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Review: Urban Campfire, Tempe AZ

There are certain times that it's really hard to write a review of a restaurant you've been meaning to try. 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 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.

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  1. and since I forgot, here's the link to the place:

    Urban Campfire
    921 E University Dr, Tempe, AZ 85281

    1. Sounds like lots of fun! I wish they offered a meat-free dish :(

      2 Replies
      1. re: hollyeve

        I was chatting about that with a vegan coworker, and said to them that it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if they would be able to do a special request. And if enough people request such things, a vegetarian/vegan dish would almost certainly find its way on to the menu.

        Oh, a couple of things I forgot to mention in my other post... as for other drink selections, they have RC Cola; this means no Diet Coke, sorry Seth ;-) They also have a small full bar and a good selection of budget American lagers, including PBR, Schlitz, Natural Light (with a notation on the menu board to "drink for effect") and the vaunted Genessee Cream Ale. Beer prices are around 2-3 dollars each. As for what the place looks like inside, it's fairly nondescript. Certainly no need to dress up when you go, and that's a good thing in my book.

        1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

          RC Cola would be a wonderful substitution. Diet Rite is my friend. :o)

      2. Excellent review, JK! This place sounds like a winner. Dinner and Sangria for $20 a head? You are correct that when word gets out, the place will be packed.

        And, yes, I remember Greasy Tony's. I think anyone who attended ASU had to go at least once. That and the old Rundles. :o)

        1. I went to Urban Campfire last night with my boyfriend and a friend of ours, mainly upon the advice of CH posters, and had a slightly different experience with the food.

          As JK implied, the service was great, the newly redecorated joint was certainly nothing to gawk at, and yet had a simplicity to it that I enjoyed.

          The deviled egg and bite of lettuce with tomato vinaigrette were fantastic, they were definitely the best part of the meal. The deviled egg was perfect in its texture, and I really enjoyed having each bite with a bit of the minced red onion. The vinaigrette may be my new favorite dressing, it's sweet and tangy without being too powerful. I so enjoyed the deviled eggs that I got a few of them to go to have as breakfast. At 50 cents per egg, they were a cheap and yummy breakfast for me today :).

          I had the half-rack of ribs with fries and a side salad (please note that the salad isn't offered as a side, but Robert was feeling nice and amiable so he made the substitution for me). My friend ordered the Chicken Sliders with Honey Mustard with fries, and my boyfriend had the 1/2 smoked chicken with fries and their citrus slaw.

          The fries were not really much to speak of, simply long, limp twigs of potatoes. Even though they were spiced (I peeked over the counter while Robert prepared food), they were fairly bland. I think I would have enjoyed it much more had it been fried for a longer period of time. The salad, after the amuse, was unsurprisingly delicious. I had gotten the tomato vinaigrette for it and still really enjoyed the fresh crispness of the lettuce with the tanginess of the dressing.

          The main problems we all had were with our main dishes. My ribs, far from falling off of the bone, were very very red, except for a thin layer of charred meat and fat. Our friend's sliders came on hamburger buns, since they ran out of slider buns earlier in the day, and he belatedly wished he had gotten it with BBQ sauce instead. My boyfriend's chicken, although we realized would contain bones, had small splinters of bones in unexpected places. As such, I don't think he took more than a few bites that were boneless. Still, the BBQ sauce for the ribs and chicken were great. They actually reminded me a little of a cross between sweet and sour sauce and habanero jelly.

          The food experience ranged the gamut from the deliciously divine (tomato vinaigrette) to the unpleasantly painful (my boyfriend's bony chicken). I for one shall definitely try the place again, probably really soon, if only for the salad and deviled eggs, but I may be the only one in our group.

          1. I went to Urban Campfire with a group of people from work for lunch, today.

            It seemed like we all wanted brisket, and the place really seems to feature it. I think that three of us got the SW of Philly (brisket) sandwich, and the other got the brisket sliders. Sides included the yam planks, fries, and beans.

