eat such a potentially messy meal in my car, so I drove back to the station and dug in at my desk.
The container was loaded with a density of food reminiscent of the Asian deli at New Sagaya, with a breast, thigh and leg of chicken sitting atop a sea of barbecue sauce in which the country-style rib chunks were immersed, with heaping portions of the side dishes in the rear two sections. An AJ’s combo is an outing in a box, easily big enough for two or perhaps even three people to share -- provided they don’t mind getting sticky fingers.
My first bite of the slow-cooked chicken was every bit as tender as New Sagaya’s teriyaki chicken, but imbued with the smoky and not-too-sweet flavor of the thin barbecue sauce. The drumstick in particular lent itself to dipping in the sauce, with pieces of the breast and thigh easily falling off the bone with the slightest pressure from my fork; it was a good but not overwhelming portion of meat, although the menu says chicken is only guaranteed to be available on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.
The country-style ribs were a fortuitous substitution from the more traditional spare ribs, since I’ve always been a fan of eating them knife-and-fork style over trying to tear rogue scraps of meat off a bone with my teeth. Their coating of sauce really brought its flavor home, the accentuating rather than masking the taste of the pork like so many store-bought sauces do these days; it was a much larger portion than the chicken as the sauce yielded piece after piece of meat, one I didn’t finish until later in the day since I still had side dishes to try.
Coleslaw should be the one constant of any order at AJ’s, regardless of what else you might pick up -- it’s that good. Light and tangy, the blend of cabbage and carrots blew past any other form of the dish I’ve ever sampled, an extra zest in the dish eluding identification by my taste buds until I thought back to my visit and remembered seeing the woman at the stand pick up a bottle of Vidalia-onion salad dressing while she worked. It’s a nice trick, and one I fully intend to try at home the next time I whip up a batch of the stuff.
I found the potato salad more conventional, but still a serviceable form of the old standby. While it had hints of paprika and pepper in the mix, the main addition was numerous pieces of hard-boiled egg white, which improved the salad on its own but made it a bit heavy alongside everything else in the box. I’d probably have appreciated it more as a solo side with one of the meat sandwiches on the menu, which offer simpler ways to try out AJ’s fare.
If I were a harsher reviewer, I might assign AJ’s a few sharp demerits over the rougher elements of my small quest to eat there, but I find myself judging places almost exclusively on the strength or weakness of what they serve. Although the stand certainly has its share of irregularities and quirks, I thought the food was outstanding and I’d like to try more. That elusive beef brisket, a guilty pleasure that’s very hard to find in town, still beckons -- I’ll just have to call ahead to make sure there’s some available before I make the trip again.