By Heather Hoch
By Lauren Saria
By JK Grence
By Eric Schaefer
By Robrt L. Pela
By Eric Schaefer
By Laura Hahnefeld
By Laura Hahnefeld
Waldo's is a sit-down place, with red vinyl booths and waitress service. The room is filled to the rafters with Westernalia--rifles, lariats, neon cactus, a rack of antlers. The only thing missing is the stuffed head of the Lone Ranger. At the counter, you can buy tee shirts imprinted with a P.E.T.A. logo for $11.95. But don't scratch your head wondering if you've stumbled into the underground Mesa branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The shirt makes clear that P.E.T.A. stands for "People for the Enjoyment of Tasty Animals." And Waldo's does dish out some tasty meat. The star here is definitely the slab of baby back pork ribs, which was worth the return visit. These meaty beauties come packing a strong, smoky mesquite wallop, and they're juicy and tender in the bargain. The barbecue sauce, a tingly, vinegary concoction that slowly grew on me, doesn't get in the way. Much less impressive are the heftier country ribs. These bones are substantially fattier than the lean baby backs, and curiously bereft of smoky barbecue flavor.
Most of the other menu items are perfectly adequate, though not as beguiling as the baby back ribs. The barbecued beef sandwich offers slightly dry meat with a pleasing charred tinge. It helps to put on a moisturizing coating of additional barbecue sauce. The same technique works for the mild pork sandwich, as well. But nothing could perk up the chicken sandwich, which suffered from chewy fowl that tasted as if it had been sitting around for a while. The broasted potatoes are the clear winner among a very good assortment of side dishes. They're thick, crunchy, starchy wedges with a right-from-the-fryer taste. Cowboy beans simmered in a beefy broth, and fresh coleslaw also send out the right signals. And the apple dumpling, a thick pastry shell stuffed with sweetened apples, sends you home with a good taste in your mouth. The baby backs and broasted potatoes, Waldo's headline acts, make this East Valley show worth catching. Just make sure they're performing before you show up.
6738 E. Cave Creek Road
Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Region: Cave Creek
The Horny Toad, 6738 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, 997-9622. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Folks looking for a barbecue experience in a more substantial restaurant setting might consider trekking out to the Horny Toad. It's got an inviting, homey, Western-lodge look--rough wood interior, captain's chairs, fireplaces. It's also got a touch of sass. Both the "Sorry, We're Open" sign over the front door, and the mounted jack rabbit's head in the back dining room got us chuckling. I wish the barbecue dishes had just as much sass. Like most restaurants that cater to tourists, the Horny Toad seems to go a bit out of its way not to antagonize anyone with hard-hitting flavors. The hot-wings appetizer, at a pricey $4.95, is neither particularly hot nor particularly meaty. If you're determined to munch on something before the meal arrives, you're probably better off with the basket of puffy onion rings. The kitchen certainly knows how to fire up a slab of pork ribs. These mild critters came off the mesquite charcoal at just the right moment, burnished with a tasty singe. But the barbecue sauce accompaniment is a real snoozer, bland enough to have come from an oversize generic can. These ribs deserve a little more respect. The same tentativeness afflicts the barbecued chicken. The Horny Toad has tracked down some hefty creatures--the half-chicken serving is enormous, as well as remarkably juicy. But the bird sported almost no barbecue fragrance. When I eat barbecued ribs or chicken, I want to be able to smell it on my hands after I've put down the last bone.
The other barbecued offering, beef ribs, doesn't have the quality of the pork or chicken. I know beef ribs tend to have some fat on them, but the fat-to-meat ratio on these bones seemed out of reasonable proportion. The sides also are stuck in the flavor doldrums. Seasoned fries had some oomph, but the mashed potatoes, cowboy beans and coleslaw sported no more than institutional zest.
At dessert time, though, the Horny Toad gets it exactly right. The two homemade sweets we sampled--a luscious strawberry shortcake, and hot apple cobbler--hit high notes that the barbecued meats never quite reached. The Horny Toad can carry a tune, but it doesn't really sing.