It seems contrary, but strip malls are often surprisingly good harbingers when it comes to housing respectable dining spots. Bird Dog BBQ has found homes in four such locations around town, and they go together like, well, pork and beans.

Bird Dog has been a presence in Colorado Springs for about 10 years; it opened its fourth restaurant at 4153 Centennial Blvd., in what's as close to being a ghost shopping center as it gets. Trust me, though, this barbecue joint is full of life thanks to tangy flavors, a friendly staff and the classic rock and roll blaring through the stereo system.

The food is prepared on site. That is, there is no central Bird Dog smoking facility. Meats are cut or shredded when orders are placed. Several of the sides are made in-house, but the french fries are not among them. They're simply dropped frozen from the bag into the fryer at the time of ordering. More like steak fries, they, nonetheless, lack distinction. Plan on some lag time before they arrive at the table. A better bet would be to order one of the house-made sides instead, but more on those later.

Bird Dog touts itself as Oklahoma-
style barbecue, which means sauces on the side, oak-smoked (versus hickory) and a variety of meats (instead of jut one or two). Apparently, oak is less pungent than hickory or mesquite. It's a subtly infused smokiness that comes not just from the wood choice but from hours of low and slow cooking. The results are tender cuts of pork, brisket and poultry that dance nicely on the palate with or without the benefit of house-made sauces.

Meat options include brisket, pulled pork, turkey, ribs, chicken halves, hot links, Polish sausage and chicken tenders. Orders, placed at the counter, include a Regular Plate with the choice of one meat ($12.50), Two-Meat Plate ($14) or Three-Meat Plate ($15.25). All come with a choice of two sides; choices include baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, fried okra, fries, corn on the cob and baked potato. Extra sides are $2.20 each.

The one-meat Regular Plate with ribs with baked beans and potato salad felt like I was enjoying a summer picnic among friends; it didn't matter how messy I got. In fact, there are no napkins here: just rolls of paper towels on every table. The ribs were juicy with a nice sear; the meat fell off the bone. The beans revealed the right amount of sweetness, neither too saccharine nor too savory, although my dining companion thought they were too runny. I have a hard time resisting potato salad and Bird Dog's did not disappoint. It's the kind that shows up at family reunions full of potato chunks coated with creamy mayo dressing, bits of celery and hard-boiled eggs.

Polish sausage and pulled pork comprised our Two-Meat Plate order. The sausage burst with a pleasant smokiness, not the kind that gets caught in the back of the throat. It was a flawless vehicle for the barbecue sauce; I alternated between the mild and wasabi. I liked the kick from the latter, but needed the subdued spiciness of the former. It was a great balance of flavors. The tender pulled pork also benefited from the combined sauces.

According to the staff at the Centennial Boulevard location, each Bird Dog site smokes its own meats and prepares its own sides. A $6.50 lunch special, which includes a side and beverage, is offered Monday through Friday. The pork sandwich is Monday's special, although the person who took our order said we could have any sliced meat at the special price. I opted for the chicken and my friend had the brisket.

The meats are piled high on standard hamburger buns, the basic easily-fall-apart kind. Both the brisket and chicken were tender and not at all dry. Again, the sauces complemented the meats. The dominant flavor of the hot was vinegar, and the wasabi provided the kind of bite you'd expect: strong enough to make nasal passages consider opening up.

On both visits, music resounded over the speakers and the television was tuned to a sports station. The most fun aspect of Bird Dog, in terms of décor, is the collection of dog photos, contributed by diners, placed under glass on all the tables.

The photos represent dogs of all breeds and every now and then the real thing shows up: a bird dog.

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