Carnivore Cruise

Tijuana Country Club, 3820 East Ray, Ahwatukee, 704-0881. Hours: Dinner, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.

For the past 25 years, a generation of Americans has been pounded with messages about the evils of red meat in general, and beef in particular.

Consider the production side of the beef industry. We've been told that cattle-raising can't even pay for itself. Critics claim ranchers couldn't operate without taxpayer help, from water subsidies to cheap government grazing land. Environmentalists, meanwhile, link cattle-raising to everything from the destruction of the rain forest to methane pollution. And animal-rights supporters denounce the whole enterprise as bloody and immoral.

On the consumption side, beef has even fewer defenders. Once upon a time, smoking, drinking and eating steak were considered signs of red-blooded Americanism. Now, they're signs of pathological, self-destructive behavior. Is a 12-Step program next? (My name is Howard, and I eat steak.) And nutritionists continue to point out the harmful effects of beef's calories, fat and cholesterol. The beef barons themselves seem to concur--their ads recommend dainty, three-ounce portions.

The anti-beef message has gotten through. We're eating about half as much beef per capita as we did a quarter-century ago.

In such a beef-averse climate, you'd think that no restaurant entrepreneur in his right mind would consider investing in a steak house. But this is where the story gets weird: Steak houses are one of the restaurant industry's hottest segments.

How do you explain declining beef consumption and steak-house popularity? The answer, I'd say, is sociological and psychological.

In the old days, Mom served beef five nights a week to Dad and the kids. These days, though, women don't have time to spend in the kitchen. And almost no one eats like that anymore. Instead, we pride ourselves on our nutritional virtue. Chicken, fish and salad have become more typical dinner fare.

But only saints can maintain that sort of purity without backsliding every so often. Come the weekend or special occasion, our repressed craving for beef reemerges. So we rationalize. We tell ourselves we've been "good." We deserve a reward, compensation for the daily exercise workouts and regimen of fruit, vegetables and skinless chicken breast. It justifies a steak meal out.

That's where Tijuana Country Club and Melbourne Steakhouse come in. These new beef joints are battling the likes of Lone Star, Austin's and Outback for our midpriced, choice-grade, family-steak-house dollars.

Tijuana Country Club--it's not a chain, at least not yet--is primed for competition. Somebody had lots of fun with the interior design. Just inside the entrance is a holographic clock, with alternating images of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadaloupe. (However, even they can't get the clock to keep accurate time.) Animal skulls, cowhides and sombreros line the walls. So do autographed pictures of Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. A telephone booth in the back, labeled "Telefono," looks like it was plucked off a Tijuana street. You can pass some time shooting pool or inspecting photos of old-time golf stars. And one funky section of the dining area is set off as a "bordello," complete with red light, fringed lamps and Van Gogh reproductions.

Appetizers are as creatively crafted as the decor. Spicy stuffed mushrooms aren't your usual fried-munchie snoozer. These fungi are stuffed with chorizo and poblano chile, drenched in white wine and butter, then draped with jack cheese. The bucket of steamers is also outstanding. It's a metal pail filled with 18 bivalves--mussels and clams, in any proportion you wish--done up in a garlicky white wine broth. Even potato skins displayed a bit of spunk, filled with chili that had some bite.

Meals come with salad. There's nothing too terribly exciting about the version here, but at least the greens are fresh and the tomatoes are ripe. Some places can't even get those basics right.

The entrees are divided into two sections: Steaks and Non-Steaks. That should give you all the clues you need to figure where the kitchen's heart is. Can you imagine anyone saying, "Let's go to Tijuana Country Club for non-steak"?

Happily, the steak is worth the trip. Of course, it's not in the same class as the prime-graded beef at Morton's, Ruth's Chris or The Grill at the TPC. But it's not in the same stratospheric price range, either. The beef ranges from $11 for a 10-ounce top sirloin to $20 for an 18-ounce porterhouse, a range that carnivores who don't own 10,000 shares of Microsoft can feel somewhat at home on.

The porterhouse, a he-man cut, is my favorite--sirloin on one side of the bone, filet on the other. Tijuana Country Club's model hits those animal-protein buttons that have been dormant while you've been living on twigs and berries all week. The eight-ounce filet is as tender and juicy as it should be. The 12-ounce New York strip delivers the beefiest flavor, although it's not quite as tender as other cuts. And the 12-ounce, mesquite-smoked prime rib turned out fine, trimmed of fat and gristle.

