Editor's note: As this column went to press, The Western indicated it would be developing a new menu. Some dishes described below may not be available. Visit our food blog, Chow Bella (www.phxfood.com), for updates. This column has been edited since its original publication.
The Western in Scottsdale is part roadhouse, part house of style — a kind of 21st-century country boy as comfortable in dressed-up duds as he is killing a few Shiner Bocks while debating the top three Waylon Jennings albums.
Located on a stretch of Fifth Avenue near Indian School Road, the sleek little country music joint (formerly the Sugar Shack Sports Grill) sits perched at the edge of Old Town in a part of Scottsdale that sees more Hondas than Lexus hybrids. And the fact that there's nary a hint of what it is from the outside makes it the kind of Western-style speakeasy you're happy to stumble upon.
See the Complete Slideshow: Inside The Western in Scottsdale
There are flashier country bars in the Valley — ones that try to impress with sprawling stages, dozens of high-def televisions, and more neon lights than Times Square. The Western keeps its cool without ever going over the top. Its low-lit room of weathered wood and iron is a well-orchestrated mix of rustic and refined. Its laid-back bar is topped with tan patterned leather. And its humble stage, backed by velvet curtains, bathed in a hazy red light, and fronted by a small dance floor, gives you the sense that the next act might be the best you'll see all year.
If the scene seems familiar, it is. Partners Tucker Woodbury, owner of The Vig bars and The Little Woody tavern, and Stateside Presents owner Charlie Levy have made The Western into a kind of honky-tonk version of the Crescent Ballroom, the downtown music venue opened by the duo in 2011. Woodbury also owned the defunct Rocking Horse, a Western bar in Scottsdale that burned down in 1996.
Like the Crescent, Woodbury and Levy's efforts at The Western are paying off in the areas of beats and booze. But when it comes to the grub, this Scottsdale roadhouse would do well to re-examine its chow line.
When Cocina 10, the restaurant component of the Crescent, made its debut, it had the help of Valley pizza legend Chris Bianco and Mexico City-born chef Doug Robson (of Gallo Blanco and Otro Café in Phoenix) to oversee its menu of Mexican-style street food. The move helped put the music venue on the map as a spot for appealing munchies.
The Western has no such heavy hitters behind its menu, which isn't to say it's entirely without direction. A well-crafted listing of cowboy-style items reads like a kind of modern-day chuck wagon's. There's an emphasis on good bad-for-you food of the fried, meaty, and cheesy sort, and to further complement the Western theme, the eats are listed under tongue-in-cheek categories like "wayngs" (wings), "pokeweeds" (salads), and "sweet thangs" (desserts).
With better ingredients and a more deftly trained kitchen staff, The Western might not have such a hard time successfully transferring its tasty-sounding vittles from paper to plate. But unfortunately, most of its country charm stops at the menu. After that, as Willie Nelson once said, "No use denyin' you done me wrong."
There are a few bright spots in the starters (or "Hankerin'") section, due mostly to The Western's homemade chili, which doesn't hold back on the spiciness but is less meaty than you'd like it to be. It can be ordered up solo, served over a basket of cheesy fries, or mixed with with Fritos, cheese, and tomatoes in a jumbled pile of guilty pleasure aptly deemed Trailer Nachos.
The chili, in every case, fares better than chipotle bacon hush puppies that taste of neither chipotle nor bacon and arrive with one or two equally bland dunking sauces. Worse are Bullet Chimis, long, thin pieces of bready tortilla filled with a flavorless meat mixture that seem to have come by way of a banquet table on "Western Night."
At $11, the most expensive appetizer on the menu, the Amaretto by Mornin' Quesadilla, also is the best. Filled with fairly good barbecue chicken tinged with the slightest hint of the sweet, almond-y Italian liqueur, its triangular pieces can be dipped into a mildly spicy green salsa for a bit of a kick.
A less-pricey option is the grilled wings. Smaller than what you'd hope for, but in most cases well-prepared, they're best had slathered in a nice, near-buttery Buffalo sauce.
Things start to go south more quickly in the sandwiches section. A very good green chile burger with a nice, even heat might be the standout if it weren't topped with a dry, crackly bun. Overcooked and fatty pieces of brisket make appearances in store-bought tortillas as tacos as well as on the Steer Here Sandwich, which, depending on when you visit, may come stacked with meat and a little slaw or the exact opposite — and with more Muenster cheese and mustard than you'll know what to do with.
Best avoided are two uninspired pork sliders with an unpleasantly bitter slaw and a Four Corners Fry Bread that looks as if the air has been let out of it. Small and dry, the pita-like disc is all but buried in handfuls of slaw and cheese and its pork green chili effectively overpowered by a blast of sour cream.
If there's a hint of the Southwest in the Southwest Shrimp Salad, you'll be hard-pressed to find it. More or less a bowl of lettuce frugally strewn with pieces of fruit, kernels of corn, and nearly cold, brown shriveled balls of battered meat passing for shrimp, you couldn't be blamed for thinking you'd just paid $13 for a pre-made salad mix straight from the grocery store.
The big plate section is more of the same. There is a thick and crunchy chicken fried steak sidetracked thanks to timid batter and gravy flavors. But far worse is the adovada pork burrito. Worlds removed from what many in the Valley know as the New Mexican-inspired dish of tender pork marinated in a spicy red chile sauce (see: Los Dos Molinos), this version, which features dry, overcooked pieces of meat and melted cheese wrapped in a pasty tortilla smothered in a dull tomatoey sauce, is as off-putting as its offensive $13 asking price and should have been stricken from the menu yesterday.
Ready for a drink?
The same thoughtfulness put into the menu can be found in the libations section, but unlike the eats, the drinks deliver. Along with the wine and beer come country-themed cocktails like Bird Dog Lemonade, Haymaker (PBR and a shot of cinnamon whiskey), and the Kentucky Mule, a cold, refreshing concoction featuring Buffalo Trace Bourbon and ginger beer served in a camp-style mug.
For now, you are not at The Western for sustenance before or after a show. You are here because there is country music, your friend just bought a round, and it's a pretty damn cool place.