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Mastro's Steakhouse, 8852 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 480-585-9500. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Once upon a time, one of the country's largest stockyards flourished in the heart of Phoenix. Huge herds of cattle roamed in lots just a few miles from today's downtown.
Nobody minded. That's because until a few years ago, cattle-raising was considered a responsible occupation, and eating steak was considered a sign of healthy, red-blooded Americanism. Not anymore. Now, they're considered signs of pathology, socially irresponsible and self-destructive forms of behavior.
8852 E. Pinnacle Peak Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85255
Region: North Scottsdale
We're all familiar with the modern catalogue of beef evils. Environmentalists blame the cattle industry for everything from destroying the rain forest to methane pollution. Animal-rights groups believe the enterprise is immoral and inhumane. The medical community says red meat is a menace to your health. Even the Beef Council, in full retreat, recommends dainty, three-ounce portions.
But though the cows have disappeared from the Valley, the beef hasn't. Despite its demonization, around here, 1999 is still part of the good old days: In this cow town, we eat steak as if we've never heard of the Sierra Club, PETA or cholesterol.
The restaurant community certainly hasn't failed to notice the local obsession with beef. Savvy entrepreneurs aren't scurrying to build restaurants celebrating the virtues of ahi tuna, skinless chicken breast or couscous with portabella mushrooms. They are, however, rushing to put up high-end steak houses, featuring he-man cuts of heavily marbled animal protein.
One of the latest is Mastro's, run by the same group that operates the Valley's two Marco Polo Supper Clubs. Naturally, they've set up shop in burgeoning north Scottsdale, at the northeast corner of Wealth and Opportunity, otherwise known as Pima and Pinnacle Peak roads.
It's a smart-looking, 1940s-style place, with many pleasing, old-fashioned steak-house touches. The tables are adorned with heavy white linen and hefty cutlery. The high-backed, well-upholstered chairs make it easy to relax and enjoy the restorative powers of a pre-dinner cocktail. The wood-paneled walls are lined with the proprietors' homey family photos. Glass, brass and marble accents add a clubby note, as does the attendant in the men's rest room.
A one-man band behind the piano sings everything from Sinatra to Santana, and couples are occasionally inspired to take a spin on the small dance floor. A bustling bar dominates the main room, which is populated by stylish adults, a 30-and-over crowd that prefers to drive their gleaming luxury imports to the valet stand, despite the acres of do-it-yourself parking. The steaks are served, meanwhile, by professional waiters outfitted in snappy white jackets, who know when you want to talk and when you want to be left alone.
First, however, you have to get past the hostess station, where the help raises "attitude" to an art form.
Don't hold your breath waiting for a friendly "Welcome to Mastro's" greeting when you check in. Instead, after you give your name, the frosty young ladies will blink at you uncomprehendingly, as if you've just addressed them in medieval Welsh. On one visit, while we cooled our heels for some 20 minutes past our reservation time, no one ever apologized for the delay, or gave us an inkling as to when we might be seated. In fact, while we were waiting, we watched a group of loudmouths come in, whose leader asked to speak to the manager. A few moments later, I heard the blowhard announce to his buddies, "Hey, we can go in right now. We don't need reservations!" Even now, weeks after the incident, I'm still smoldering with resentment.
But while the front of the house could use some charm schooling, the kitchen, for the most part, needs no additional coursework. Indeed, occasionally, you may think it's graduated cum laude.
Meals get off to a swift start. A wonderful breadbasket, bearing chewy French bread and seed-crusted cheese sticks, makes for pleasant nibbling. So does the freebie plate of marinated veggies, an updated version of the old steak-house iced relish tray.
Appetizers are uncommonly strong. The seafood platter brings a mound of fresh-tasting shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari, vigorously seasoned and prettily displayed on radicchio fronds. The hearty stuffed mushrooms, sizzled in a skillet, are irresistible, and you'll need more will power than I have if you're able to resist mopping up the sauce with bread. Oysters Rockefeller are deftly done. And the warm spinach salad, gilded with goat cheese, bacon and red onions, will test your communitarian convictions. I thought it was too good to share.
Naturally, among Mastro's main dishes you'll find a couple of seafood entrees and a roast chicken plate, all aimed at the one person in everyone's group who can't handle red meat. But make no mistake, Mastro's deals in beef. And most of it is very impressive.
Mastro's sends out USDA prime, the highest grade beef. You can taste the difference. That's why folks are willing to pay between $25 and $30 for a steak here, instead of staying home and throwing a $7 supermarket steak on the grill.
Mastro's offers five different cuts. One is extra-special--the bone-in rib eye. When it's right, the rib eye can deliver the most powerful package of richly marbled taste and tenderness in all steakdom. Mastro's rib eye is right to the bone, 22 ounces of dazzling, primally satisfying beef that made me want to stand up and cheer. It's finished with a touch of sizzling butter, à la Ruth's Chris, where the chef used to work.