Cruelly, the barbecue is the least impressive thing about this well-conceived but under-executed Scottsdale eatery from the Ocotillo braintrust.
To hear Yelpers tell it, Starlite BBQ – Walter Sterling’s upscale new ’cue joint near Old Town Scottsdale – is worthy of superlatives like “the bomb,” “awesome” and “amazing.”
I wish I could muster a similar unequivocal endorsement, but my feelings about this winsome little hole-in-the-wall – so utterly likable for its diminutive size, laidback vibe and friendly staff – are more ambivalent. Given Sterling’s track record as chef-owner of CenPho’s wildly successful Ocotillo, plus long-term stints at Mary Elaine’s and Sol y Sombra in their prime, I fully expected to love the place. It meets all my requirements for a neighborhood hang, offering good beer (Chimay Grande Réserve, for example), intelligently conceived cocktails, barbecue, fried chicken and terrific cornbread, not to mention the saturated-fat fantasy pairing of fried green tomatoes and pimiento cheese.
It’s also located, literally, in my neighborhood. So why am I not fully on board?
Simple: I expect a restaurant that has “BBQ” in its name to smell like smoke (it doesn’t) and to be really good at barbecue all the time (it’s only kind of good, some of the time). Ironically, Sterling and his chef de cuisine Alex Levine, who left Ocotillo to run the kitchen, do a much better job with appetizers, vegetables and sides than with meat. Maybe it’s because they’re chefs, not pitmasters, which prompts the question: Why do people think barbecue is easy? There’s a certain hubris in that notion.
Nevertheless, many of the starters, including the complimentary cast-iron skillet of dense cornbread that begins each meal, are first-rate. Porky Fries, an ultra-crispy heap of french-fried spuds littered with sticky-sweet clumps of pulled pork, mantled with melted Jack cheese and dotted with hot-sweet pickled jalapeños, may be a barbecue cliché (even Wendy’s served a version of them for a while), but they’re delicious just the same. A bit more cheese and they’d be altogether perfect. The green chile pork turnover gets a thumbs-up as well, simply because the puffy fried dough manages to be short (baker-speak for a high fat ratio) and wonderfully tender. The braised pork filling could stand a little amping up, but I’d order this one again. Not so the colossal barbecue shrimp with creamy cheese grits our server raves about. They’re devoid of shrimp-y sweetness, suffering from the inevitable comparison to the fabulous shrimp dishes I’ve recently eaten at Talavera and Pa’La.
Our server, who recognizes us from our first visit, offers to hook us up with an off-the-menu appetizer of the fried green tomatoes and pimiento cheese that usually show up in a sandwich at brunch. I’m thrilled at the prospect of putting two of my favorite things together on one plate. But alas, the tomatoes have been pickled and deep-fried until they’re super crunchy (gentle pan-frying and no pickling would be more traditional and infinitely better), while the pimiento cheese is glossy and smooth – it tastes processed – rather than chunky. Neither quite works for me.
Portions are huge here, which means dishes like blackened grilled cauliflower – dotted with crisped black-eyed peas and sided with green goddess dressing – can be shared among three or four people. Ditto for grilled chunks of butternut squash, each soft, sweet hollow spooned with earthy, mildly spicy mole negro, then given a sprinkle of sesame seeds and sharply astringent epazote leaves. Both are outstanding. That’s not the case, however, with a completely uninteresting grilled Caesar salad, which hasn’t spent enough time on the grill to develop the charred flavor that transforms romaine into something beyond its banal natural state.
Inexplicably, many dishes show up barely warm. Surely, thick triangular blocks of rice-flour-breaded-and-fried mac and cheese appetizers would be better if they were piping hot and oozy. But the truth is, the plain old mac and cheese, faintly garlicky and tinted a color that brings Velveeta to mind, suits me better, anyway. In fact, I love it – just as I do a side of pork and beans, which are really just sweet baked beans loaded with hunks of barbecued pork.
I wish I felt half as excited about the meats those sides are meant to accompany. Smoked and grilled over pecan or mesquite, they’re often under-seasoned, overcooked or left sitting until they’re dry. St. Louis ribs, slathered in mild sauce, are a snoozy case in point – dry and flavorless, they’re served lukewarm. A smoked chile-cheddar chicken sausage link, crafted by Schreiner’s from a Starlite recipe, suffers from the same problem. It leaves us cold – literally – in the restaurant, but after a proper reheat at home, the link bursts with flavor and meaty juices.
Although I love its presentation, charred brisket, served in a caramelized slab with grainy mustard and pickled cucumber, tastes of fat, not beef or smoke. And let me tell you this: Never again will I shell out 33 smackers for caveman-like beef ribs, properly sticky with barbecue sauce but so dry they’re nearly inedible. We throw the leftovers away.
Fried half-chicken is just as disappointing – mainly because its pale blond crust has been sprinkled with what appears to be flour. A mistake, surely! On the plus side, the Starlite Can Can pork steak, a loin chop with the belly attached, is ridiculously good – crisp-edged, fatty and full of porcine flavor after labor-intensive brining, cold-smoking and low-and-slow cooking. This is the meat around which you should plan a visit.
Also successful: ultra-moist smoked turkey, which turns up at brunch in a Benedict, served on a dry and floury oversize biscuit (no bueno) with creamy jalapeño hollandaise and avocado slices. I was eager to try Starlite’s riff on Hawaii’s loco moco (hamburger over white rice with gravy and a sunny-side up egg), but the Smoco Loco needs tweaking. For starters, the smoked meatloaf that subs for the usual burger is bland and mushy, and the dish should be smothered in – not dabbed with – gravy.
Although a sweet cornbread pancake, served in a skillet with green onion, maple syrup and loads of butter, could’ve stayed in the oven a tad longer, it’s still completely scrumptious. In fact, I’d rather have it for dessert than either the gummy, oddly textured banana pudding or the brownie s’more, built upon a grocery store-quality brownie.
Starlite has potential, but at the moment, eating here is an exercise in frustration and uncertainty. Will my meal be crazy good, merely mediocre or, more likely, a little of both? Until the kitchen is dialed in, the barbecue tastes like barbecue and the place smells smoky, I’m a long way from using a descriptor like “the bomb.”
Contact: 7620 E. Indian School Rd., Scottsdale, 480-553-9330, starlitebbq.com
Hours: W-Th 4-11 p.m, F 4 p.m.-midnight, Sa 10 a.m.-midnight, Su 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Highlights: Porky Fries ($12); green chile pork turnover ($8); grilled cauliflower ($8); smoked chile-cheddar chicken sausage link ($13); Can Can pork steak ($32); cornbread pancake ($12)