Cafe Reviews

Circle H Barbecue, Despite a Few Misses, Fills a Neighborhood Void

Opening a restaurant in a former Mexican joint that sat empty for 10 years in a dying shopping center is one gutsy move. But that's exactly what Bill Sandweg did when he opened Circle H Barbecue at Seventh Ave and Camelback, a few blocks north of Copper Star Coffee, his gas station turned java joint.

Perhaps being part of a neighborhood and changing it for the better, as he did with his coffee house, is what this Arizona native craves. And now Sandweg's got a shot at serving his barbecue, which he couldn't pull off at the tiny Copper Star.

The barbecue at Circle H — pork, beef brisket, and chicken — is hickory-smoked and slow-cooked with Sandweg's signature rubs and sauces. It can be had on burgers, in sandwiches, salads, and as full meals, along with starters and sides of American favorites like mac 'n' cheese and deviled eggs. There's nothing fancy about any of it — even the mention of Schreiner's smoked bacon and andouille sausage reads like a footnote on the menu — but then Circle H is more about simple fresh ingredients and cooking techniques than intricate gourmet. And when it gets them right, its ideal customer — someone from the neighborhood — can enjoy a decent, affordable meal that will send her away satisfied and perhaps with a bit of barbecue sauce on her shirt.

But Circle H doesn't always get them right.

The starters are a curious bunch. Like staples at a picnic, you wouldn't reject them if they were put in front of you, but ultimately they're an uninteresting lot. There are small, mustard-y deviled eggs, not-so-loaded loaded potato skins with cheddar cheese and bacon, and grilled cheese sandwich halves, served without any additional ingredients to make them special and amounting to little more than melted cheese and plain, crispy bread. If Sandweg were to re-think some of his restaurant's menu items, the appetizers would be the place to begin.

But there is good pork. And if one were to follow the most successful meat across the menu, it would be the pig. There are meaty whole and half-racks of barbecue baby-back ribs with a light, smoky flavor; a good sandwich called The Memphis Flyer, featuring chopped pork in a tangy barbecue sauce and topped with mustard-y coleslaw; an even better sandwich, The Pulled Pork, featuring tender shredded meat with a sweet and tangy sauce; and a burger, aptly deemed The Pig, heaped with smoked bacon and luscious pulled pork atop a thick, half-pound patty resting on a pretzel bun — a creation that would have been stellar had the patty not been overcooked. The pork also makes a candied appearance in a cloyingly addictive side of baked beans and a disappointing showing in chili, which ends up more as an under-seasoned and thin pork soup with cheese and barely-there green chiles.

The other two meats can be dicey, the brisket more so than the chicken. On a sandwich or as a meal, the brisket is sometimes wonderfully moist with a rich, smoky flavor and other times hopelessly dry or greasy, begging for squirts of barbecue sauces — a tangy regular, a sriracha-esque spicy, or a mustard-based Carolina sauce. And the smoked barbecue chicken is scrumptiously tender when shredded atop a loaded salad of fresh greens, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and sweet corn. It goes best with Circle H's light chipotle. (Thousand Island? No, thanks.) The chicken fares better in the salad than it does as a meal, where, as a half-chicken with a signature rub, it was overcooked.

When it comes to sides, the aforementioned baked beans are excellent, as are the grilled assorted vegetables, which may include tasty mushrooms, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Hand-cut, skin-on fries are also a good choice, better than the red potato salad, where diced pieces of spud were undercooked. The fresh cabbage coleslaw seems to have changed since my first visit. Once a simple and tasty creation featuring large pieces of the leafy vegetable in a light dressing, it seems to have taken an unfortunate turn to a more standard shredded and soupy version. And for mac 'n' cheese lovers, elation quickly turns to sorrow upon first taste of Circle H's Three-Cheese Mac & Cheese, which arrives as something closer to noodles and butter.

For those looking for a sweet treat after their barbecue, Circle H offers a small selection of homemade goodies, but be warned: One of them, while delectable, doesn't deliver on the menu description that may have prompted one to order it in the first place. The 3 Layer Dr Pepper Cake caused my dining guests to audibly groan with disappointment when they couldn't taste the Dr Pepper. Still, the dreamy buttercream frosting and moist chocolaty cake certainly didn't go uneaten.

Since my first visit to Circle H in December, and on my many visits since, Sandweg has made several improvements to his barbecue joint, which seems to be breathing new life into a spot that most diners may have considered just another intersection. A wall of wraparound windows lets the natural light pour in, allowing a view of a large patio area in front, an open interior features a small bar with a TV and several wooden tables branded with the Circle H logo (the name inspired by Sandweg's grandfather), and vintage photos from Sandweg's past dot the light-colored walls.

It is, like the music that (sometimes) plays overhead — Johnny Cash, Alejandro Escovedo, Steve Earle — a personal expression of what this native Arizonan seems to value, namely, a friendly place where folks from the neighborhood can get together and enjoy themselves. And with greater attention to some technical details and consistency, I hope that's exactly what Circle H can become.