However, for some strange reason, the name of the restaurant hasn’t changed to reflect its newfound Latin-ness, and despite nods to New Mexico in specials like chiles stuffed with smoky tomato-sauced meats and cheeses, the menu still reads mostly of barbecue. Sadly, the barbecue hasn’t appreciably improved – too often over-cooked, and too frequently not available at all. How is it possible that the place can run out of core staples like St. Louis pork ribs ($23, rack/$16, half) and pulled pork ($11, sandwich)?
Instead of risking disappointment, focus on the few straightforward Mexican items now on the lineup. It seems a bit odd to be eating a pretty plate of prickly pear-glazed salmon ($18) at a place where condiments come in little plastic cups and the walls are plastered with license plates. But the fish is terrific, moist and slightly sweet and paired with soothing, Tennessee stone-ground grits and nicely-crisp garlic green beans. Mata takes what could be run-of-the-mill grilled chicken and gives it a sharp, smoky edge with cilantro and a savory tomatillo and black-eyed pea salad ($14).
Mata’s still tweaking the menu, so tasty barbecue beef taquitos brightened with chipotle crème and pickled red onions ($9) weren’t available after my first visit, but I found satisfaction with barbecue pork tacos ($11), decorated with queso fresco, avocado and excellent, spicy roasted salsa.
Some of Porter’s most popular signatures remain, and they’re as winsome as always, including a hearty slab of roasted beef bone marrow that you slather on toast with tomato jam ($9). Just be sure your order is hot – one of my appetizers came out lukewarm, and at that temperature, it’s just tepid fat. Banana pudding with Nilla wafers and chocolate whip ($5) remains an irresistible, nostalgic delight for dessert.
At the quasi-new Earl’s, select barbecue dishes do stand out. I love the roadhouse brisket sliders ($12) – the tender, juicy meat gets a vibrant kick from fiery, creamy horseradish alongside crispy fries. Still, I long for the flair that Mata has shown at his other restaurants. One wonders if he’s stymied by a confusion of principle: Is Big Earl’s BBQ a barbecue place, or a Mexican haute eatery? We’re happy to feast on his delectable Mexican dishes until he figures it out.
Big Earl’s BBQ
Address: 7213 E. First Ave., Scottsdale
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Highlights: Prickly pear-glazed salmon ($18), cilantro grilled chicken ($14), barbecue pork tacos ($11), roasted beef bone marrow ($9), roadhouse brisket sliders ($12), banana pudding with Nilla wafers ($5).
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