I rave so often and so loudly about Tuck Shop, my friends believe I'm an investor in the popular restaurant. And I dine so frequently at Vovomeena, the staff and I are on a first-name basis. But I admit to having abandoned Astor House, a smallish eatery in the Coronado neighborhood that's operated by the same folks who own Tuck Shop and Vovomeena, after only one visit. The diner's New Orleans-themed snack food menu bored me, and I never returned. But word that this tiny diner, which shares a building with Tuck Shop, had traded in shared plates for a pair of hickory-wood smokers piqued my interest and, eventually, filled my belly with some delicious (and, admittedly, a couple of hohum) smoked meats.
Astor's setup is a trendy, casual cafeteria model, with diners placing their orders off a board at a cashier's station, then helping themselves to ice water and plastic utensils (which takes "casual" a step too far for those of us who prefer real flatware). A server delivers your meal -- meats are folded picnic-style into sheets of waxed paper -- and will happily fetch drinks from Tuck Shop's bar, which offers the best homemade tonic I've ever enjoyed gin with.
Astor House's menu is divided into beef, pork, bird, and link and offers two choices in each category. One mixes and matches meats, each of which comes with its own sauce, and side dishes traditionally paired with barbecue: cole slaw, potato salad, corn bread.
It's clear that pit-master Sean Cavistrano knows a thing or too about barbecue. If there's a problem with Astor's cuisine, it's primarily that there are too many big flavors competing for our attention. Patiently cooked meats are unfortunately obscured by the sticky sauces, which, if you're a fan of barbecue, are best avoided after a taste or two.
I'll return for the brisket, a char-crusted beauty that's lean but also just fatty enough and not over-gristled. Less worthy is the tri-tip, drier than the desert both times I ordered it. It benefits slightly from dipping in the tomatillo Worcestershire sauce, a sideways spicy aftertaste.
A close second to that brisket is the pulled-pork shoulder, tender and flavorful and just pink enough. Baby back pork ribs are crusty with a crunchy dry rub coating moist, pink meat by their accompanying spicy, tomato-based dipping sauce.
Those meats offered in the "bird" category were both dreary. The sliced turkey breast was dry and flavorless, wakened only by white cider citrus sauce, which tasted just as good licked from my own fingers. The pulled chicken offered nothing that said "barbecue," not even a hint of hickory.
Schreiner's sausage is, as ever, hard to beat, although I found the chicken and garlic version too dry and grainy.
The spicy beerandpork version was delicious on its own, and better when slathered with tangy mustard-balsamic sauce.
Although the slices of housebaked white bread that accompany every order are dry and unappetizing (they work better as kitschy garnish than as an accompaniment), Astor's other sides are generally excellent. The chimichurri potato salad is a cold, snappy pairing to the dark, smoky meats; the honey-glazed jalapeño corn bread is surprisingly mild and perfectly moist, and the potato salad is icy and simple, slightly mustardy and a good balance to some of the menu's other over-the-top flavors. Chili beans are served con carne style, with strands of tender beef and a sweet, tomatoey sauce. The crisp, sweet cole slaw is arguably the best of its sides, a mellow blend of mayonnaise and crunchy cabbage.
I was too bloated for dessert on my first trip but left room on a followup. The chocolate pecan pie bar is another one-too-many-flavors misstep. Why add gooey chocolate to the beauty of a burnt sugar and pecan dessert? The butter cake, moist and subtly sweet, is a better bet.
After a little more than a year of meatsmoking, Astor House is shaping up as a better barbecue joint. Fewer overwhelming sauces and maybe more red meat might make this trendy neighborhood stop into a genuine hot spot.
Astor House Coronado 'Cue and Watering Hole 2243 North 12th Street 602-687-9775 www.astorinphx.com
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Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Brisket (half-pound) Baby back ribs (half-rack) Pulled chicken (half-pound) Chocolate pecan pie bar