Chuck, Please

Pinnacle Peak Patio, 10426 East Jomax, Scottsdale, 585-1599. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

Every year, when the calendar flips to January, you can count on three things here in Arizona:

1. A Mesa legislator, citing a strong commitment to family values, free enterprise and the odd-numbered Ten Commandments, will introduce a bill giving citizens the right to manufacture Freon and to purchase strategic nuclear weapons without a waiting period.

2. The Arizona Cardinals, whose last playoff victory took place two cities ago during the first Truman administration, will raise ticket prices "in order to remain competitive."

3. Your frozen, silo-dwelling Midwestern friends and relatives, encased in ice and snow, will decide to thaw out at your house for a couple of weeks.

Naturally, your guests will express a desire to experience "a taste of the West" while they're in town. During my first few seasons in the Valley, I didn't mind giving out-of-state freeloaders the grand tour. We'd go to the Heard Museum, climb Squaw Peak and take a desert Jeep ride.

After a few years, though, I found it harder to maintain an enthusiastic level of hospitality. Nowadays, my visitors get their "taste of the West" by thumbing through pictures in back issues of Arizona Highways. Sometimes I direct them to Old Town Scottsdale to buy "half-price" Indian jewelry. Or I steer them to "Western" outfitters whose clothes would make even the Marlboro Man look like he's auditioning for the "cowboy" role in the Village People.

Of course, this yearning for a "taste of the West" has a literal application as well. Where, my guests inevitably ask, can they eat a real cowboy meal, just like the pioneers ate? Dinner on America West's next flight to Chicago, I fantasize telling them. Or perhaps they'd like me to whip up something from the Donner Party Recipe Book?

Of course, I always end up taking them to one of the Valley's "authentic" Western steak houses. How can you tell these places are authentic? It's easy. Just look for belching, diesel-spewing tour buses in the parking lot, a country-western band encouraging folks to line-dance to "Achy Breaky Heart" and servers in cowboy hats.

These cliches, and every other Western-themed cliche you can possibly imagine, all come to life at Pinnacle Peak Patio. This Valley landmark has been dishing out cowboy dinners to city slickers for 40 years. But locals shouldn't write off Pinnacle Peak Patio just because it's a frontier fantasy. I found that, with the right spirit, even jaded locals like me can have fun.

There's no getting around it: Pinnacle Peak Patio is a hoot. Check out Pappy, the grizzled, rifle-toting, poncho-clad, resident "Old-Timer" who roams the facility, looking as if he just wandered off the set of a Gabby Hayes epic. (He'll "deputize" your kids, complete with badge and oath of office, just like Sheriff Joe.) You can get your picture snapped in old-fashioned Western duds at the "Old Tyme Photo Booth." You can enjoy a spin in a hay wagon or take a pony ride.

The restaurant itself is a marvel of interior design. There are two principal decorating motifs: The first is the blizzard of ties, hanging like stalactites from the rafters, clipped from unsuspecting dudes who didn't realize just how seriously Pinnacle Peak Patio takes its casual-dining philosophy. (Management claims to have snipped off more than a quarter of a million ties through the years.) Then there are the thousands of business cards plastered onto every square inch of wall space. Two noteworthy design touches: First, to find the rest rooms, you follow the yellow horseshoe footprints painted on the floor. And once you get there, you'll find the stall doors in the rest rooms painted with a likeness of a horse's rear end.

You don't last 40 years in the restaurant business without giving people what they want. Sure, Pinnacle Peak Patio's customers want a kitschy cowboy experience--that's why they eat surrounded by ranch-house paraphernalia at heavy wooden tables lined with red-checked oilcloth. But there's nothing kitschy about the grub. This kitchen is at home on the range, and you won't hear too many discouraging words from me.

The proprietors are missing out on a sure source of profits by not offering any appetizers. It seems to me that rattlesnake fritters, deep-fried veggies, potato skins, Rocky Mountain oysters and nachos would be an easy sell. Instead, the kitchen incongruously starts off everyone with a nondescript salad, not exactly what the pioneers would have grazed on while they were rolling west in their wagons.

The menu is short and sweet: Pinnacle Peak Patio deals in mesquite-grilled beef, pardner. The best cut is the massive, tender, flavorful, two-pound porterhouse, a serious slab of meat that hangs over the edge of your plate. Knock this steak off, and your animal-protein needs will be taken care of until Labor Day.

The 14-ounce New York strip is where you'll find beefy contentment and big-time flavor. The 12-ounce, bone-in Kansas City steak, however, is the weak link. There's a reason it's not as pricey as the other models: It's thin-cut, and not nearly as juicy.

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