ACHY BREAKY STEAK

Handlebar-J, 7116 East Becker, Scottsdale, 948-0110. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.; Sunday, 4 to 11 p.m.

My mama didn't let her baby grow up to be a cowboy.
The only headgear I ever sported was a navy-and-white New York Yankees cap. The only time I put on boots was when it was raining and Mom made me wear rubber ones with plastic snaps. On Saturday mornings, I identified more with Mighty Mouse than Hopalong Cassidy. So on a recent Saturday night, I was feeling a bit out of place at Handlebar-J, a popular north Scottsdale cowboy restaurant and hangout.

On the back wall hangs an ornate, gilt-framed mirror that could have been lifted from a Dodge City bordello. Dozens of cowboy hats are nailed to the rafters, along with various boots, skulls, stuffed animal heads, coffeepots and a scythe worthy of the Grim Reaper. The tables, with oilcloth covers, are set in rows, mess-hall style. Pseudokerosene lamps and umpteen neon beer signs furnish appropriately dim lighting.

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Handlebar J Restaurant and Saloon

7116 E. Becker Lane
Scottsdale, AZ 85254-5210

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: North Scottsdale

You can keep tabs on the dance floor and band from either the bar or dining area. Before the live entertainment started the night we were there, patrons could catch Rattlers arena football on large-screen television.

The place goes back to the old days, our waitress said, 25 years ago. Back then, she recounted, customers often arrived on horseback, tying up their steeds to a hitching post outside. Try that today and you'll have the only horse in town with tread marks.

By 8:30, a half-hour before showtime, Handlebar-J was buzzing. The bar area and dining area were crammed with guys and gals in full cowboy regalia: ten-gallon white hats, tight blue jeans, leather boots and fringed shirts. I felt like a greenhorn.

Which made me think of my friend Helen, another displaced city slicker. A short, dark, fast-talking, high-strung New York intellectual, she somehow ended up teaching college in northern Minnesota. Surrounded by Viking-size Nordic types whose favorite topic was ice fishing, Helen felt disoriented and depressed. Then she hit on a solution: She pretended she was on a Fulbright scholarship to an English-speaking tribe in Greenland. I decided her anthropological approach was the perfect strategy for my cowboy stakeouts. The appetizers helped get the evening off to a good start. An enormous plate of not-too-spicy Buffalo wings and icy cold draft beer lessened the embarrassment of wearing Converse sneakers and a K mart tee shirt. We also made our way through a couple of dozen fried mushrooms in a terrific batter.

A bit after nine, the entertainment started up. The Herndon Brothers, the upbeat house band, quickly had the place whooping and yee-hawin'. Playing mostly western music--not country--the boys filled the crowded dance floor with couples two-stepping and twirling.

And it was gratifying to see the mix of people: old-timers with leathery faces, singles on the prowl, skilled dancing partners, even a family with three little kids.

As the noise level increased, the music heated up and the beer flowed, I found it easier to picture myself a son of the West. How might life have turned out if I had spent my formative years roping cattle instead of bowling in a Knights of Pythias League? What if I had spent my weekends shooting, skinning and cooking wild game, instead of ordering Chinese takeout? As my reveries got rosier (Why couldn't Ben Cartwright have been my dad?), my dining expectations got higher.

The salad plate brought us a bit closer to earth. Even my dancing feet couldn't convince my mouth that this overdressed mix of iceberg lettuce and grated carrot was anything special. Still, the basket of biscuits and squeeze bottle of honey kept hope alive.

When the main dishes arrived, though, all the beer and good will in the world couldn't overcome my critical faculties. The sad fact is, it would take a heap of improvement just to bring this grub up to mediocre.

First, the steak-and-rib combo. The steak gratifyingly weighed in at about a half-pound, grilled medium-rare the way I like it. But I could barely hack through it with my knife, and my jaws had no better luck. It was tough, chewy and dry, as inedible as a Domino's Pizza box.

The pork ribs alongside (for $2 more I substituted them for beef ribs) were nothing to squeal over. They were meaty enough, but with barely a hint of smokehouse flavor. Rib joints have nothing to fear from the competition. There was also the traditional bland, mushy piece of corn on the half-cob, and two miserly wedges of potato. Only the bowl of cowboy beans, which you have to order … la carte, revived the evening's good vibrations.

The barbecued half-chicken also failed to get our taste buds as energized as our feet. Merely palatable, it carried no tempting, smoky aroma, and the barbecue sauce lacked distinctive bite. The accompanying French fries tasted like afterthoughts.

As long as the band was still playing, we decided to prolong our stay with dessert. Our hardworking waitress had told us the restaurant specially ordered its deep-dish apple pie, so that's what we went for.

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