If you walk through the front door of a barbecue joint and find yourself facing a big ol' T-shirt stand, it's usually wise to spin right back around and slip out before the door bangs closed.
Not that corny pig-themed merchandise is always a harbinger of smoky doom — the best barbecue restaurant I've ever been to sold me a shirt — but it's often a sign that the establishment's owners have their priorities out of whack. The burdens of painstakingly slow-smoking various cuts of meat and preparing sides patrons have had hundreds of times before in a unique and delicious fashion is usually enough of a challenge for a restaurateur who isn't also on the horn pricing out Hanes and Jerzees.
The T-shirt axiom is doubly true with a brand-new place, like Big Earl's BBQ in Old Town Scottsdale. Kreuz Market, the iconic smokehouse in Lockhart, Texas, that sold me a shirt on a recent pilgrimage, is regarded as one of the best in the world. But the Kreuz family spent a few years perfecting their craft before they began moonlighting as cotton merchants. Big Earl's seems to aspire more toward the Planet Hollywood model.
Big Earl's BBQ
7213 East First Avenue, Scottsdale
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Barbacoa nachos: $8.99
Hot link hoagie: $6.99
Pork ribs (whole slab): $19.99
Not that Big Earl's BBQ is as awful as Sylvester Stallone's place. Actually, they may just have the best pork ribs in town, along with a few other impressive items. However, considering this hip, contemporary fusion restaurant comes from veteran Petite Maison chef James Porter, the many miscues are extremely disappointing. "Fancy barbecue" isn't necessarily an oxymoron, as demonstrated by Cave Creek's outstanding Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue (which, coincidentally, just rolled out its own well-earned line of shirts), but Porter's version is flawed. The venture seemed pretty slapdash from the start — Porter outsourced his sauces and seemed oblivious to the fact that there's another restaurant in town called Big Earl's — and, sure enough, the menu's burnt ends are surrounded by lots of gristle.
Earl's takes over for Jac's Pizzeria at First Avenue and Scottsdale Road, the nook best known for formerly housing Nello's Pizza. They wisely left the space raw, with lazy fans dangling from exposed beams above stucco walls, tables covered in butcher paper and sensibly rugged cement floors. The atmosphere is roadhouse chic — Earl's does the cliché license plate thing, but the plates are arranged in tidy rows instead of the haphazard way you'll find them displayed at TEXAZ Grill. Music helps the vibe, too: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Muddy Waters, all played loudly enough to enjoy without stifling conversation. Unfortunately, most menu items don't find the sweet spot between upscale and down-home as readily as the décor.
The drink deals are great, even if the selection is tilted pretty far toward the cheap stuff. You can get a can of Busch for $2, or a shot of Old Crow and a short pour of any draft beer for $3, any time. Since it's a "fancy" barbecue joint, they'll sell you a bottle of Pellegrino for the same price.
Grab a cheap domestic can at the bar -- just don't make the mistake of ordering the deep-fried pickles as an appetizer. Frying large, moist foodstuffs is skilled labor, and Big Earl's cooks haven't mastered it. One of my three trips was nearly ruined when scalding hot pickle juice burst out of its crunchy casing at the first nibble, leaving me with a bad case of coffee tongue.
The crunchy fried sweetbreads were almost as bad, as the dark and dry breading overwhelmed whatever other flavors were there. The Southwest chopped salad is totally pointless — boring ol' iceberg lettuce and scattered bacon bits, corn nut-style fried black-eyed peas, and ranch dressing. The grits with shrimp — I'm allergic to shellfish, so my dining companion sampled in my stead — were swimming in butter and, I'm told, had a distinct fishiness.
Instead, opt for the nachos with chopped brisket, shredded pork, and Velveeta. The chips were fresh-fried and crispy even under a mountain of mixed cheeses and meat, plus a few tomatoes and green onions for garnish. It's probably more food than two people would care to start with, but the variety of textures and flavors impressed. If you're going to order the nachos — or another very large appetizer — make a point of telling the waitress you'd like a while to finish them before your main course. Service at Big Earl's was very friendly but not terribly sharp. On one occasion, our main course turned up literally 20 seconds after the appetizer, making for an unmanageable mountain of quickly cooling food.
But, of course, no one goes to barbecue restaurants just for gimmicky appetizers. Big Earl's meat should be the main attraction, and it's very hit-and-miss.
Unless you sauce it up — in which case it's a guaranteed miss.
Earl's 'cue is smoked with only a dry rub, but each table is outfitted with three sauces made by a local company called Desert Smoke. Porter hooked up via Twitter with Scottsdale sauce-maker Tony Morales, who bottles and sells sauces and rubs, and decided to outsource. Morales is both a very nice guy and a relentless self-promoter, but, unfortunately, the three concoctions he made for Big Earl's are terrible. The original sauce tastes like watered-down Food Club ketchup, the habanero sauce is a one-note heat bomb that makes Tabasco seem complex, and the sweet-and-spicy tastes a lot like peppered fluoride toothpaste. Porter should know better than to entrust his sauces to someone else. Would he buy canned velouté for his impressive casual French bistro?
The pork ribs, as mentioned, are stellar — quality meat with a tasty rub and just the right amount of smoke. They're very tender but also substantial, offering perfect resistance as you start gnawing into them. I haven't had better anywhere in Phoenix. The hot link hoagie is also very good; sausages are pretty standard and the French-trained chef knows how to use brown mustard and Vidalia onions well. You're safe ordering either of these with the cole slaw or baked beans — sides sadly come as a single, cereal bowl-size portion — avoiding the re-heated macaroni and cheese.
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Also pay careful attention to the name of the main chicken dish. It's roasted chicken, meaning no smoke whatsoever. Not much in the way of other flavor, either. The pulled pork was surprisingly inconsistent, coming out tough and dry on one visit and moist and meaty the other. Pork shoulder is one type of barbecue that even purists usually like to sauce, and Desert Smoke's shortcomings really hurt here.
The brisket, on the other hand, was simply a disaster. On my first visit, for an early weekday dinner, it was sold out. On the second, at least half of the portion we received was gelatinous white fat. No one dropped by to ask how it was until we'd picked scraps of beef off the fat for much of our meal. A manager comped our drinks as a result — a nice gesture, but not much consolation as I stared up at those T-shirts, wondering why he was too busy to prevent that plate from ever leaving the kitchen.
Dessert proved to be a salve. The date and pecan pie was good, as were the chocolate chip cookies. The banana pudding with Nilla wafers and a chocolate-tinged whipped cream was the real keeper. That humble dish realized the potential of the Big Earl's concept better than anything else, blending good old-fashioned Nilla wafers, sliced bananas, perfect pudding and fancy French whipped cream.
Cool, creamy pudding feels pretty good on a pickle juice-ravaged tongue.