Welcome to Smoke Rings, a series about the Valley of the Sun's barbecue scene. The goal of this series is to pin down a "Phoenix-style" barbecue if there is one. Regardless of whether we have a style, a barbecue boom has taken the Valley this decade. Here, we outline the 'cue scene in ash and sauce and gnawed ribs. So bring your appetite, curiosity, and open mind as we chomp our way to answers.
Barbecue is a cuisine that plays by ironclad rules. Traditions have been in place for decades, for lifetimes. Knowing this, how should an eater respond when, in an effort to maximize flavor, a restaurant looks these rules dead in the eyes and breaks them? Your answer will determine whether you love or loathe Starlite BBQ, opened last month.
At Starlite, pork comes chopped rather than pulled. Bone-in pork shoulder gets marinated, grilled over mesquite charcoal, and then finished for 16 hours in an upright smoker.
Barbecue is cooking with smoke. Starlite does more than smoking.
The pork isn’t alone in getting a little heathen. Ribs spend more time braising than smoking. Meatloaf, mole sauces, and pickles can be seen on tables. One of the barbecue sauces has Asian echoes from Chinese mustard powder. Even brisket, the most hallowed barbecue meat of all, sees cooking methods outside the smoker.
“If you want Texas barbecue, go to Texas,” says Walter Sterling, executive chef at Ocotillo and partner in Starlite. “We’re not trying to be in Texas. We’re in a strip mall in Scottsdale.”
Starlite BBQ goes its own way. Sterling and chef de cuisine Alex Levine, who cooked under Sterling as a sous chef at Ocotillo, prioritize results over method. They have no special loyalty to tradition, only to pursuit of flavor.
Since opening in February, Starlite has shown itself to be an outlier of the Phoenix barbecue scene. Sterling and Levine deploy cooking methods rogue to barbecue, serve meat with condiments like pickled mustard seeds and red onions, and plate sides alien to the classic tray. Flourishes like these and a sophisticated drink menu let you know you’re in a new, polished, melting-pot kind of barbecue restaurant.
Like many of our best barbecue spots, Starlite cooks beef ribs. These come five to an order, slabs of meat tight to bone handles that run the length of a black iron skillet. Where other beef ribs have minimalistic peppery bark, Starlite’s glisten with a 50-50 mix of barbecue sauce and mole negro. The mole has tart bursts of dry fruit, the floral tones of orange oil, and the cool heat of pasilla pepper.
These beef ribs are good. They are good for a different reason than the ones at other places. They don’t dazzle you with simplicity, wow you with ash and fat, and take you back to some prehistoric age. Their goodness comes partly from that traditional simple barbecue essence – from char, bark, and wood smoke – and partly from added layers of sophistication.
At bottom, this difference is what separates Starlite from other barbecue joints. Starlite goes further, using new techniques, meats, and sauces.
Levine is smokemaster. When he was at Ocotillo full-time, he was the man in charge of the smoker. He smoked beef ribs, brisket, duck, shrimp, and pastrami. Over time, he and Sterling fell deeper into smoking.
A line of ocotillo plants twists toward the sky in front of Starlite. This is fitting. Starlite is a barbecue restaurant refracted through the prism of Ocotillo, the centerpiece of Sterling’s expanding roster of restaurants. (He has a third pending.)
“We don’t have a lot of parameters at Ocotillo because we’re New American food,” he says. “We do elements of Asian food. We do elements of Italian food, French food. We’re kind of all over the place trying to do good food. Here, it’s kind of the same philosophy.”
Sterling and Levine smoke meatloaf. It’s filled with onions, eggs, and rice crackers. (Everything is gluten-free but the mac and cheese.) Post-smoke, the meatloaf is sliced and grilled.
They smoke some zany meats. One is a take on the Puerto Rican chuletas can-can, a pork steak made from multiple cuts. For this, they wrap a long strip of pork belly with connected loin around a boneless pork chop. “I brine it, cold smoke it, wrap it up, and smoke it a little more,” Levine says.
