A Prime Number

Carnivores find a little tenderness as the rotisserie turns

I'm thinking about homemade prime rib. Which I do surprisingly often. But I'm now thinking specifically about the prime rib that a friend of mine prepared for me not long ago. It's a strange affinity we have — an almost unnatural passion for that particular cut of beef. I don't know what compelled us to prepare it, when there are plenty of superb restaurants that will do it for us. But we did, driven by our addiction. Perfectly prepared prime rib is like a drug to us, exhilarating down to its every last silky horseradish-slathered, salty jus-dunked, juicy-firm bite.

Just getting the stuff was complicated. They don't sell the meat in grocery stores: The "prime" in the rib roast refers to the highest USDA grade available. It accounts for only 2 percent of all beef on the market, and very little makes it past exclusive restaurants, resorts or prestige butchers. The one we got came on special order and at a dear price from Allen Brothers in Chicago (the roasts are sold in 12-pound blocks for $216 plus shipping and handling). Fortunately, Allen Brothers did the work that a top restaurant normally would, professionally aging it for almost a month, then hand-cutting and trimming the beast to near perfection.

But then we had to cook the thing. Real restaurants use hugely expensive commercial equipment capable of achieving heat levels and temperature precision no home kitchen could approach. My friend had sprung for an As-Seen-on-TV Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, including accessories and a cookbook, for a healthy $140. We stuck the meat in and watched it spin. Four hours — and $356 later — we had a nice dinner of prime rib. Not great, certainly not top restaurant-caliber, but satisfying.

Peter Valenzuela, left, Katherine Valenzuela and Santiago Yanez enjoy light conversation and red wine at Roti-Joe's.
Erik Guzowski
Peter Valenzuela, left, Katherine Valenzuela and Santiago Yanez enjoy light conversation and red wine at Roti-Joe's.

Details

Appetizers:
Caesar salad: $6
Rosemary-Cheddar biscuits: $3

Entrees:
Arizona Gunslinger's Chokin' chicken: $10
Pork chop: $12

Dessert:
Walnut cheesecake: $4

602-522-9200. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. daily.

3752 East Indian School, Phoenix

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Just like the meal we had at Roti-Joe's for $16. Roti-Joe's, central Phoenix's new chuckwagon-style restaurant, serves simple-seeming fare: prime rib, chicken, biscuits, pork and fish. It all seems like food we could make in our own kitchens, but that would be selling the place short.

My fellow prime-rib lover and I have stopped in, looking for a fix. At first, my companion is jealous when my plate arrives, salivating at the luscious-looking, platter-size portion of richly marbled beef. ("It's got fat," he says admiringly.) And it's true — a creamy ribbon of fat is critical to the beef, soaking its velvety richness into the meat as it slowly roasts, in Roti-Joe's case, on a rotisserie spit. Trimming is important, but with so many health nuts roaming the planet, food is too often stripped completely bare of its high-calorie character before it even hits the heat.

But by the time I get this ribbon unraveled, I'm left with a piece of edible meat the size of a saucer plate. The thrill is evaporating as I hunt and peck for the better forkfuls. My friend — forced to order chicken to give us a wide sampling of the menu — isn't envious anymore. "You know," he says, "I could make this at home."

I give him a bite of the best part — the rosy red, medium-rare center of the prime rib. "How much would you pay?" I ask. "$356 or $16?"

So Roti-Joe's isn't big on trimming its prime rib. And it doesn't serve exotic food. But after several meals, the realization forms that I'd be crazy to try to make food like this at home. So would my companion, and a whole lot of the rest of the world. There's a reason the owners of Roti-Joe's (Michael Shortino, formerly of Steamer's, and David Landreville of the late Che Bella) have taken over the former Mulberry Street location. At such low prices and with such commendable quality, Roti-Joe's is a better alternative to heating up our own kitchens these hot summer months, and it's certainly better than comparably priced restaurants around town.

Let's go back to the prime rib. I've got to factor in several things: First, there's its reasonable price tag, which includes a generous side of chunky, "dirty" smashed potatoes (skin-on, studded with onion and herbs). Second, I'm comparing it to what I consider the best prime rib in the Valley, the thrilling beef served at Scottsdale's Chart House, where a 10-ounce plate costs $23, plus $3 for a potato. Third, I'm coming off a high from another extraordinary prime rib performance the week prior: a sumptuous slab at Harris' in Phoenix, worth every penny of its $28 tab. In such company, how can economy-priced Roti's compete? If people are in the habit of forking out $13 for a mediocre Outback prime rib, I figure they could do a lot better by coming here instead.

And while Roti's is one of what seems like dozens of new steak houses cropping up across the Valley over the past few months, it isn't trying to win in the high-end category. This is a casual, kick-back, scarf-meat-and-sling-cocktails operation, serenading us with piped-in bluegrass music. One night I come in wearing a dress, another wearing shorts and a tee shirt. Both times I'm right at home, settling into a tan faux-leather booth or sitting at the horseshoe bar that's the heart and soul of the rustic restaurant.

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