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A Prime Number

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

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.

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.

Sure, it's easy to believe I could make this rotisserie-roasted or pecan-grilled chicken/fish/pork, if I wanted to find the time. But why should I? The closest I can come to duplicating anything on this menu, ultimately, is Joe's Famous roasted chicken (though it's not really the bird that's famous, but Joe McCall, who was supposedly the best-known chuckwagon cook in the West, circa 1811, and son of the inventor of the rotisserie). But why bother, when for just $9 I can get a plump half poultry, rubbed with nine Sonoran spices, finished to crispy skin and juicy interior, paired with a mountain of dirty smashed potatoes? Or when, for just a buck more, I can get the bird slathered with fiery Arizona Gunslinger's jalapeño pepper sauce (made in Mesa), sided with a soothing-tangy dip of oil, bleu cheese and herbs, plus a mound of French fries? After all, those Showtime spinners aren't exactly easy to clean.

By the time I taste the double-cut pork chop, I've lost my snootiness about having to trim the prime rib. If I'd tried to prepare this dinosaur shank, easily two inches thick and served on the bone, I'd likely have produced a piggy piece verging on raw in the middle. But Roti's chefs have perfected the art of whole-rack roasting, sending out a perfectly cooked, deeply flavorful, almost smoky salute to the Other White Meat, rimmed with the thinnest, oh joy, ribbon of fat to lock in flavor. And while creating a Caesar isn't rocket science, Roti-Joe's puts some class into its model, tossing the romaine with a gutsy, sharp dressing that's better than anything bottled in my pantry, and serving the gargantuan mound in a chilled silver bowl.

By my last visit, neither my prime rib pal nor I am complaining (though we're wondering why a cowboy house doesn't serve steak; its only beef is the prime rib). Several Roti dishes verge on truly remarkable. I've never had any particularly fascination with trout, but the fish special I luck upon one evening is mesmerizing. This is when I wish the kitchen had gone berserk with portion size, as it does with other dishes. Ladylike? Not me, not as I scrape every speck of firm, flaky, moist and meaty swimmer from its silvery skin. The fillet has done excellent time on the pecan-wood grill, its flesh gently kissed with salt and paired with a colorful tumble of peppery, grilled root vegetables.

My companion, meanwhile, is swooning over Roti-Joe's signature item: biscuits. We agree they have all the glory of homemade, but we can't think of whose home. Not my mom's, where Bisquick was a major food group. And not his mom's, where a three-course dinner sometimes meant cereal, milk and sugar. But someone in Joe's kitchen has taken a lot of time to craft these blissful rounds, studded with rosemary and Cheddar, baked to crusty gold cookie outside, pillowy-sweet fluff inside, and dipped in a warm bath of honey and butter. Anyone who's experienced the charms of the breadbasket at Steamer's will recognize the recipe; the six-biscuit serving disappears from our table as if taken by a tsunami.

And there's no way I would even attempt to duplicate Roti-Joe's amazing French fries in my home kitchen. I've always had an aversion to putting my body parts near boiling, spitting oil, and I'd have to be nuts to risk it, when, for only $3, I can stop in at the bar for a woodpile serving of hand-cut Belgian beauties, enormous steak-fry logs of primo potato spiced to high heat and dipped in Bohemian mayo dip (hot, hot pepper). Plenty of other people have figured this one out, sitting around me for an after-work treat of fries and maybe a glass of Penfolds Shiraz/Cabernet.

So now, we're smiling at each other knowingly. We've gotten a good dinner, we've gotten it cheap, and we don't have to do the dishes.


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