At two pounds, this monster chop looks like a disc of tree trunk. It’s round like a tire and has teeth where the belly has been scored, the outer fat crisp and black from exposure to smoke. Grill marks thatch the meat, which finds levity in an accompanying broken chimichurri.
The can-can “steak” picks up shy musk from a low smoke. Beef ribs, on the other hand, get smoked hot at 315 degrees. At Starlite, some barbecue has heavy smoke. Some has faint suggestions of smoke, the flavor coming in on the level of a spice. Levine sets his smokers to various temperatures calibrated to the meat, weighing each cut before starting.
Starlite also smokes meats you’ll typically find at barbecue joints: brisket, ribs, pork, and sausage. “We need to have things that people are familiar with, but we put our twist on it,” Sterling says.
The twist may be via cooking method, say, finishing brisket on the grill. The twist may be serving mole. Or the twist may be smoking chicken sausage super low for two-and-a-half-hours – a longer smoke for sausage – and serving them still on the rope, oozing cheese and sharp with cilantro.
There is a sense of place to Starlite’s barbecue style. Ocotillo is a New American restaurant with Southwestern influences, and Starlite is barbecue filtered through Ocotillo. Starlite’s smokers puff with mesquite and pecan, two local woods. The chefs use local vegetables for sides like a crudité board, squash with mole, and a superb grilled cauliflower.
Starlite feels southwestern, too, because of its booze.
Whiskey dominates Brad Twigg’s drink program, which is insanely lofty for a barbecue spot. “There’s a smoke influence with the charred barrels, and that’s where whiskey and barbecue play together well,” Twigg says. “There are wood notes in both.”
Twigg pours beers like an Anderson Valley oatmeal stout aged in Wild Turkey barrels. He mixes cocktails with smoked meat in mind, like one with whiskey and watermelon because “at a barbecue, somebody’s always cracking open a watermelon.”
He has assembled a formidable top shelf, sporting finds like Pappy Van Winkle, Whistle Pig Boss Hog Black Prince, and Bruichladdich Whiskey’s Octomore Islay Scotch, the latter so peaty that catching a scent is like sticking your face into a campfire.
The drink program feels like it exists to elevate barbecue.
Elevating barbecue, though, isn’t what many people want. Slinging moles and spiking refined barbecue sauces with ghost peppers will likely peeve barbecue snobs. That said, barbecue as a whole has elevated in recent decades. The cuisine began as a means of tenderizing tough cuts, as a cheap way of eating for the working man and woman. People once barbecued in steel drums, in dirt holes.
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Today, barbecue spots use prime cuts. To fill up on brisket may cost $15 or more. Top pitmasters use custom-forged smokers that cost thousands of dollars. People aren’t throwing meat in a hole anymore; they’re manning smokers incessantly, sentinels to the firebox all night. Over time, barbecue has moved higher.
Starlite adjusts the trajectory, doubles down, and shoots for the sky. It’s still barbecue, but a novel chef-driven kind. And those who find the old gospel of holy smoke flexible, irrelevant, or bullshit will find Starlite BBQ a cool addition to the local scene.
Barbecue Joint(s): Starlite BBQ
Smoke Master: Alex Levine and Walter Sterling
Wood: Pecan and mesquite (with some hickory and cherry wood)
Special Something: The menu features many non-smoked dishes. Nashville-style hot chicken is sweet, spicy, and crisp, rounded by acid from pickled cucumber and red onion. Starlite also serves brunch, with the "Smoko Loko," meatloaf with fried egg and gravy, leading the way.
Quirk: They are many. Ribs are cooked wet, meaning in sauce rather than dry rub. Of Starlite's three sauces, the spicy one brings a formidable heat and is easily the best. Notably, the menu features thoughtful non-meat options, making Starlite the rare barbecue spot where bringing a vegetarian wouldn't cause beef.
Contact/Hours: 7620 East Indian School Road, #101, Scottsdale; 480-553-9330.
Wednesday and Thursday 4 p.m. to midnight; Friday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to midnight; closed Monday and Tuesday