Diners at Superstition Skies take advantage of the owner's fresh Alaska fish connection.
Leah Fasten

Bar 'n' Gill

Homebuilders everywhere have their boxers in a bunch over Proposition 202, a pending initiative that will severely limit urban sprawl across Arizona. They say turning off their bulldozers will destroy the economy.

Supporters of 202, on the other hand, see the initiative as a way to limit subdivisions that are devouring the desert, bringing smog, excessive traffic, unrealistic demands on infrastructure and the rape of Arizona's natural splendor. They want to levy high impact fees against builders to pay for the cost of improved city services, libraries, schools and parks.

But the supporters are missing another important point. Yes, the tidal wave of red tile roofs and pink stucco walls is disturbing, but it's downright depressing that builders are being allowed to plunk down thousands of new homes in areas that don't even have enough decent restaurants yet.

A recent e-mail I lifted from the chat room of the Apache Junction Chamber of Commerce sums up the situation quite politely: I just moved here from Washington. It's a nice place, but a little far from all the fun stuff. Most of it is houses, new construction. Where can I go to eat?

A little far from the fun stuff? Apache Junction is in an entirely different county from the fun stuff. The closest movie theater is miles down the freeway in Mesa. The chamber lists just 28 full-service restaurants within its boundaries -- and half of these are sandwich shops. This for an area that has exploded from a population of 9,935 in 1980 to more than 23,000 this year. It's almost criminal.

Thank goodness for Superstition Skies. While nobody's going to confuse this cowboy joint for fine dining, it does surprise with an above-average menu featuring salmon, halibut, shrimp and crab. It's even open on Sundays.

An Apache Junction landmark since 1955, the restaurant gained its claim to fame as an outpost for bikers seeking a cold brew and a friendly smile as they tore up the desert in the middle of nowhere. Not so long ago, it functioned as a restaurant and cocktail lounge, and, for a while in 1988, was the property of the Apache Junction Police after it was seized in a case of trafficking in stolen property (restaurant operators were purchasing turkeys, cheese, butter, canned beef, canned salmon, vegetables, fruit and liquor from undercover officers -- go figure).

Today, the restaurant has outlived its outlaw reputation and become a favorite stomping ground for folks looking for a good, basic burger, camaraderie and, of course, lots of beer. New owners took over in March, spruced things up, signed on a country-western band and added a more adventurous menu starring fresh seafood. No canned salmon makes it past these doors anymore, paid for or not.

Fresh fish in the middle of the Pinal County prairie? Don't scoff. Owners Todd and Lisa Welch own commercial fishing boats in Alaska, so their salmon and halibut is caught, selected and shipped to their specifications. Crab and shrimp come from their equally picky friends.

What this from-the-source setup means to hungry diners is huge portions for just a few shekels.

I'm amazed one evening when my ever-ravenous dining companion pushes away his baked salmon when he's only halfway through. I've seen him eat a full meal, then choke down a sandwich just because "it's there." He doesn't believe in leftovers, either, telling me he can't return to ruins after they've sat in his refrigerator. But tonight, he's waving his napkin in the air to signify surrender.

No wonder: he's been served a double salmon fillet so large it crowds the edges of a long platter. He can only manage about two-thirds of the sizable swimmer, basted in butter, garlic and onion, then baked to a meaty turn. Plucked as it is from the sea, its flesh boasts the rich nuances in flavor and texture that makes it superior to its freshwater, farm-raised cousins. No skimping on grade, either -- the Welches deal strictly in King salmon, aptly known as the ruler of the salmon species.

Stuffed salmon is a fancier presentation, with two big fillets sandwiching a thick spread of jalapeño cream cheese and a sweet, spicy butter. It's odd to look at, topped with chopped, grilled mushrooms and onion, and for the first few bites, it strikes me as too heavy and weird. Yet, as I work my way through the plate, it becomes highly appealing, sort of like cream cheese and lox without the bagel. It's good that the kitchen uses whipped cream cheese instead of the cloying regular kind, although more jalapeño certainly wouldn't hurt -- these little green bits taste more like celery (this is Arizona, after all, so don't be afraid to turn up the heat).

Baked halibut is equally ample, bathed in a subtle sauce of butter, garlic and lemon. Toppings of chopped mushrooms and thick slices of purple onion are too harsh, though; even after I slide them off, their flavors have seeped into the entree. I've got no suggestions for the perfectly fine crab-stuffed version, though -- the creamy shellfish lends welcome moisture to this characteristically dry fish.

