Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review: Urban Campfire, Tempe AZ

There are certain times that it's really hard to write a review of a restaurant I've been meaning to try once I have been there. Sometimes, things just don't go the least bit like you would expect. My recent (massively disappointing) trip to Grilled Expedition was one of them. This review is hard to write for a different reason entirely. You see, Urban Campfire is a brand new restaurant in the space on the southeast corner of Rural and University that was home to Greasy Tony's since before I was born. The owner of Urban Campfire, Robert Stempkowski, has worked in a number of restaurants around town. You may have heard of one or two... Richardson's, Christopher's, Michael's at the Citadel, Binkley's, Mary Elaine's... and the list still goes on. Robert decided to open up his own little place, and offer up grub that the kids at ASU could not only afford, but also truly enjoy. So, he rolled up his sleeves, cleaned up the old Greasy Tony's (turns out the name was accurate; according to reports from our waitress, it looked like Tony stopped caring about the kitchen some time in the late 80's. Judging by what I remember of the dining room, that sounded about right), and opened up Urban Campfire a couple of months ago. The reason I'm so reluctant to write about this place is because once word gets out as to how utterly amazing Urban Campfire is, those eight tables in the restaurant are going to be a hell of a lot harder to come by.

The whole shebang started out when I met my friend Jeff at the restaurant. The moment he walked in the door, my friend Geena (a true urban gypsy if ever I knew one) called to let me know she got out of work early and was all set to go dancing. So, off I went to pick up Geena, leaving poor Jeff all by his lonesome. Well, not completely by his lonesome... I think he plotted with the waitress to have some kind of errand pop up just as I returned. Once I came back with Geena in tow, he had memorized most (OK, all) of the menu. I had already perused the menu online, so I pretty much knew exactly what I wanted. I got a half-rack of spare ribs ($11.95) with their Yam Planks (yes ladies and gentlemen, it's another place with sweet potato fries!) and baked beans. Jeff got their Cobb Sandwich ($7.95) on marble rye, a creation that put the classic salad between bread, with turkey, ham, bacon (all three of which are smoked in-house, as were my ribs), blue cheese, and other accoutrements. Geena... just ate before she got off work, and got to watch me and Jeff eat. We also decided to split a one-liter carafe of kiwi-basil white sangría ($15.99). The sangría came along pretty quickly, accompanied by Mason jar mugs full of ice, certainly a nice homey touch. It was a fairly simple sangría... maybe a little too simple. I would have liked the kiwi and basil to be a bit more evident; you could pick them up, but they weren't immediately obvious, at least with the first glass. The second glass was a lot sweeter and more obvious with the kiwi and basil (which work very well together, I should say), meaning that next time I get the sangría, I should likely give it a more vigorous stir before pouring.

We waited for a few moments, and our waitress picked up some tiny plates from the expo window. I see the plates coming and my first thought was "No way... they didn't..." When the plates were set on the table, my suspicions were confirmed. They brought out an amuse bouche. Needless to say, I completely did not expect it; usually amuse bouches are something served at places that cost four or five times what Urban Campfire costs. On the plate was a deviled egg, and a few bites of romaine lettuce with a creamy red tomato vinaigrette. The deviled egg was exemplary, with a little bit of horseradish and something else mixed in... I'm not sure what it was, but I'll do my best to catch it next time. Atop the egg was a little bit of minced red onion. The tastes melded together very nicely, and the egg itself was done perfectly, with a just-firm-enough white holding a silky, creamy yolk mixture. The tomato vinagrette was also outstanding, with a bit of tartness to keep the sweetness of the tomatoes in check. With a vinaigrette this good, who needs ketchup for fry dunking? I mentioned to our waitress how much I loved it and she mentioned that in a few months, they'll start bottling it. I have one thing to say about this... Good call.

