Grub Steak

The side dishes could benefit from some better kitchen timing. The less-than-sizzling fries had spent too many minutes under the tanning lamp before they reached our table. The cowboy beans were barely lukewarm, and the foil-wrapped baked potato wasn't exactly steaming.

Supplier-provided desserts don't make a lasting impression. The only excuse for ordering the apple or blueberry pie is to linger through the band's next set.

While the Barn doesn't exactly redefine Western steak-house gastronomy, it's not a bad spot to rustle up a genuine Western-themed evening. Your best course of action: Grab a porterhouse and a pitcher of beer, and start tapping your feet. These days, that's how the West is won.

Silver Spur Steak House, 1606 East Bell, Phoenix, 7889002. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 4 p.m. to 1a.m.

The band at Silver Spur Steak House doesn't gear up until 9 p.m. But if you get there about 8,that gives you a full hour to give your undivided attention to some surprisingly fine-tasting grub.

I say "surprisingly" because Silver Spur doesn't make much of a first impression. Set in a Bell Road shopping strip, the restaurant doesn't lay on much of a yee-haw atmosphere. First of all, it's way too dark--you can't even read the menu without the aid of the candle on the table. Second, the room is cavernous, and the tables ringing the large dance floor accentuate the warehouse feel. Third, windows running along two sides of the restaurant provide a dreary view of the parking lot. A nifty mural of cowboy and cowgirl silhouettes perched on a fence railing helps improve the scenery somewhat. So do the sketches of cowboy types--they're for sale--hung across the opposite wall.

If the somber setting is short on Western charm, the food isn't. Someone in this kitchen knows how to rustle up a steak.

Don't expect much from appetizer munchies. They're the same battered and fried mushrooms, zucchini and cheese-stuffed jalapeĖos carried by every other place in town. Twenty-cent chicken wings also are strictly routine.

A bare-bones salad bar accompanies meals. Look for tubs of greenery, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, scallions and croutons, and the usual vats of dressing.

At this point, your visitors may be asking themselves why they ever left home in the first place. But once their steaks are set before them, they won't be having any second thoughts.

The 14-ounce T-bone steak is a beefy beauty, extremely tender and almost free of inedible gristle. The sirloin steak is a high-class piece of meat, perfectly textured and even more tender than the Tbone. Moist, flavorful rib-eye steak also met my every meat-eating expectation. You simply can't go wrong with the steaks here.

Apparently, you also can't go wrong with anything else on the small entree list. The half-pound burger is flat-out scrumptious. My juicy "Billy the Kid" model came dripping with two cheeses and sauteed mushrooms, along with lettuce and tomato. Chicken-fried steak is a winner, too: soft meat surrounded by a fresh, crispy crust, all doused with a peppery country gravy.

When it comes to side dishes, Silver Spur continues to take care of business. Thick-cut steak fries come hot and crunchy; pinto beans have been zipped up with chiles; and homemade potato salad is quite an improvement over the institutional glop scooped out of ten-gallon tubs most everyplace else. Even the breadbasket, filled with fresh, yeasty rolls, is better than I had any right to expect.

So are desserts. Whoever supplies the dense New York cheesecake in a graham-cracker crust does a more-than-credible job. The boysenberry cobbler also works, although the kitchen ought to consider upgrading the vanilla ice cream that accompanies it.

A trip to the Barn or Silver Spur will give your visitors a taste of the West without sending you to the poorhouse. But should your guests demand additional Western amusement, I have another suggestion: Sing a verse of "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds," then furnish them with a mule, a canteen and directions to Yuma.

The Barn
Steak House:
Onion rings
Top sirloin steak
Filet mignon
Apple pie

Silver Spur
Steak House:
"Billy the Kid" burger
Sirloin steak
Rib-eye steak
T-bone steak

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