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For the past 25 years, a generation of Americans has been pounded with messages about the evils of red meat in general, and beef in particular.
Consider the production side of the beef industry. We've been told that cattle-raising can't even pay for itself. Critics claim ranchers couldn't operate without taxpayer help, from water subsidies to cheap government grazing land. Environmentalists, meanwhile, link cattle-raising to everything from the destruction of the rain forest to methane pollution. And animal-rights supporters denounce the whole enterprise as bloody and immoral.
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On the consumption side, beef has even fewer defenders. Once upon a time, smoking, drinking and eating steak were considered signs of red-blooded Americanism. Now, they're signs of pathological, self-destructive behavior. Is a 12-Step program next? (My name is Howard, and I eat steak.) And nutritionists continue to point out the harmful effects of beef's calories, fat and cholesterol. The beef barons themselves seem to concur--their ads recommend dainty, three-ounce portions.
The anti-beef message has gotten through. We're eating about half as much beef per capita as we did a quarter-century ago.
In such a beef-averse climate, you'd think that no restaurant entrepreneur in his right mind would consider investing in a steak house. But this is where the story gets weird: Steak houses are one of the restaurant industry's hottest segments.
How do you explain declining beef consumption and steak-house popularity? The answer, I'd say, is sociological and psychological.
In the old days, Mom served beef five nights a week to Dad and the kids. These days, though, women don't have time to spend in the kitchen. And almost no one eats like that anymore. Instead, we pride ourselves on our nutritional virtue. Chicken, fish and salad have become more typical dinner fare.
But only saints can maintain that sort of purity without backsliding every so often. Come the weekend or special occasion, our repressed craving for beef reemerges. So we rationalize. We tell ourselves we've been "good." We deserve a reward, compensation for the daily exercise workouts and regimen of fruit, vegetables and skinless chicken breast. It justifies a steak meal out.
That's where Tijuana Country Club and Melbourne Steakhouse come in. These new beef joints are battling the likes of Lone Star, Austin's and Outback for our midpriced, choice-grade, family-steak-house dollars.
Tijuana Country Club--it's not a chain, at least not yet--is primed for competition. Somebody had lots of fun with the interior design. Just inside the entrance is a holographic clock, with alternating images of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadaloupe. (However, even they can't get the clock to keep accurate time.) Animal skulls, cowhides and sombreros line the walls. So do autographed pictures of Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. A telephone booth in the back, labeled "Telefono," looks like it was plucked off a Tijuana street. You can pass some time shooting pool or inspecting photos of old-time golf stars. And one funky section of the dining area is set off as a "bordello," complete with red light, fringed lamps and Van Gogh reproductions.
Appetizers are as creatively crafted as the decor. Spicy stuffed mushrooms aren't your usual fried-munchie snoozer. These fungi are stuffed with chorizo and poblano chile, drenched in white wine and butter, then draped with jack cheese. The bucket of steamers is also outstanding. It's a metal pail filled with 18 bivalves--mussels and clams, in any proportion you wish--done up in a garlicky white wine broth. Even potato skins displayed a bit of spunk, filled with chili that had some bite.
Meals come with salad. There's nothing too terribly exciting about the version here, but at least the greens are fresh and the tomatoes are ripe. Some places can't even get those basics right.
The entrees are divided into two sections: Steaks and Non-Steaks. That should give you all the clues you need to figure where the kitchen's heart is. Can you imagine anyone saying, "Let's go to Tijuana Country Club for non-steak"?
Happily, the steak is worth the trip. Of course, it's not in the same class as the prime-graded beef at Morton's, Ruth's Chris or The Grill at the TPC. But it's not in the same stratospheric price range, either. The beef ranges from $11 for a 10-ounce top sirloin to $20 for an 18-ounce porterhouse, a range that carnivores who don't own 10,000 shares of Microsoft can feel somewhat at home on.
The porterhouse, a he-man cut, is my favorite--sirloin on one side of the bone, filet on the other. Tijuana Country Club's model hits those animal-protein buttons that have been dormant while you've been living on twigs and berries all week. The eight-ounce filet is as tender and juicy as it should be. The 12-ounce New York strip delivers the beefiest flavor, although it's not quite as tender as other cuts. And the 12-ounce, mesquite-smoked prime rib turned out fine, trimmed of fat and gristle.
Why anyone would come here for "non-steaks" is beyond my powers of understanding. But I guess Tijuana Country Club feels compelled to offer fish, pasta and chicken to entice the one member of the party who otherwise would refuse to come. Let's hope she has the good sense to order meat loaf, seasoned with chipotle and coated with a tasty barbecue glaze.