            I think we all agreed the brisket was nothing special. I thought the flavor was good, and it was a pretty decent sandwich for only $7.95 with a side. I thought the yam planks were more of a novelty. I wouldn't order them, again. I had a taste of the french fries - limp, but good.

            We seemed to get all of the little bonues mentioned by others, plus a sample of spareribs.

            I was one of the two in our party that thought this place was definately worth a return visit. Another didn't think he'd return, and the fourth seemed to think there were pluses and minuses.

            With all of the smoky stuff on the menu, I will be back to try a few more things.

            The place was not even half full, so, if you're worried about fighting a lunch crowd, the place hasn't really caught on, yet.

            Servers were very nice, if somewhat inexperienced.

            1. The girlfriend and I had dinner last night at Urban Campfire. I wasn't completely blown away by it, but I did enjoy it. Our server, a young-looking blonde kid sporting an ASU shirt, was having a rough time I think handling the uneven flow of customers; he was good in the beginning, but seriously faltered as the night went on. Aforementioned amuse bouche kicked things off - the deviled egg was very good, and I appreciated the spice level. The dressing didn't do much for me personally, but I can see how others could like it (the sweetness tasted a little fake, to me).

              I started with the Smokehouse soup, which I was really looking forward to since I love French onion, but was disappointed. For some reason, I couldn't really detect any fennel as it describes, so all other things equal, it was just ok. The bread on top wasn't substantial enough, and the scant amount of cheese was draped over top was an afterthought. For my entree, I went with the short rack of ribs w/the beans and yam planks. Beans were really excellent, with nice smokiness and contrasting sweetness. The yam planks, which looked rather haphazardly sliced, were a bit aggressive on the black pepper but very good. Due to their thinness, some were real crispy and reminded me of what good sweet potato fries should be. The ribs themselves, were a bit of a let-down. The sauce on top was as JK described, however the meat wasn't falling off the bone, and some effort was required to get all of the meat. The meat was still quite red in some parts, but for all the effort, I've had better ribs elsewhere in town.

              The girlfriend had the house-smoked salmon, which I sampled and very much liked the flavor of the fish. I didn't try either dipping sauce, and since she's allergic to cucumber, couldn't have one of them but seemed to like the other. On a future visit, I think this would make a good starter. She also got the fries, which were undercooked and quite limp. Again, aggressive on the black pepper, but the garlic was a nice addition; probably not worth ordering if the person working the fry-daddy can't work it.

              All said, tax and tip brought the bill to around $50 w/four beers and dinner for the two of us. I heard another patron mention that there are future plans for cookout area w/self-serve smores, etc. - I'd be interested in checking that out. I hope they continue to work out the opening kinks (and get some menu's for your outside diners, quick!) and solve the service issue. I'll be back though, and am looking forward to trying some of their other items.

              1. After reading the reply's here on the UC, I have to put my 2 cents in. I started going to UC about two weeks after it had opened. After hearing that the chef from Richardson's was opening his own gig, I had to see what it was about. I have been there about 8-9 times since my first day and I can say that I have had only 1 mediocre experience. And that was with a chili dog being a 9 out of 10 on the 10 scale like my others were before. I have tried their Salmon, Brisket, Sliders, Ribs, Chili Dogs, Salads, Soups sides....Yam planks are my favorite, and I can say that it is probably the strongest spot in Tempe for REAL food. The portions are huge, and the food is great! I spent time in the south and I learned what real BBQ should taste like. Robert and the crew are a new restaurant, but they are well on their way to making it big in Tempe once the word gets out. I have brought plenty of people from in town and out of town into Urban Campfire to taste one of the only places to get real food in town. Given the less than stellar offerings on Mill, outside of Rula Bula, I have to say that Urban Campfire is a blessing to the downtown Tempe area. You can get food the way it is supposed to be, fresh, well made by hand instead of unwrapped from a frozen Sysco state.

