Dogie Bag

Mining Camp Restaurant & Trading Post, 1U2 mile off Highway 88, four miles past Apache Junction, 982-3181. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Open November through May.

Every year about this time, Arizonans can count on three things: The Cardinals will be home, watching the Super Bowl; the Legislature will be in session, creating mischief; and visitors from the ice belt will be at your doorstep, demanding to experience "a taste of the West."

During my first few years as an Arizonan, I enjoyed giving my guests the Grand Tour. But now, after seven tourist seasons, my tour-guide zeal is flagging. These days, even my cat can sing the words to "Rawhide." I've seen enough "authentic Indian dances" to set up my own troupe. And I secretly root for the Clanton gang to shoot down Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral gunfight show, just as a change of pace.

After a couple of days absorbing the Old West atmosphere, my guests often yearn to dress like the sons of the pioneers. Unfortunately, after spending a fortune getting outfitted at the Scottsdale Western-wear shops, most of them still look less like the Marlboro Man and more like the cowboy in the Village People.

The "taste of the West" I'm expected to provide also extends to food. "Where can we get some down-home cowboy grub?" ask my visitors. My first impulse is to tell them, "On the next America West flight back to New York." But our Western code of hospitality checks that ungracious thought. Instead, I seek out a place where the kitchen is at home on the range, and at least a few of the other diners haven't arrived in diesel-belching tourist buses or cars with Wisconsin license plates.

One restaurant that meets the specifications: the Mining Camp Restaurant & Trading Post, a 35-year-old Apache Junction landmark. It's certainly off the beaten trail, so far out in the East Valley that you may instinctively set your watch to Central Standard Time when you pull up. Still, the ride out there is lovely, especially once you hit the stretch of Highway 88. And the restaurant itself is set right at the base of the imposing Superstition Mountains.

Inside, the Mining Camp will probably look equally imposing to your out-of-towners. You buy your meal ticket at a booth just inside the front door. Then you're directed through the gift shop (where the proprietors no doubt hope something will catch your eye) into the dining room. It features wood-plank floors, ceiling beams and rough wood walls that still have the bark on them. Farm tools, mining equipment and old photos hang on the walls. Cigar-store Indians stand sentry in the corners of the room. Electrified miners' lamps furnish light, and rows of ominously wobbling fans overhead circulate the air.

Diners sit on benches at long, heavily varnished, picnic-style wooden tables, set with metal plates, cups and tumblers, as well as a full complement of chuck wagon condiments. Make sure your party doesn't mistake the squeeze bottle of prickly pear jelly for ketchup, as we did.

The Mining Camp is not where you want to come for a secret rendezvous: You'll be sharing table space with lots of strangers. Of course, if your guests are getting on your nerves, that can be an advantage.

A wandering troubadour, guitar in hand, also makes intimate conversation difficult. You'll hear all the old favorites--"Oh Susanna," "You Are My Sunshine"--usually with enthusiastic audience participation. It's not exactly Woodstock, but in a corny way, it's fun.

As in the mining camps of old, dinners are served family-style, all-you-can-eat. And as a dining-room sign reminds you, "No food could be carried from the cook shanty of the old mining camp--the same rule applies here." Another sign reminds you that no alcohol was served, either, and that tradition also continues.

The Mining Camp cooks don't need to have their creative juices flowing when they come to work. The menu is just about the same every day: roast chicken, roast beef and barbecued beef ribs (on Sunday, the roast beef gives way to ham). You get all three.

Before the animal protein makes an appearance, the server hauls out a heap of fixings. Homemade raisin bread and sourdough rolls look tempting, but occasionally "homemade" is not synonymous with "high quality." This is one of those times. There's a tray of green coleslaw that looks like it's on its way to a St. Patrick's Day potluck. Along with food coloring, it sports a tangy vinegar snap that will make your toes pucker. You'll also get a big crock of beans, sweet and thick, that will have your out-of-towners thinking they've been transported to a prairie campfire dinner.

The Mining Camp's meats are easy to fill up on. The tender beef ribs have an adequate meat-to-fat ratio, and they're aided by a wonderful sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce that packs a potent brown-sugar/vinegar punch. The moist chicken will also benefit from a dip in the barbecue sauce. The somewhat leathery roast beef is the least interesting of the trio, and hard on the jaws, as well.

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