Shortly after we polished off the amuse bouche, the entrees came along. I was very glad that I didn't attempt to polish off a full rack. The half rack brought a pile of about six or seven spare ribs, very nicely charred on the outside, napped with a slightly thin barbecue sauce that smelled oh so nice and tangy. The beans were in a small ramekin, and the Yam Planks were in a small basket on the side since there was no more room left on the plate. Since I know everyone here is crazy for sweet potato fries, I started out on those. These are wonderful. They aren't your typical fry; they're long sticks about an inch wide and maybe 1/8 inch thick. They're too thick to be potato chips, but too skinny to really be fries. You end up with the best of both; a whisper of a tender interior, with lots of crisp, caramelized exterior. To further enhance the Yam Planks, they are tossed with thyme and black pepper. The seasonings brought out the best of the yams, making them taste more sweet potato-y than just about any other sweet potato fry that I've had. After nibbling a couple of those, I dove into the ribs. This is some serious, serious barbecue. The ribs themselves were nearly falling off the bone and perfectly smoky, and the sauce on top was just the right balance of sweet, tangy, and spicy, with the tangy just barely ahead of the other tastes. The beans were no slouch either, with good smokiness from the bacon added to them and a little sweetness from brown sugar. Jeff greatly enjoyed his Cobb Sandwich; the smokiness of the meats worked well with the blue cheese on the sandwich, and the smoked turkey was so tender it melted in your mouth like it was paté. The fries were classic American hand-cut fries, tossed in grated Parmesan for extra dimension. These were quite nice, but were a bit on the limp side; they would do well to do as the Europeans have done for ages and fry them twice to amp up the crispness. Still, I'd take these over the ones that come out of freezer bags everywhere else; it's rare to find a place that does real fries anymore.

We almost licked our plates clean, and by some miracle still had room for dessert. They have one item for dessert on the menu: Haystack cookies ($1.25 each). You may have made something like these when you were a kid, using chow mein noodles and chocolate. Urban Campfire's are made from pretzel sticks and mini marshmallows, held together by a thick peanut butter and butterscotch sauce. The use of pretzel sticks gave them a little bit of a salty kick, much like with sea salt caramels. It's a good thing they did that; if they used something else, it might have been too sweet. Other than that, these seemed fairly pedestrian (like I said, sort of like something you'd make at home for or with kids), but I'll probably end up getting one every time I go there just because they're still darn tasty. I was talking to some friends about Urban Campfire before I wrote this, and a couple of them thought that some kind of s'mores would be a more appropriate dessert; I'm not quite sure how successfully s'mores could be made in a restaurant kitchen, but it would certainly be something interesting to see on the menu. Before the check arrived, here came our waitress with three more small plates, this time with ramekins of watermelon chunks as a palate cleanser. While I was happily munching away on the fresh fruit, Geena noticed something that didn't even cross my mind- the watermelon got a squeeze of lime before it went out of the kitchen. Considering how much I enjoyed it, I would have to say that the combination worked very well indeed.

Our server then brought the check, which came to just a hair over $42. For the outstanding quality of everything and all of the additional thoughtful touches by both the kitchen and our server (I am going to guess that she's been in the business for a while and is glad to work somewhere casual again), I would have to say that this was an absolutely outstanding deal. This is the kind of place that makes me wish I didn't work during the dinner shift so that I could take friends out to eat here more often. Jeff had other plans for the evening, so we had said our goodbyes and went out the door to our respective cars. Just as we were about to part company, the owner came out the front door with a big grin and a handful of long, brightly colored sticks of something in plastic... Otter Pops! We each got our choice of flavors, got to chat with Robert some as he nibbled the end bits from cutting the Otter Pops open (one of the benefits of being the boss), and found that an Otter Pop on a balmy late summer evening here in Phoenix is a darn near perfect ending to a meal. In all... I think it was five courses in all (every single one a home run, no less) plus a carafe of sangría for just over twenty bucks a head? I'm sold. I can barely wait to return again.