                One example of how cool this place is happened a few weeks ago. We walked in for lunch and I could see the smoke coming from the back of the place when we were pulling in. I knew they were smoking their ribs in back on the smoker, and I was tempted to order the ribs, just because I knew they were fresh and were going to be in a blissful state. However, I had been salivating all morning for a sliced beef sandwich. Robert sent out a small plate of ribs to our table for the "amuse". The ribs were fantastic! Full of flavor, fresh, well seasoned, and juicy. They were almost falling off the bone as good ribs should! I was able to get the best of both worlds, my beef sandwich, and a taste of the irresistible ribs. And an Otter Pop to boot! I don't think I have had something like that since I was a kid!

                In conclusion, I have to say that if I have to take anyone to five places in Tempe to impress them The Urban Campfire is in my top five. And happily I do get to take guests around Tempe at least once a month to do so. Something that is even better is that UC is the least expensive of all the places I go to by the time I leave the table. And it is because of the devilish combination of excellent food for a fraction of what it should cost, that makes me able to return around once every week or two back for more goodness!

                Take a chance, and try the UC, it will not let you down.

                4 Replies
                1. re: horse petter

                  I tried UC for the first time a few weeks ago. It's not the type of place I would normally eat at since I usually prefer food that is more "ethnic" and less meat-centric, but I still found myself liking it. The smoked salmon burger I had was quite hearty and flavorful.

                  Two thoughts, though:

                  1) I am surprised by your unfavorable assessment of the Tempe dining scene. Sure, there are some pretty bad chains on Mill, but Tempe is home to so many good places representing the cuisines of the world. Cafe LaLibela, Blue Nile, Khai Hoan, Thai Basil, Tasty Kabob, Cornish Pasty Company, and Haji-Baba are among the numerous high-quality dining options in Tempe.

                  2) UC never seems to be very crowded. When I ate there, there was only one other customer besides my party, and every time I pass by, I see few people there. It has now been open several months but still does not seem to have caught fire. I don't think it's due to a lack of quality. Maybe it's more that the restaurant seems out-of-place at University & Rural. Its neighbors are Thai, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Indian restaurants, which generally fit the pattern for dining options near a university campus. It will be interesting to see if UC can thrive as-is, or if it will need to adjust its menu and approach.

                  1. re: silverbear

                    Hold on...hold on...hold on...I said "MILL AVE" not University. Cornish Pasty, Pita Jungle, and countless other gems can be found AROUND Mill Ave. But not on it. To name further gems...House of Tricks...at lunch is best for the quality and wallet. Rula Bula, The little shack tucked behind Mill Ave on the west side that has a great fresh menu of chicken salad, tuna salad, and veggie offerings, another dirty, but AWESOME indian restaurant at Lemon and Terrace, and countless others are GREAT. But Mill Ave....please, PF Changs, and probably the worst PF I have ever eaten at...the SF one is MUCH better. And a mix of TGI Mc Funsters type gigs, no I stand strong on the Mill scene, but it ends there. Tempe and PHX has some great food. The only one on Mill Ave proper is Rula Bula. The rest is crap. Close ones that are worth trying are Bison Witches, and I hear Chronic Taco is pretty darn good. But I stand strong on my assessment of the rest of Mill Ave. Get off the beaten track and you get Oreganos, Tricks, Cornish Pasty, Sushi 101...if you sit at the sushi bar and act nice...Thai Basil, Kabab, Jungle, and yes...countless others...oh and yes....Urban Campfire....which I have a hard time NOT eating at when I have $4 in my wallet and an empty stomach, because I can get a chilli dog and a side for that made with REAL food!

                    I hope this clarifies my previous statement....yes there is good food in Tempe, but outside of Rula Bula, Mill Ave has horrible for food.

                    1. re: horse petter

                      The unappealing chains are clustered along the 500, 600, and 700 blocks of Mill. On the 300 and 400 blocks, there's Med Fresh Grill, In Season Deli, Restaurant Mexico, Cafe Boa, Dragonfly, and of course Rula Bula. I'm fond of all of those. Whether we're talking about just Mill or all of Downtown Tempe, I think there are still a lot of good options. I'm glad UC has joined them and hope it finds a regular clientele to keep it going.

