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Retail Roundup: You can judge a city's sophistication by its museums, symphony, theatre, libraries and professional sports franchises. But the variety of its retail food outlets is a pretty sure-fire measure of status, as well.

By that standard, Phoenix is definitely headed in the right direction. Three new stores show just how far Phoenix has come in the past few years.

Heart of the Meal is aiming at finicky, healthy-minded steak lovers with deep pockets. Its secret weapon: Limousin beef.

It comes from an ancient breed of French cattle that first made its way to the States in 1968. From a marketing angle, what makes it attractive in the eyes of its promoters is the breed's genetic ability to produce beef substantially lower in fat and calories than typical supermarket cuts. The promotional literature cites a university study that indicates Limousin cattle have 61 percent less fat than comparable choice beef, as well as about ten fewer calories per ounce.

Moreover, its backers claim the meat is remarkably tender and juicy, without any sacrifice in flavor. A few years down the line, they hope that the phrase "Limousin beef" will have the same cachet of quality that "certified Angus beef" now enjoys.

I decided to do my own taste research. I picked up a couple of sirloin steaks and threw them on the grill. The family verdict? Delicious--lean, juicy and beefy.

At these prices, they had better be. You'll pay for your meat-eating thrills. The beef is sold frozen, mostly in 6-, 8- and 12-ounce portions, two or four portions to a box. Expect to pay about $10 to $17 a pound for the most popular cuts--rib eye, sirloin, tenderloin.

Heart of the Meal is in the Biltmore Plaza, at 3124 East Camelback. Call 553-0562.

The AL-Khayam Bakery is another outlet that would have been hard to imagine in town even ten years ago. Most Arab bread in Phoenix comes from Los Angeles, wrapped in plastic. It's good, but can't compete with the out-of-the-oven variety. In Iran, where I lived for two years, bread is taken so seriously that bakers specialize in only one type of bread, each requiring its own type of oven. Imagine going to one bakery for rye bread, another for a whole-wheat loaf and a third for a baguette, and you get the idea of Iranian bread-buying.

AL-Khayam produces terrific pita, especially the whole-wheat variety (six pieces for $1.15). There's also samoun, a kind of crusty roll; zatar, bread infused with olives and thyme; and barberi, thick, chewy and studded with sesame seeds.

However, there is a problem. AL-Khayam seems to operate on Arab Standard Time. That means its hours of operation are highly irregular. It's impossible to know which breads will be available which days. Some days the shelves are completely bare.

If you're feeling lucky, you can check it out at 15208 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, or call 404-9722.

Finally, there's Buratino, a Russian food shop at 2318 East Indian School. Look for sausages, a variety of smoked fish, Russian cheeses, butter and yogurt, cakes, candies and condiments. Call 956-7859.

 
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