The summer of 2012 was rough on Tucson restaurants.
Janos was the best place in town to eat on someone else's dime and J-Bar, with that gorgeous patio and delicious casual fusion food, was great for date night. They closed.
The Cactus Moon was nearly synonymous with country music and dancing in Tucson. Citing the depressed economy--fewer people going out for entertainment--it closed.
Zachary's Pizza hung on when the University of Arizona destroyed most of the commercial strip on 6th Street and blighted the neighborhood to build parking lots and garages. With the University of Arizona crowd shifted to Main Gate Square and beyond, and local economy depressed, it hung on even when City Hall let the University bottleneck traffic on Sixth Street for nearly a year to do "beautification" and an idiotically months-long upgrade of its stadium scoreboard. The old hangout was so loved by U of A alumni and longtime Tucsonans that it had capacity crowds for a month when word got out that it would close. Nevertheless, it closed.
Jack's Original Barbecue was open for sixty-two years on east 22nd Street. Ownership changed a couple of times, but the dry rubs and sauces were reputedly the same as in 1950 and certainly the same ones that won it recognition from Zagat in 1998 as the US's best barbecue restaurant. Citing a decline in catering business due to the depressed economy, it closed.
Around the same time, Mr K's--arguably the best barbecue in Tucson--closed its doors at 1830 S. Park.
It did not move to an old Chili's near the Tucson Mall. There's a restaurant there called Mr. K's, one that even has the original "Mr K" Charles Kendrick as its spokesman, but it isn't the same thing. The original Mr. K's was run for most of its life by Ray Kendrick, Charles's son. The one near the mall was a joint venture of Rhonda Kendrick, May's Counter principal John Foster, and chef Steve Sargent.
The original Mr. K's serves exactly one barbecue sauce, one that's peppery and smoky, not sweet. It doesn't supply it in bottles at the table--what you get with your meat in your styrofoam takeout dish is all you get--and probably can't without running the risk of giving customers food poisoning. Although the recipe is secret, I suspect it's the kind of barbecue sauce made with trimmings from the barbecue itself.
I had lunch at the "new" Mr. K's near the mall on the day of its soft opening back in August 2011. The man serving my meat said that it was indeed the same sauce as at the south side location, but the girl working the checkout counter said that some of the recipes had been changed to make them taste better.
I didn't want "better". Not that kind of "better", anyway. Not "better" as judged by a focus group of people who want all barbecue to taste like the Kansas City style as it is served in Orland Park, IL. I wanted Mr. K's, and this wasn't it. Granted, the "new" Mr K's is better than any other barbecue restaurants located near malls in converted Chili's. And it isn't Kansas City style, lacquered and barely rubbed. But the recipe changes take it too close to the deracinated, generic, one-size-fits-all barbecue of Famous Dave's or Dickey's. The sauce was sweet--heresy!--and in bottles at the table, and everything was less spicy.
Fortunately for those who liked the real thing, Mr. K's didn't close. It moved to 6302 S. Park, a few miles farther from town but much closer to the Raytheon lunch crowd and into a more commodious space than the Afro-American History Museum. (Some artifacts and displays from the museum now decorate the mall version of Mr. K's. The slave whip and Coon Chicken-style advertising mascots are not among them.) Beef ribs have been added to the menu, and according to the Daily Star, resolution of the legal dispute between the Kendrick siblings required a change of the name.
The new name is a suitable one, serving to drive home the point that fans of real barbecue, the kind you can't get at a ballpark concession stand or a Scottsdale mall food court, the kind with a personal touch to the recipes, should make the drive south past the rodeo to 6302 S. Park to get it. The new name is "The Original Mr. K's".