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High-value meals and genuine neighborhood warmth turn Texaz Grill into a destination country-cowboy steak house even if you don't live in the neighborhood. No bum steers here.
Lone Star Cafe, 1743 Camelback (Colonnade), Phoenix, 265-7827. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Lone Star Cafe is yet another giant copycat steak-house chain without a molecule of originality or charm.
Steak houses are the fastest-growing segment in the restaurant industry today. Analysts say it's because of our pathological relationship with food. Americans spend so much time ruminating over every ingestible morsel that we feel we "deserve" an occasional binge. And what we want to binge on are belly-busting slabs of meat.
Over the past few years, we've become more and more schizoid about what we eat. We're obsessed with looking lean, but are porkier than ever. We're obsessed with fat grams, calories and cholesterol, but are consuming as many of them as ever. Now, no one is suggesting that the entrepreneurs behind chain steak houses cooked up this national neurosis. But they certainly have been savvy enough to cash in on it.
So hundreds of cities across America, including ours, have been invaded by Outback Steakhouse, a Florida chain that offers steak in a pseudo-Australian setting. We have Buffalo Ranch Steak House, part of the Sizzler operation out of Southern California, which dishes out steak in a pseudo-Western setting. And now, the Valley has Lone Star Cafe, a Kansas-based corporation trying to strike restaurant gold serving steak in a pseudo-Texas setting.
Everything here is as calculated as Operation Desert Storm. We've seen it all before: the twice-an-hour employee country-music line dance; the cow skulls and moose heads on the wall; the peanut shells on the floor; the woodsy interior; the bread loaf served on a cutting board; the perky young staffers; and the oversize portions of food that confuse quantity with value.
Apparently, though, Lone Star is giving the public just what it craves--this place has been packed since day one.
Check out the starter called Amarillo Cheese Fries. It's a none-too-subtle mound of mushy fries, big enough to conceal an armadillo, glopped with breathtaking amounts of cheese and bacon. Lest diners worry that they aren't getting the caloric binge they deserve, it comes with a bowl of ranch dressing for dipping. If you like this sort of thing, you probably fit the Lone Star Cafe customer demographic. (However, you probably don't fit into much else.)
Naturally, meals are preceded by salad, enabling diners to imagine for the moment that they're keeping their nutritional virtue. The greenery here is good enough, but the dark bread that accompanies it isn't. Our loaf was way past its prime.
As you might expect, Lone Star does a thoroughly reliable job with its beef. And I'm happy to report that all the steaks were cooked exactly to specs, too. But, after all, if there's one thing the proprietors know, it's economics. They're aware that there's no shortage of steak-house competition.
The massive 20-ounce T-bone should satisfy any yearnings for animal protein. The one-pound Texas rib eye is a best bet: juicy, well-marbled, with none of that mushy, stringy texture that betrays inferior models. The bacon-wrapped filet mignon is somewhat less interesting, more tender than the other cuts, but not nearly as beefily flavorful.
Lone Star makes a few concessions to nonbeefeaters, but none that will set any pulses racing. Innocuous baby back ribs are not terribly meaty, and they get no zip whatsoever from a corporately flaccid barbecue sauce. And why anyone would come here and order a $14 salmon fillet overpowered by a sweet glaze is beyond my comprehension.
Side dishes emphasize bulk, not taste. Sweet potato sounds like a good idea, but Lone Star's spud was obviously bred for heft, not flavor. I guess that's why it comes with a bowl of brown sugar. Steak fries won't make you think there's a squad of potato peelers back in the kitchen. And the dull "Texas" rice was an underheated snooze.
Lone Star Cafe didn't get to be a national powerhouse by taking any culinary chances. And it doesn't pretend to. The steaks are decent enough. The other stuff? No worse than that of its chain rivals. Meanwhile, the customers are satisfied. People have jobs. The company's making money. Isn't everyone happy?
I'm sure this Lone Star Cafe branch meets all Wichita home-office standards. But that's not hard when your standard is don't-rock-the-boat, do-what-everyone-else-does mediocrity.