GRUB BAG

Most people think my ever-faithful dining accomplice Goat earned his nickname because he will eat anything. This is not true. For instance, on a recent pre-Fourth of July expedition in search of cowboy steak, Goat scorns the endorsements of James Garner, Cybill Shepherd, and Michael Cooper, and orders chicken.

How, then, did he acquire the nickname "Goat"?
Well, that's another story. This story is about our search for flame-licked red meat, a quest which takes us far and wide.

By far, the farthest, and maybe even the widest, restaurant we visit is the Mining Camp Restaurant in Apache Junction. Nestled at the base of the awesome and spooky Superstition Mountains, the ponderosa pine structure imitates the look and feel of an authentic cook shanty from the last century's mining camps.

While this place packs 'em in during the winter-visitor season, it's not too crowded the sultry June night we journey out. Most of the folks inside have finished eating. They cruise the gift shop for cactus pins and other take-home treasures.

We have business to conduct in the gift shop, too. At the Mining Camp, you buy "tickets" for your meal there before entering the dining room. The choices are limited. We buy one adult All-You-Can-Eat for Goat and one ten-ounce rib eye steak for me. Tickets in hand, we proceed toward the dining room. Goat is perceptive as usual when he notes, "It's like boarding a ride." Let me interject a warning here. If you have unpleasant memories of summer camp, the Mining Camp may not be the restaurant for you. The pine-paneled dining room contains six long, varnished-pine tables. Metal cups, plates, mugs and silverware mark twenty place settings at each. Within minutes--in the off-season--you will be sitting at one of them.

Naturally, food is served "family style." On a crowded night, we'd be dining with strangers. But not tonight. Just three other parties occupy the dining room, so we are seated alone at the end of a table. Our waitress asks us what we'd like to drink. Our choices are coffee, iced tea, milk or water. We choose water. She shrugs, collects our meal tickets and heads for the kitchen. A pitcher of water is already on the table.

One of the other, more conspicuous tables is occupied by a group of crew-cut college boys. They are loud, bordering on the rude. One of them has a laugh as annoying and distinctive as Frank Gorshin's "Riddler" character on the classic Batman TV series. I wish I could reproduce it here in print, but I'm sure you can imagine how awful it sounds. And let me tell you, these boys laugh a lot when not snarfling all-you-can-eat grub.

Our waitress brings us some bandanna-covered sourdough rolls, a tub of whipped butter substance and jam, a metal bucket o' beans and a square tin of coleslaw. She asks me how I'd like my steak cooked and I tell her medium rare. She disappears back into the kitchen. We begin sampling.

The beans are piping hot and brown-sugar sweet. The waitress tells me later the beans themselves arrive in cans, but the flavoring is prepared by the cook. "It's the same barbecue sauce as on our ribs," she boasts. Both Goat and I like them, though I suspect they are store-bought.

The rolls have a long way to go before I'd call them sourdough. Or even rolls. They are large and textured like Wonder Bread. Some are white, but certainly not sourdough, the others are cinnamon-raisin. The whipped butter substance overpowers whatever flavor these baked goods really have.

The coleslaw suffers from lack of definition. It is simply shredded cabbage and mayonnaise. It's not noxious, just plain.

In the corner of the rustic room, a miner sings and plays guitar. He's got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle and an okay voice. The college boys find him hysterical. While he renders his version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky," one of them intones "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors. Jim Morrison is indeed a ghost and the juxtaposition of these two songs comical, but I find the college-boy mentality tiresome. Fortunately our miner entertainer is more mature than they and handles their comments good-naturedly.

The rib eye steak arrives au jus on an oval metal platter. "I hope I don't spill it on you," says our waitress. So do I! Later I wonder why there is juice anyway. It's supposed to be charbroiled steak.

It's also supposed to be medium rare. Instead, it is solidly gray. Well-done is what I'd call it. Our waitress offers to have the cook prepare another steak for me, but I don't want one. With this quality of meat, the fuss isn't worth it. I eat what I can and leave the rest. Any way you cook it, it is not a very good steak.

Goat's all-you-can-eat platter is obscenely huge. It consists of towering mounds of roast chicken covered with pale-yellow chicken gravy, roast beef with brown gravy and a row of barbecued ribs. Both the steak and all-you-can-eat platter come with roasted potatoes; mine are cool.

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