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Catalina serves savory upscale barbecue with golf-course views

Maybe you've never connected with the whole "Zen of golf" thing, or perhaps the idea of having a meal at a golf course clubhouse leaves you cold. Well, dining at Catalina Barbeque Co. and Sports Bar—located at the ninth hole of the Starr Pass Golf Club's Coyote Course at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa—might change your mind (at least about the dining part).

At first glance, there's nothing about the restaurant that indicates "barbecue." The view out the wide-open doors that lead to the patio reveals a perfectly manicured green. A stylish bar room sits off to the side. The wooden tables and chairs add to the country-club feel. That luscious allure of smoke is missing.

But then you read the menu: It is straight-forward and filled with words like "pecan" and "smoke" and "slow."

The cast-iron onion crisps ($8) are a great way to begin. Served in a small cast-iron pan with smoked tomato and onion ranch dressing, plus a smoky barbecue sauce for dipping, this dish popped. The onions had been sliced thin before being fried golden and flaky.

Chicken wings are found everywhere these days, but few places do them as well as Catalina Barbeque Co. The wings ($9) are smoked with a peppy dry rub, but they're so crispy that they've obviously been deep-fried as well—and they are fabulous! There's more of that ranch dressing, this time with some blue-cheese crumbles on top.

Eat these with an order of the barbeque tostada duo ($9) and a cold beer or two, and you've got yourself a meal. The tostadas are served atop rustic corncakes and finished off with crunchy, fresh slaw. There's one beef tostada and one pork tostada; both are equally tasty.

Beer is the perfect drink with barbecue, and you'll find plenty of choices here. The list takes you from Mexico to Canada, through England, Belgium and Germany. The majority of American offerings are craft beers, including one from local brewery Thunder Canyon.

The entrées list is pretty typical, with a lot of mixing and matching. There are two styles of ribs: pork spare ribs (half rack $15; full rack $22) and baby backs (half rack $19; full rack $26). The spare ribs also appear on the rib sampler platter ($18) with a choice of pulled or sliced pork, white-meat or dark-meat chicken, turkey breast, sweet or spicy sausage, brisket or brisket burnt ends. Both brisket varieties are artfully charred and tender, and proved to be a nice counterpoint to the sweet, peppery pork.

The spare ribs come slathered in a sweet chile glaze. Yum! The baby backs are smoked over pecan wood for about five hours. (Oak is also used to smoke some items.) Some of that smoky rub shows up again, too. We preferred the spare ribs—but only by a little.

We also tried the pulled pork sandwich ($10) and the Black Angus cheddar burger ($12). The pork was tender, and nicely complemented by a buttery toasted bun and a smattering of tart slaw. The burger had been cold-smoked before being grilled to order.

Just about everything comes with one "extra"—and there are so many tempting choices. We sampled the chipotle beans, the aged cheddar mac 'n' cheese, the loaded potato salad and the house-made potato chips. At first bite, the fiery navy beans seemed undercooked, but with the next bite, it became apparent that they'd actually been cooked perfectly. The chips were passable, while the potato salad was packed with bacon, cheese, sour cream and green onions; it was like a chilled baked potato. Mac 'n' cheese is all too often mushy or soupy, but Catalina's version was heavenly. Served in a small cast-iron casserole dish, it had been baked to a lovely golden brown. The shell pasta underneath was cooked perfectly, and the sharp cheese pulled away in long strands.

The only disappointment was the cheddar jalapeño biscuit that came with the platters. It was tough, as though the batter had been beaten too hard.

For dessert, we shared the strawberry lemon shortcake ($6). Here, bits of strawberries were tossed with a healthy portion of crème fraiche and placed artfully between a lemony sweet biscuit. The other dessert, which we took home, was the Sahuarita pecan pie ($6). (The server even packed up the wonderful homemade vanilla ice cream so we could enjoy the whole experience.) The rustic pie crust held chopped pecans in a not-too-sweet filling; it was almost as good as my own homemade pecan pie.

Lunch service was pleasant but perfunctory. The table was a little messy when we were seated; salt and pepper hadn't been wiped away, and the rims of the three barbecue-sauce containers on the table hadn't been cleaned. (The sauces are vinegar chili, a hot chiltipin and a sweet piloncillo.) Dinner service, on the other hand, was more professional; the server checked in just often enough.

Prices are the same on both the lunch and dinner menus, and dinner specials offer pricey steaks and some other "award-winning" entrées. In other words, do dinner there; it's good stuff.

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