Shane Carpenter
THE LOOK AND SMELL of smoking outdoor cookery causes immediate endorphin release. At a local hospital that specializes in patients with grave psychological problems, sunny days inspire the campus-wide appearance of portable grills. Patients can be seen gathered around, chatting and smiling -- living proof of the antidepressant effects of outdoor cooking.

To experience this effect without suffering involuntary commitment, turn north on Greenwood off 85th NW, drive about a block, and pull up in front of the friendly OK Corral. You'll get a snootful of that wonderful smoky aroma that comes from outdoor barbecuing, as smokers and grills are set up right in front, cooking chicken, ribs, and hot links in the most honorable of culinary traditions. Eating at the OK Corral is like dropping by your brother-in-law's for dinner, except the food is really good and you pay eight bucks.

For that $8, you get a choice of smoky and moist pork ribs, tender chicken, hot links with springy exteriors that pop when you bite 'em, or fried catfish with a crunchy cornmeal jacket. The ribs' slow-smoked flavor hints at the usually unrivaled smokiness of Hawaiian Kalua pig. Like the chicken and links, the ribs are kissed by a remarkable and complex BBQ sauce, one which warrants the "spoonful" treatment when nobody is looking.

Included with the main course are generous portions of finely executed collard greens, fat and fluffy rice, rich pinto beans, and a large square of fresh, sun-colored cornbread. The cornbread is the perfect accompaniment to this spicy fare, serving as a palate cleanser between courses as well as an efficient juice absorber. The pinto beans and collards are spiced expertly, without overcooking.

As you sidle up to the OK, the sight and smells of the cooking food prompt gland-stimulating anticipation. When the food arrives hot and pretty, your eyes will quickly flit from your order to your neighbors', and savvy diners freely eat off fellow diners' plates. This is only recommended if you know them, although at the friendly OK Corral, it's probably okay to eat off the plate of strangers, too. We just don't officially recommend it.

Also available is "The Hookup," a combination of ribs, chicken, and hot links for $11. This BBQ-lover's fantasy is a monster of a meal, capable of feeding two or three people, although we watched a friendly cabdriver work his way efficiently through the combo just like he was sitting at a picnic. The picnic-like atmosphere is carried out further with the OK Corral's rustic decor. From the outside it looks a little like a log cabin, although no actual logs are involved. Inside, it's furnished like a summer fishing cabin, embracing an unplanned, casual family-room feel. Seating for 10 is possible, with one small and one big table. Regulars who aren't even eating that night hang out around the big table, welcoming customers into their conversations as though their arrival had been anticipated. Well-behaved youngsters are part of the OK Corral crew, and they come in and out of the room just like at home. They'll sit for a while, then drift off into some other room, then float back in and rejoin the spirited but polite political discussion going on at the table by the front window.

The nice gentleman who served our large order appeared almost taken aback when we tipped. He turned to one of the kids, and in a lowered voice, said, "Go get them a pie." And so it was that we got a free sweet potato pie! "Stop at the store and get you some whipped cream," we were told. "Take this home, and put it in the oven for about half an hour. I think you'll like it." We did.

BBQ has wide crossover appeal, especially when it's this good and served with this kind of grace. Kids, adults, Irish families, Ballard Scandies, Sicilians, cabdrivers, neighborhood regulars, hipster refugees from downtown -- everybody likes this food. Throw in the clubhouse atmosphere and the OK's "the whole world's in our club!" hospitality, and you've got yourself a feel-good event as tender as the ribs.

OK Corral BBQ Pit Stop

8733 Greenwood Ave N, 226-0398. Daily 10am-10 pm. Eat in or take out. No booze. $.

The OK Corral will be closed from March 6 - April 1. Normal business hours will resume after April 1.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up