Halibut returns in a basket meal, with a generous tumble of large chunks beer-battered to puffy breadiness. On its own, it's bland; dipped in tartar sauce, it works just fine. Even better is a halibut wrap, grilled with mushrooms, lettuce, tomato and tangy dill sauce, plus, at our request, crab.

Shrimp appears several ways -- as a cocktail, in a salad, chunked as "popcorn," beer-battered and, the best, butterflied then baked until bubbly with Parmesan cheese, olive oil and herbs. These aren't your everyday shellfish, either, but Alaskan spot prawns -- big, lobster-looking beasts noted for their sweet, firm flavor and bright-red shells with white spots. In the Valley, such prawns generally are reserved for sushi bars.

Feasting on these treasures of the deep, it's hard to believe we're sitting in an ancient structure tucked off a dirt parking lot and flanked by rows of manufactured homes. But we are, lounging at coffee shop-quality tables, cooling our heels on concrete to a backdrop of pool tables and electronic dart games under the glow of neon beer and cigarette signs. The Welches have slapped on new paint and laid down a little carpet here and there, but smoke still bellows from tobacco sticks dangling from the lips of regulars in cowboy hats leaning against the bar on the other side of the dance floor.

Our waitress has no doubt where she is, though, settling comfortably in a chair next to us to hear our shouted orders over the din of a live band. The music shakes the building with the foot-tapping sounds of Tamara Tidwell and the Fifth Wheel Band. We visit one night on a Sunday, and the place is packed, spinning with two-steppers saluting Tidwell's return from a Nashville tour. Our server's not too shy to return to double-check our order, admitting she didn't know the restaurant even had a surf-and-turf entree. And we can only grin when our New York steak arrives still bloody (the chef read the "r" she wrote for our salad's ranch dressing as meaning rare).

Beef is the other star at Superstition Skies, grilled to order (or regrilled, when the order pad is misinterpreted). Eight-ounce New York strip and 12-ounce rib eye are tender, juicy, trimmed of all fat and unadulterated by superfluous spice.

Dinners come with tossed salad (a friendly mix of iceberg lettuce, purple cabbage and carrot topped with cucumber, tomato wedges, purple onion and croutons) or soup of the day. One evening's chicken rice soup sure tastes homemade, floating with lots of chicken breast, carrot, celery, onion and wild rice -- although it's much too salty. There's nothing fancy about sides of baked potato or rice pilaf, and I've no problem passing on a veggie side of garbanzo, green and kidney beans dotted with peas and carrots. The mix is beige, both in looks and in taste, but then, that's not what we're here for, is it?

Fresh seafood and quality beef are unparalleled treats, yet I'd stop in just for Superstition Skies' more standard offerings of deep-fried appetizers, burgers and sandwiches. They're bar bites, for sure, but better than most.

Grease is no friend of mine, and it barely makes an appearance in thick French fries, firm zucchini rounds, sweet onion rings, juicy battered mushrooms or chewy mozzarella sticks. Eat fast, though -- these victuals lose their appeal when they cool. Deep-fried ravioli find me plucking quickly -- they're startlingly good. But the best of the bunch are jumpin' jacks -- essentially bulked-up jalapeño poppers. A glass of wine, a plate of jumpin' jacks, Tidwell wailing on the stage, and I'd be two-stepping at my table.

Extra care has been taken with Superstition Skies' sandwiches, too. A chicken Malibu brings a large hunk of carefully grilled moist breast, topped with slabs of bacon, thin ham and mild-mannered Swiss on a sesame seed bun. Basic? You betcha. Boring? Nah. And I find myself pulling apart my Philly cheese steak to savor the thin sliced beef within -- it's not processed meat, but the real thing -- yippee.

My only letdown is the Superstition burger, a slender, nicely grilled third-pound patty. Toppings of grilled onion and mushrooms are fine, but thick dollops of sour cream don't belong here at all.

But why waste time on a hamburger when there's fresh fish to be had? It is said that salmon was deified by early American Indians -- certain tribe members weren't allowed to handle the fish lest they anger its spirit and cause it to leave their waters forever -- and it's equally important to me today.

Superstition Skies -- that's a proposition I'll gladly support.


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