STEAK 'N' IDENTITY

Texaz Grill, 6003 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 248-7827. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.

What's in a name? Plenty.
Yes, it's true that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. But unless you want to get cited for trademark infringement, you'd better make sure that you don't create a new flower variety and name it the Lone Star blossom.

That's because the words "Lone Star" have become fighting words in these parts. Back in 1985, a couple of entrepreneurs opened a north-central Phoenix cowboy steak parlor and called it Lone Star Steaks. But a Midwestern steak-house chain sporting the name Lone Star Cafe had the smarts to register the moniker with the feds. And when the company swaggered into the Valley a few months ago, its operators quickly determined that this town wasn't big enough for two Lone Stars. Threatening legal action, it demanded that Lone Star Steaks change its name.

So Lone Star Steaks now does business as Texaz Grill, while the chain gang holds on to the Lone Star name.

What's in a name when it comes to steaks? I checked out Texaz Grill and Lone Star Cafe to see what the beef was all about.

Texaz Grill oozes with friendly, down-home charm, despite being furnished with staggering, Texas-style excess. I figure this is how Ross Perot might decorate his house if he were single and earning $25,000 a year. Every square inch of this place seems to be covered with license plates, caps, advertising signs or a celebrity sketch. A full range of condiments--steak sauce, ketchup, mustard, hot peppers and honey--supplies the table decoration. Meanwhile, a jukebox loaded with 200 nonstop country hits massages customer eardrums.

Diners have to work past several consumer-unfriendly touches before they come face to face with the food. Parking is horrendous. Nor does Texaz Grill take reservations for groups of fewer than six. If you can't round up at least five friends at prime dining hours, you'd better come armed with a book or some interesting conversation to pass the time. (Watching new arrivals circle the tiny parking lot hunting for a space is another entertaining alternative.) And if you're sensitive to secondhand smoke, Texaz Grill may seem like the dining room from Hell--there's no nonsmoking section.

On the other hand, once you've actually found a parking spot, heard your name called and had the good fortune to be seated in an oxygen zone, your problems are over. Get ready for good food, swift service and reasonable prices.

I was surprised Texaz Grill doesn't offer any munchies to complement the cold Texas brews (Lone Star and Celis). They'd be a source of sure-fire profits, I'm certain. After a 40-minute Friday-night wait, I know our group was hungry enough to gnaw on the wings of a live chicken.

But our waitress assured us that the kitchen would speedily deliver nourishment, and, happily, she was right.

First out are salads, which come with all dinners. The ample plateful of greenery is strictly routine, but we made short work of the outstanding biscuits that accompanied it. Why management even bothers offering dismal whole-wheat rolls in the same breadbasket is a mystery.

There's nothing mysterious about the straightforward menu. Except for a catfish plate, chicken kebab and chicken-fried chicken, Texaz Grill deals in beef.

If you're thinking about converting to vegetarianism tomorrow, consider making your farewell to animal protein with the Texaz T-bone tonight. It's 16 cholesterol-packed ounces, full of beefy juices and flavor.

At eight ounces, the filet mignon doesn't have the sheer bulk of the T-bone. But for steak lovers who prize tenderness, it's the best option. The model here comes expertly cooked, and is buttery enough to give your jaws the night off.

The 12-ounce rib eye can't compete with prime-grade rib eyes that I've had at Ruth's Chris and Morton's. Texaz Grill, like most restaurants, uses choice beef, and you don't need a trained palate to taste the difference between the two grades.

But the appropriate comparison isn't with pricey steak houses--after all, their steaks cost about twice as much as Texaz Grill's. Compared to other steak houses in the same class, its $11.95 rib eye is about as good as it gets.

However, I got the most pleasure out of one of the least-expensive platters. Texaz Grill's man-size chicken-fried steak is simply wonderful--fork-tender meat encased in crisp, puffy batter, moistened with a ladleful of thick, peppery gravy. Eat this at lunch, and your co-workers will be nudging you awake all afternoon.

The side dishes are good enough to distract you from the beef. Honest-to-God mashed potatoes, with pieces of skin blended in, are how the West was won. Wedges of crunchy potatoes furnish similar spudly delight. And for $1.60 more, you can gild your steaks with saut‚ed mushrooms, served in a coffee mug.

Following up steak dinners with rich sweets may not be nutritionally correct, but it is primally satisfying. Texaz Grill serves up two homemade crowd-pleasers: a dense bread pudding, drizzled with a hard-hitting whiskey sauce, and a pecan pie that my Southern-born mother-in-law would be proud to claim as her own.

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