I may pique the interest of Michael Jackson fans by saying so, but who knew that the, uh, cojónes of young calves would make such a mouth-watering appetizer? Not me, as I must admit to never partaking of this well-known Western delicacy before stopping by the reopened and revitalized Stockyards Restaurant on East Washington Street, just west of the 202. Ever since my plane touched the tarmac at Sky Harbor a year and a half ago, many an experienced Phoenix nosher has waxed poetic to me about the Stockyards and its "calf fries," as these veal versions of "mountain oysters" are called. But before I had a chance to sample the wares of this celebrated chow palace, it closed for renovations. I was forced to wait out its 11-month-long face-lift, a nip-'n'-tuck perhaps only outdone by that of red-carpet doyenne Joan Rivers.
That's why "Carpe diem!" was my cry as soon as the Stockyards reopened March 31, and I hightailed it to the steak house about a week ago so I could plunge gob-first into a mess of calf fries with a condiment of roasted pepper and chipotle. The uninitiated may gag while considering the source, but these little nippers appear rather innocuous piled on a plate, like spheroid fried-chicken nuggets. They don't taste like clucker, though, more like a cross between veal and pork, warm and juicy beneath a golden-brown crust. Co-owner J.B. Grantham explained to me that back in the day when the Stockyards was a feedlot supporting 40,000 head of cattle, cattlemen would hand-carry in buckets of calf testicles for trade. A none-too-appetizing thought, until you've actually consumed these glorious glands.
Of course, the Stockyards is more than just calf fries. As the home of E.A. Tovrea's "circle-walking-L" brand, which dates to 1889, and can be seen on the bola ties of Stockyards servers, the restaurant oozes history and elegance: black leather booths, decorative windows of frosted glass, dark pecan tables, and black-and-white pics of cowboys and cattle barons past. Beyond the two main dining rooms, the first with a pewtery, pressed-tin roof and the second with a stained-glass window of a Gay '90s barroom scene, is the "1889 Saloon." With its massive, hand-carved mahogany bar, cut-glass chandelier, and dusky murals depicting passages from popular songs of yesteryear, such as "The Face on the Barroom Floor" and "Sweet Adeline," the 1889 Saloon is a no-brainer classic, right up there with the Orpheum Theatre and the Arizona Biltmore.
As if that wasn't enough ambiance to choke an Angus steer, further past the saloon is the Rose Room, with four smaller chandeliers, and better-kept murals on each wall, showing vignettes from New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York' s Central Park. According to Grantham, who runs the place with partners Tom Lentz and Mark Wagner, both the Rose Room and the bar were designed to the specifications of Della Tovrea, E.A.'s wife, who lived in the wedding-cake-like edifice known as Tovrea Castle, within eyeshot of the Stockyards. Though Grantham & Co. are already using the Rose Room for special events, everyone agrees the garish, pinkish booths have to go. (No exact date on when the refurbishment will be complete.)
Yet aside from the draw of the locale and the peculiar appeal of nibbling on bovine bollocks, is the grub worth the drive? My answer would be a qualified yes: given that chef Spencer Haney works out the kinks in short order. For me, the kinks are few but significant, and need to be flattened into nonentity if the Stockyards is to become the fine-dining establishment that its prices, pedigree and decor demand. A Stockyards meal begins with a relish tray containing batons of jicama and carrot, slices of radish, and black olives topped with chive oil and ancho chile flakes. Problem is, these crudités would taste better unadorned, minus this unappetizing dressing. Also, the peppery black bean dip that comes with them is served too thick and too cold to dunk anything other than your silverware into it.
During my repasts, the basket of bread, with biscuits and cornbread, was in need of improvement as well. These baked goods were not warm and fresh from the oven, and the cornbread seemed a little dry. The butter spread, sweetened with prickly pear, did tickle the palate, however.
What a letdown the shrimp cocktail was! The mango salsa was appropriately piquant, but the shrimp themselves, though jumbo-size, were colorless and flavorless, a complete waste of effort spent gnawing them. The prime rib was adequate, nicely pink and fatty, but I mistakenly chose the "whipped" potatoes as my starch. Mixed with scallions, chipotle purée, and a number of other ingredients, these tubers may have been whipped, but the punishment was all mine. Too spicy, and overprepared. Plain ol' mashed potatoes would have been better.
On the other hand, when I ordered a baked potato with my steak during a subsequent meal, it was perfection, rubbed with salt and not overdone. Moreover, my steak was far superior this time as well -- a 12-ounce "baseball cut" of sirloin, so thick it looked like a big brick of seared beef. One of the better steaks I've ever had in the Valley. I selected the poblano and roasted pepper butter for my "sauce," which was melted onto my meat for me and was such a tongue-tease, I demanded more.
Despite the stuffing of shredded duck with corn, and an interesting sauce of veal stock, New Mexico chiles and fresh raspberries, the duck enchiladas were not as enticing as I'd wished. Perhaps if the strands of duck had been thicker, I would have gotten more of the flavor of the fowl and liked it more. As it was, the veal sauce overwhelmed it.
Per the desserts, I found the citrus burnt crème somewhat bland, but the pecan pie with vanilla bean ice cream was magnificent, featuring a pie filling of bourbon, brown sugar and chocolate. Almost better than my grandmother's back in North Carolina, and at least as memorable. If this pecan pie was all the Stockyards served, along with that baseball cut steak and the calf fries, it would still be a worthy dining experience. And with some tweaks, what's worthy will also shortly be, I'm quite sure, exceptional.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.