Cafe Reviews

Fire Starters

You've gotta hand it to restaurateurs Robert Stempkowski and Stephen Wolff — they came up with a really clever concept when they decided to open a down-home barbecue joint in Tempe.

In a city with plenty of pizza, Asian food, and Middle Eastern cuisine, Urban Campfire offers some welcome alternatives, from smoked brisket to pulled pork.

For homesick college students who've missed too many family cookouts, not to mention hungry city dwellers who've lost touch with the pleasures of the backyard grill, it's a good pit stop for satisfying comfort food.

It's a primo location, too, right next to the ASU campus, at University and Rural. Remember Greasy Tony's, the divey little sub shop that was around for years? Stempkowski and Wolff spiffed it up (I can only imagine how much industrial-strength cleaner that took), put some umbrella tables out front, decorated the small dining room with old pictures of baseball teams, and invested in some John Cougar Mellencamp CDs.

They even snagged a liquor license for beer and wine, after getting completely screwed when they purchased the original license from Greasy Tony's ("Drinking Games," Sarah Fenske, July 5, 2007). If customers are so inclined, now they can order a reasonably priced bottle of wine, a pitcher of homemade sangria, or a can or three of budget beer, including Schlitz, PBR, Natural Light, and Genny Cream Ale.

So why isn't this place packed?

I have yet to stop by when Urban Campfire, which is now three months old, was even half full, and I'm amazed. Yes, the kitchen has some kinks to work out, but in general, the food is decent, the prices are cheap, and the people at Urban Campfire are friendly.

Urban Campfire's welcoming personality reveals itself not long after you sit down, when you're presented with — get this — an amuse bouche. As in, a little bite to amuse your mouth, as the French put it. Nothing fancy, just a lovely deviled egg topped with fresh ground pepper and minced red onion, with a few forkfuls of greens drizzled with tangy-sweet dressing.

It's a cheeky touch that makes a nice impression, and it's not a total surprise, considering Stempkowski's multi-faceted résumé, which includes stints at high-end Valley eateries like Mary Elaine's and Binkley's, as well as restaurant-reviewing gigs. A similar courtesy comes at the end of the meal, when you'll probably get a palate cleanser — perhaps a bowl of perfect watermelon chunks, or maybe a frozen Otter Pop on a plate.

Those things I wouldn't change one bit. What I would do, though, is bring back the menus. Early on, Urban Campfire had menus that doubled as placemats. But somewhere along the way, somebody dropped that idea and left customers to squint at big chalkboards above the register counter and bar. That's fine for takeout purposes, but for a sit-down meal with table service, somehow the chalkboard menu made me feel rushed, because it held up conversation with whomever was seated facing the opposite direction.

I have noticed some other changes, though — clearly, these guys are adjusting the menu as they go along. Last time I stopped in, the meatball sandwich was gone, as was the chicken salad, which I'd been hoping to try.

Thankfully, the streamlining hasn't deleted the Campfire Dogs, which were my favorite thing here. These hefty beef hot dogs were char-grilled, ladled with chunky Red's Kettle Chili (a smoky mix of pinto, kidney and black beans, with plenty of ground beef and tomatoes) and topped with Muenster cheese and diced onions — quite a handful, and eventually the soft bun started to fall apart. Our observant waitress brought wet-naps at just the right time.

I also liked the UC Sliders, three soft mini-buns stuffed with luscious pulled pork drenched in spicy, slightly sweet homemade barbecue sauce. Sloppy joe sliders had a similar appeal.

Eastside Mabel's Spareribs came with the same tasty barbecue sauce, although the deeply caramelized meat was good on its own, like savory candy. These ribs had plenty of meat on them, without too much fat, and although I can't honestly say it was falling-off-the-bone tender, the heady, smoky flavor was delicious.

A cup of Aunt Chi Chi's Green Stew, a chunky mélange of potato, smoked pork, roasted green chiles, celery, and corn, was fine as a side dish, although too one-dimensionally spicy for me to ever consider a whole bowl. And the smoked bacon and egg salad sandwich, which showed no trace of bacon, was run of the mill.

I was impressed with the smoked pork chop sandwich, though. Served on big, fresh slices of marble rye, it paired moist, flavorful slices of meat with mild, roughly cut homemade sauerkraut.

As you can tell, Urban Campfire is proudly meat-centric — forget about coming here if you're a vegetarian, unless you don't mind filling up on sides (except the peppered bacon and brown sugar baked beans). Roasted pepper and citrus slaw was refreshing, as were sliced cucumbers bathed in sour cream with fresh dill. I enjoyed the fried yam planks — wide and more thickly cut than a potato chip, crisp on the ends but still potatoey inside — although the Parmesan-topped French fries could've used another minute in the fryer. The flavor was nice, but every time I tried them, they were limp.

Besides a couple of salads and a platter of chilled, house-smoked salmon — topped with fresh dill and minced red onion, with a cup of mild, creamy mustard dip — there really are no light options at Urban Campfire.

You could say the same thing about dessert. Whether you go with a plate of Haystack Cookies (a heap of pretzel sticks and mini-marshmallows coated in a thick, peanut butter-butterscotch sauce), or one of the enormous butterscotch-caramel-covered apples, it's guilty pleasures all the way.

Next time I'm ready to indulge, I'll be going here — and I hope I'm not alone, because I'd like to see Urban Campfire stick around.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig