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.

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.

Well, it may be special-ordered, but delivery day must have been Monday, and this was Saturday. The apple interior had no shortcomings, with thick chunks of sweetened apple. But the crust was soggy and stale, perhaps a victim of the monsoon humidity.

Despite the food, Handlebar-J is a fun after-work joint. Next time, though, I'll eat at home, pay the $3 cover charge and mosey up to the bar.

Bitter Root Cattle Company, 4343 North Scottsdale Road (Galleria), Scottsdale, 947-0448. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 3 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 3 to 11 p.m.

You don't have to scan the zodiac or read tea leaves to know the auguries are not bright for the recently opened Bitter Root Cattle Company. You just have to check the address: the Galleria. This monstrous white elephant, housing the dead but unburied Carnegie Deli, pulsates with all the energy of a mausoleum.

But Bitter Root's location does have some advantages. Perched on the top floor, from our window seats we viewed a spectacular lightning show on a recent Friday night. Between flashes we could pick out Camelback Mountain and Papago Park. And best of all, we didn't have to look at the Galleria.

Like Handlebar-J, Bitter Root goes the Western route with the single-minded purposefulness of the pioneers. Wagon-wheel chandeliers, lariats, old saddles and rusted barbed wire provide the bunkhouse ambiance. There's also a John Wayne shrine--a wall and glass case that must house more Wayne photos, paintings and statues than even his agent had.

Unfortunately, the Duke is not the patron saint of Western-style cuisine.
We skipped the potato skins and mozzarella sticks that show up on just about every Valley menu. Instead we grabbed the rattlesnake and Rocky Mountain oysters, each deep-fried in batter and served with a horseradish shrimp-cocktail-style sauce.

This must have been free-range rattler, because it was as tough on the jaw as it was on the wallet. At $10 a throw, I've now learned to avoid rattlers on the plate as well as the trail.

But I enjoyed the crispy Rocky Mountain oysters, even though I couldn't shake the thought that I was committing an unfraternal act.

We tried four main dishes and came away with the feeling that this was not how the West was won.

The New York steak, a big slab, arrived medium-rare as requested, but seemed to have all the juices drained from it. It was as dry as an abandoned water hole, and no bargain at $15.

The pork back ribs were plentiful, but a tad overcooked and surprisingly unmeaty. I never got that rip-the-meat feeling that is one of the great pleasures of gnawing barbecue. The mild barbecue sauce seemed aimed more at effete dudes than hearty cowhands. The half mesquite-smoked chicken also lacked punch. It had no more smoky aroma than a chicken roasted on a supermarket rotisserie.

Only the prime rib got us nodding our heads with pleasure. Moist, pink and tender, it was the only dish that had us looking around for more.

All the entrees come with dreadful salad, drenched with ranch dressing; bland cowboy beans; and "corn cobbettes"--about a third of a cob. Hey, guys, it's summer, and the supermarkets are selling ten ears for a buck. Put those soggy cobbettes away til February.

Unlike the patrons at Handlebar-J, diners here don't get to enjoy the country-western entertainment. It takes place in the next room, where Robin and the Rocky Road Band were serving up tunes the night we were there. After dinner we wandered over and watched the couples swaying on the dance floor to Patsy Cline laments. We thought of countless hours watching Rawhide, Bonanza and Wagon Train. And then it hit us: No cowboy ever seemed in a rush to get to the chuck wagon.

Who says TV isn't educational?

SUN RISES IN EAST... v8-05-92

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