5165 Penn Ave., Garfield
639 Herron Ave., Hill District
With a name like Z-Best Barbecue Chicken and Ribs, grilled-meat junkies would hope to be impressed. And this pair of take-out joints -- one in Garfield and another in the Hill District -- does not disappoint.
The menu asserts the fare is "soul food done right," and the restaurants offer the classics: pork ribs, chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, cornbread and assorted desserts.
The pork ribs come by the slab (whole, half or third) or by the bone. They're slow-cooked over a charcoal grill. "I feel bad for the guys in the winter," says Denise McCarthy, who manages the Hill joint. "They're out there all day cooking."
It pays off. First, individual ribs -- and by extension, the slabs -- are huge, measuring up to 8 inches long. Each bite offers several layers of flavor – from the sauce covering juicy meat to sweet smokiness from the charcoal.
At the Penn Avenue location, which opened this past October, customers have two sauce options: traditional barbecue and honey-mustard. The honey-mustard sauce was bright, but not overpowering, offering sweetness with a hint of tang -- a good complement for the tender, moist meat. I also tried the traditional sauce on wings. They were good, but the honey-mustard stole the show.
At the Hill District venue, which opened in April, customers have a larger selection: Sauces include traditional, honey-mustard, honey barbecue, hot barbecue, hot honey and garlic parmesan, as well as fish dinners, French fries and gyros.
And the sides here are anything but, each worthy of its own spotlight. The cornbread ($.50) is homemade, and while crumbly, it's incredibly moist. The macaroni and cheese was a creamy four-cheese blend, pleasantly warm and gooey throughout. When I visited very near closing time, the Garfield shop was out of sweet potatoes, but the word is these tubers in candied sauce are very popular. Z-Best sides also include green beans, baked beans, collard greens, potato salad and coleslaw.
If you have a sweet tooth, both locations offer a cake or pie of the day, ranging from apple or sweet-potato pie to cheesecake and carrot cake.
Both Z-Best spots are to-go only; there's no dining area. But don't let that deter you. As my girlfriend said while sampling the offerings, "This doesn't taste like take-out."