Why anyone would come here for "non-steaks" is beyond my powers of understanding. But I guess Tijuana Country Club feels compelled to offer fish, pasta and chicken to entice the one member of the party who otherwise would refuse to come. Let's hope she has the good sense to order meat loaf, seasoned with chipotle and coated with a tasty barbecue glaze.

Side dishes aren't what they should be. (The great steak houses always have great sides.) Fries and garlic mashed potatoes have no character. Partially thawed steamed veggies are inedible.

The two desserts are also weak. Prickly pear cheesecake is all sugar, with no cheese flavor. Tijuana Moose, chocolate mousse in a chocolate cup, seems better only in comparison.

Restaurant-starved Ahwatukee needs a decent steak house. Once this place tweaks its side dishes and dessert, it should fill that niche. Tijuana Country Club won't turn the neighborhood around alone. But it's a start.

Melbourne Steakhouse, 2130 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 963-1243. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

T.S. Eliot once remarked that "talent imitates, but genius steals." A writer who's merely gifted, he suggested, simply mimics his betters. But it takes a brazen genius to have the courage to lift from them outright.

Unfortunately, Eliot's observation doesn't apply to steak-house entrepreneurs. Melbourne Steakhouse's proprietors have clearly spent some time studying other Australian-themed steak houses. They label the rest rooms "Sheilas" and "Blokes," and hang photos of Down Under celebrities in them. The dinner booths each sport a small vocabulary list of Aussie words and their American translations. The menu features dishes with goofy Australian names for familiar American fare: "Wallaby Soup"; "Bushman's Platter"; "Adelaide Ribeye"; and "Wallaroo Chops." Decor runs to reproductions of aboriginal art, crates stamped "Melbourne" and metal crocodiles.

I don't know if the folks behind Melbourne Steakhouse imitated, stole or independently dreamed up the idea of an Australian-themed steak house. It really doesn't matter. That's because the food here shows no genius, and very little talent.

Take the appetizers--please. "Ultimate Onions" are described as a "Down Under Sensation." Right, and I'm Crocodile Dundee. They're just a mound of oily battered onions with a right-out-of-the-freezer-bag taste.

We also sampled an appetizer called Sheep Dip. (There's a name to get your appetite juices flowing, mate.) The menu says Sheep Dip is a blend of two cheeses, artichokes and spinach. I say it's tasteless glop, served in a tiny ramekin. I felt as if I were in the middle of a Woody Allen joke from Annie Hall. One diner complains, "The food in this place is terrible." The other nods in agreement and says, "Yeah, and the portions are so small."

Meals come with either house greenery or a pseudo-caesar salad. There's also "Bunbury Bread." That turned out to be a mushy whole-wheat loaf that had all the essential elements of great bread except taste and texture.

Like Tijuana Country Club, Melbourne Steakhouse prices its beef in the $12 to $19 range. But the similarity ends there. The 18-ounce Georgetown T-bone--it's like a porterhouse, but with a smaller filet strip--doesn't provide sufficient reward for a week's worth of healthful eating. It lacks the beefy punch that otherwise gets me thumping my chest with delight. As I ate it, I couldn't drive the notion out of my head that, for an extra 10 bucks or so, I could have gone to Morton's.

I have no memory of the uninspired New York strip, except that it was a bit dry. Filet mignon wasn't as butter-soft and moist as it could have been. Only the prime rib set off a few of those chemicals in my brain signaling that I was having a good time.

The Aussie Bushman's Platter certainly didn't. This combo of fatty pork ribs and tough chicken breast should be deported. And if a member of your group tries to order salmon, do everything in your power to talk her out of it. It's coated with a sickly sweet bourbon sauce that ruins the fish.

Don't look for much help from the sides. Mashed potatoes, perked up with chives and cheese, were too light and fluffy for my taste. "Melbourne chips" were nothing-special French fries. Rice pilaf was strictly institutional.

Desserts continued the pattern. Neither the cheesecake nor the low-quality chocolate chip ice cream on a cookie-crumb base will make you want to linger.

Melbourne Steakhouse is long on concept but short on execution. I'd suggest a little less attention to the Australian theme, and a little more attention to what's coming out of the kitchen.

Tijuana Country Club:
Stuffed mushrooms
Prime rib
Tijuana Moose

Melbourne Steakhouse:
Sheep Dip
Filet mignon (5 oz.)


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