By Heather Hoch
By Eric Schaefer
By New Times
By Rachel Miller
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
By Robrt L. Pela
By Heather Hoch
We pass Rock Springs Cafe every time we take a trip along I-17. But we never stop. That's because it's only an hour from home--too soon to stop on the way north, too close to the barn to stop on the way back. Big mistake. It's charming, in a roughhewn, old-fashioned sort of way. The restaurant has two big rooms, with a genuine frontier feel: rifles mounted over fireplaces, ornate mirrors, tin ceiling, brick and wood walls hung with photos of another era, shelves lined with old utensils and lace curtains over the windows. A 70-year-old general store attached to the restaurant furnishes another authentic note. Rock Springs Cafe feeds two kinds of customers: the freeway famished, and picturesque locals who keep their caps and cowboy hats on while they eat. They all get solid, unpretentious fare served with down-home friendliness. If you're eager to get a taste of the Old West, you could start off with Bradshaw Mountain oysters. "Have a ball," the menu slyly urges, referring to this local variation of Rocky Mountain oysters--deep-fat-fried lamb and calf testicles. (Fans of Rocky Mountain oysters can fill up on the critters the last Saturday of every month here, when there's an all-you-can-eat "Testicle Festival" from 1 to 8 p.m.)
Whatever you order as an appetizer, you can depend on its being breaded and deep-fat fried. In a halfhearted nod to the surgeon general and the nutritional pyramid, the menu puts a "happy heart" next to a couple of sandwiches and a fish dinner, "for those who are watching cholesterol, sodium and calorie intake." Who does the restaurant think it's fooling? The folks crowding this place aren't here for a turkey sandwich or a green, leafy salad. They're here for the half-slab of ribs, priced at a friendly $8.95. These are excellent bones, hefty, tender critters slathered with a Tennessee barbecue sauce packing a hot and vinegary bite. Slightly sweet cowboy beans and coleslaw that hasn't been drowned in mayo round out this hearty platter. After a couple of bites of the chili cheeseburger, the phrase "Be still, my beating heart" may come to mind, for a couple of reasons. It's a big, juicy patty, drenched with chili, cheese and onions, with a beefy kick. I wish the same attention to quality had been applied to the dismal French fries alongside. Chicken-fried steak is another filling option that should stave off freeway hunger pangs. Although not quite as fork-tender as the best models I've had, I enjoyed the crisp breading and ladle of peppery country gravy that smothered it. The side of mashed potatoes, though, lacked the texture of fresh spuds. And unfortunately, the kitchen steamed the one bit of greenery we encountered, broccoli, until it had all the crispy crunch of a chocolate eclair.
I've gotten extremely leery of cheap steaks. They're invariably dried out, gristly and tough. (Paying big bucks for steak is no assurance of quality. But a small tag usually guarantees a lack of it.) The meat here, an eight-ounce top sirloin served open-faced on thick toast, turned out to be surprisingly edible, reasonably soft and not fatty. Desserts are what really turn Rock Springs Cafe from just another roadside diner into a dinner destination. The pies won a Best of Phoenix a few years ago, and they haven't lost any of their power. Rhubarb sports a tart zing, and blackberry pie tastes like fruit, not sugar. The German chocolate is rich and thick with pecans. My favorite is the Tennessee lemon pie, with its buttery crust and tangy lemon custard filling. Rock Springs Cafe may not look like much when you're whizzing by at 65 mph. But you may find it's not a bad idea to take a break from driving: Sometimes, you have to stop and smell the chili cheeseburgers and pies.