Owner Ray Kendrick serves the south side of Tucson with barbecue classics such as beef ribs, pulled pork, and hot links.
Barbecue is a cuisine that scores no points for bells and whistles.
It cares not for pomp, frill, nor advanced plating techniques. Master sommeliers need not apply.
On top of that, true barbecue disciples are a notoriously ruthless crowd who won’t hesitate to inform you if the meal of beef brisket and potato salad in front of them fails to meet their rigorous criteria of “real barbecue” or not.
While the sauce base and smoking technique will vary based on region, any purist would note that there is a defining line between the soulless corporate chain and the just-like-grandma’s-cooking alternative. And rest assured, there will be no participation medals awarded.
For owner Ray Kendrick however, this culture of culinary criticism doesn’t intimidate him. His restaurant, Mr. K’s Original BBQ has been serving the south side of Tucson with barbecue classics such as beef ribs, pulled pork, and hot links since they first opened in mid-1997.
A Mr. K, not the Mr. K
You could say that Kendrick is a Mr. K, but not the Mr. K.
“Mr. K’s was actually something that was started by my father,” says Kendrick.
In the beginning, the BBQ spot was just a side project only open for lunch on Saturdays. The intention was not initially for Mr. K’s to take on a life of its own, but rather as a side job to help Kendrick’s father fund the Afro-American Heritage Museum, which was being run out of their previous location. Kendrick’s father had helped to found the museum and worked to fill it with relics that preserved the unique history of African Americans in Southern Arizona.
“Basically any money that he brought in he used to pay the [museum’s] utility bills, lights, water, all that stuff,” Kendrick remembered. After joining forces with his father several years ago, the torch was passed and Kendrick took over ownership himself.
Kendrick was born and raised in Tucson, but with a father hailing from East Texas and a mother from Louisiana, he certainly has the southern credentials to prove his mettle behind a grill.
The menu, composed of recipes passed down from both sides of the family, doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel. The setup of the restaurant is uncomplicated, with a simple ‘order from the counter, we’ll call your name when it’s up’ system to follow. The walls are mostly bare, aside from the occasional newspaper article sharing past awards and accolades. Near the fountain drinks you’ll see a tank of purple childhood nostalgia, covered by a label reading, “Ya it’s real Kool Aid.”
Just straight up good ‘cue
Most of what you’ll find at Mr. K’s Original BBQ are conventional barbecue dishes, with a few traditional Southern delicacies to boot. The beef brisket is surely a crowd pleaser, and for good reason: it’s smoked to excellence and thin enough to melt in your mouth while having enough thickness to not compromise a hearty and tender texture.
The hot links are another standout. The spicy smoked sausages pair wonderfully with the house barbecue sauce, composing a stellar fusion of heat and ample sweetness. For any patrons willing to wander off the beaten path of ‘cue, K’s fried catfish is simply phenomenal. Fried to a flawlessly crisp texture while the fish itself remains juicy and tender, add a splash or three of hot sauce (or even their homemade pepper sauce for the bold) and you’ll be hooked.
Mr K’s features no shortage of excellent side dishes to accompany the barbecue. Mac n’ cheese is coated in a rich and creamy cheddar sauce, sweet potatoes accompany a light, sweet brown sugar glaze, and the collard greens are tenderly cooked to a traditionally tart tang. For dessert, the peach cobbler is a complete palate trifecta of rich crust, peach tang, and sweet cinnamon aroma.
True to the museum that (the original) Mr. K worked to establish, it’s clear that Mr. K’s is a testament to things past. When asked if they had any plans on the horizon for the establishment, Kendrick simply said, “Keep it steady. Keep it steady.” At their heart and core, Mr. K’s is a humble restaurant that shows they fully deserve the devoted customers they’ve acquired over the years by serving quality, authentic barbecue. The Kendrick family has been keeping it steady for over 20 years, and doesn’t look to be losing any steam (er, smoke?) any time soon.
For more information, visit mr-ks-original-bbq.business.site. You can join in on the goodness at Mr. K’s Original BBQ Tuesdays through Sundays, 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., at 6302 S. Park Avenue, near the corner of Park and Valencia.