Barbecue, like pizza, makes us happy even as it inspires intense debate. Everyone's got a strong opinion, but give me any pile of saucy pork bits between a bun and the finer points of my particular barbecue argument drift away.Within a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of First Avenue South, starting in Georgetown and on up to Safeco Field, you can find your own answer to tailgating by sampling some of the city's favorite barbecue joints in a progressive summertime pork crawl ending in the upper reaches of the ballpark. Feel free to sustain a vigorous debate as you go.Pig Iron Bar-B-Q aims for cool with its homage to the barbecue shack, a colorful and lively two-room restaurant more likely to be playing punk rock than the blues. Your meal comes on tin plates; your lemonade comes in a Mason jar. The full bar means you can spike your Arnold Palmer, as the next few stops have no booze. The smoked pulled pork gets a dry rub and shows up in large strands, and the sauce comes on top, not mixed in. This is key if you're ordering to go; you'll need to sauce up before getting home with your naked strands of pork covered in meager squiggles of sauce. When eating in, since Pig Iron has all their sauces on the table, you can modify at will. This place always rates for achieving a consistent level of tenderness among a varied selection of meats, and it's nice to see the sauce treated as a condiment, the way they do it in Carolina.The simple walk-up that is Pecos Pit runs people through like a machine every weekday lunch hour. You choose a pork or beef sandwich ($6.40) and pick your desired strength of sauce. The most savory among its First Avenue brethren, the sauce here may come in varying degrees of hot, but the mild achieves a perfect sweet, sour, and spicy equilibrium—enough to fire a few endorphins, but not so much so that you can't immediately tuck in to your next bite. The pork here wins for texture and judicious saucing. Pecos also gets points for cramming an unsupportable amount of meat onto the hamburger-sized egg bun. Looking at what you get for $6 and some change here, the $15.95 I paid at Pig Iron for less meat and two sides positively smarts, although it did come with pickles and a waitress. You could almost take a Pecos to go and eat it at a game, but I can think of 10 ways that would lead to disaster.I have a hard time not getting rib tips at Jones Barbeque, and the sauce is just my style, with a hint of vinegar to brighten the thick, spicy, molasses-sweet flavors most common in Kansas City– or St. Louis–style barbecue, backed up by a punch of smoke. Friday's special, the "Jones Big Bite," is nothing short of a meat assault—a chopped-pork sandwich topped with sliced and smoked hot links, also made in-house. The sandwich in this case needs embellishing, since the meat portion fills half a to-go container and easily weighs a pound. Return visits confirmed that I was not getting special treatment; the $8.95 serving (which comes with one side) could have made four sandwiches with one of the white-bread buns Jones gives you. Ask for an extra and grab one of the picnic tables outside to avoid the vaguely fast-food atmosphere indoors.On the very top deck of Safeco Field, at the very end of the left-field side, Holy Smoke waits like a cursed treasure. If you've ever gone to the ramshackle outpost of Dixie's BBQ in Bellevue, you've partaken of owner Mr. Porter's charm and goading first-hand, no doubt with a side of sass from the counter help. The service at Safeco echoes that wily playfulness, as staffers convince unsuspecting locals and out-of-towners alike to try the barbecue joint's claim to fame: its Man sauce.After you order your sandwich, the counter guy asks "Have you met The Man?" the way some places say "You want fries with that?" Only the first question is fraught with far more danger than the latter. Signs will tell you not to eat The Man if you're pregnant or have a heart condition; I would also avoid The Man if your seats are in the sun or you like to feel your face. Holy Smoke's pork sandwich is about as good as it gets at the ballpark, moist and flavorful and the sauce not too sweet. A few drops of the Man totally FUBARs the pleasing sandwich, rendering it some sort of endorphin–pain center speedball, leaving you sweaty and most likely tripping like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now. If you could get every Mariner fan to meet The Man the day of a Yankees game, I don't know what would happen, but I like the firstname.lastname@example.org
Pig Iron Bar-B-Q 5602 First Ave. S., 768-1009. 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Mon.; 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Tues.–Fri.; noon– 8 p.m Sat.Pecos Pit 2260 First Ave. S., 623-0629.Jones Barbeque 2454 Occidental Ave., Suite 3A, 625-1339. 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sun.Holy Smoke Safeco Field, third-level upper deck, far left field.Summer Guide 2009: You've only got a few months, so don't screw it up!