                      1. re: silverbear

                        OK...I forgot Boa...mediocre given the high price, and the nook restaurant was In Season on my last post....GREAT food...not on MILL... Dragonfly...is OK, but the Mesa location is better in my opinion. Restaurant Mexico...ehh, but again just my thoughts. I was just talking Mill...again Tempe and Phx have Great food options...next time I wont be so quick to lump everything in one Mill pot.

                2. My UC experience disagrees with most others, enough so that I'm not inclined to go back. I stopped there about 2 weeks ago for lunch. I went for something basic, their green chile burger (medium rare). Everything was fine until I started eating the burger. Medium rare was apparently well done. In fact so well done that it tasted bitter. I actually had to deconstruct the thing to figure out that they'd charred it so badly that it had left a bitter-tasting crust on the meat. Now this had been a particularly stressful day so I wasn't inclined to deal with more issues beyond telling the waiter that it was not medium rare. He said he'd tell the kitchen, but nothing came of that.

                  When it came time to pay, their card machine was down (and I had no cash). An awkward situation but not their fault, but in the end the owner came over and insisted that I would have to leave them my card number so they could run it later, ignoring the fact that I was clearly uncomfortable doing so. When something like that happens I would normally expect some kind of gesture from the restaurant, whether it's a free soda, a discount coupon for a return visit or something, but nothing was done.

                  Being as I was already having a bad day, this didn't make it any better. I've no desire to return.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: zebcook

                    I've had some really bad days myself, but none so bad that I've found myself unable to say to the waiter "The kitchen cooked this way past medium-rare, can you have them re-make this?"

                    You'd expect a coupon when the credit card machine goes down? At places I've worked, it's a temporary issue and a pretty rare one at that. All we've done is pulled out the imprint machine and did them the old-fashioned way, by hand. At *none* of the places where I've worked have we offered some sort of lagniappe for a technical difficulty that's THAT minor. Where do you go that does?

                    1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

                      Trust me, the day was that bad. Probably worse.

                      I understand machines not working and I understand pulling out the imprint machine. Hell, I've even had places take the card and make a hand rubbing of it on a credit slip. None of those things happened. There was no offer to provide any kind of receipt at all, just leave the number and we'll do it later. That's the issue I was not comfortable with and clearly unhappy about.

                      1. re: zebcook

                        I am such a fan of Urban Campfire and have nothing but GREAT experiences all 4 or so times I've been there that I have to jump in.

                        It is independently owned and the food is prepared with love...and yet the trade off can that things don't work as perfect as they do in the corporate world, i.e. credit cards.

                        That said, I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving my cc #'s without a signed receipt so I understand. And an overcooked burger is an overcooked burger.

                        But I would also venture to say burgers aren't the specialty and if they can't kick butt doing them they should remove or replace.

                        Anyway, I LOVE the restaurant and so badly hope it succeeds!!

                  2. I've had mostly great experiences at Urban Campfire. The service can be a bit spaced-out at times (but always nice), but the food has always been consistent for me (most of the time I order soup and a chili dog, which is a fantastic lunch combo). I tried a salmon burger the other day when I was there and that was great as well - I was told by the staff that they'd just started baking their own bread, which is a really nice touch. It held up to the sandwich well (I'd imagine it'd be great with the sliders, where crappy stale or mushified bread can completely ruin them). They also changed their recipe for the yam planks to make them more like yam chips, which were downright addictive (though the original yam planks were quite tasty as well). Still love the deviled eggs and the little chunks of pineapple for dessert too.

                    I'm also a bit befuddled by their lack of crowds as well - given the BBQ and cheap beer, you'd figure it'd be a winner with the ASU crowd but it hasn't seemed to catch on yet. Maybe it's the Greasy Tony's stigma or something.