Chuck, Please

Pinnacle Peak Patio, 10426 East Jomax, Scottsdale, 585-1599. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

Every year, when the calendar flips to January, you can count on three things here in Arizona:

1. A Mesa legislator, citing a strong commitment to family values, free enterprise and the odd-numbered Ten Commandments, will introduce a bill giving citizens the right to manufacture Freon and to purchase strategic nuclear weapons without a waiting period.

2. The Arizona Cardinals, whose last playoff victory took place two cities ago during the first Truman administration, will raise ticket prices "in order to remain competitive."

3. Your frozen, silo-dwelling Midwestern friends and relatives, encased in ice and snow, will decide to thaw out at your house for a couple of weeks.

Naturally, your guests will express a desire to experience "a taste of the West" while they're in town. During my first few seasons in the Valley, I didn't mind giving out-of-state freeloaders the grand tour. We'd go to the Heard Museum, climb Squaw Peak and take a desert Jeep ride.

After a few years, though, I found it harder to maintain an enthusiastic level of hospitality. Nowadays, my visitors get their "taste of the West" by thumbing through pictures in back issues of Arizona Highways. Sometimes I direct them to Old Town Scottsdale to buy "half-price" Indian jewelry. Or I steer them to "Western" outfitters whose clothes would make even the Marlboro Man look like he's auditioning for the "cowboy" role in the Village People.

Of course, this yearning for a "taste of the West" has a literal application as well. Where, my guests inevitably ask, can they eat a real cowboy meal, just like the pioneers ate? Dinner on America West's next flight to Chicago, I fantasize telling them. Or perhaps they'd like me to whip up something from the Donner Party Recipe Book?

Of course, I always end up taking them to one of the Valley's "authentic" Western steak houses. How can you tell these places are authentic? It's easy. Just look for belching, diesel-spewing tour buses in the parking lot, a country-western band encouraging folks to line-dance to "Achy Breaky Heart" and servers in cowboy hats.

These cliches, and every other Western-themed cliche you can possibly imagine, all come to life at Pinnacle Peak Patio. This Valley landmark has been dishing out cowboy dinners to city slickers for 40 years. But locals shouldn't write off Pinnacle Peak Patio just because it's a frontier fantasy. I found that, with the right spirit, even jaded locals like me can have fun.

There's no getting around it: Pinnacle Peak Patio is a hoot. Check out Pappy, the grizzled, rifle-toting, poncho-clad, resident "Old-Timer" who roams the facility, looking as if he just wandered off the set of a Gabby Hayes epic. (He'll "deputize" your kids, complete with badge and oath of office, just like Sheriff Joe.) You can get your picture snapped in old-fashioned Western duds at the "Old Tyme Photo Booth." You can enjoy a spin in a hay wagon or take a pony ride.

The restaurant itself is a marvel of interior design. There are two principal decorating motifs: The first is the blizzard of ties, hanging like stalactites from the rafters, clipped from unsuspecting dudes who didn't realize just how seriously Pinnacle Peak Patio takes its casual-dining philosophy. (Management claims to have snipped off more than a quarter of a million ties through the years.) Then there are the thousands of business cards plastered onto every square inch of wall space. Two noteworthy design touches: First, to find the rest rooms, you follow the yellow horseshoe footprints painted on the floor. And once you get there, you'll find the stall doors in the rest rooms painted with a likeness of a horse's rear end.

You don't last 40 years in the restaurant business without giving people what they want. Sure, Pinnacle Peak Patio's customers want a kitschy cowboy experience--that's why they eat surrounded by ranch-house paraphernalia at heavy wooden tables lined with red-checked oilcloth. But there's nothing kitschy about the grub. This kitchen is at home on the range, and you won't hear too many discouraging words from me.

The proprietors are missing out on a sure source of profits by not offering any appetizers. It seems to me that rattlesnake fritters, deep-fried veggies, potato skins, Rocky Mountain oysters and nachos would be an easy sell. Instead, the kitchen incongruously starts off everyone with a nondescript salad, not exactly what the pioneers would have grazed on while they were rolling west in their wagons.

The menu is short and sweet: Pinnacle Peak Patio deals in mesquite-grilled beef, pardner. The best cut is the massive, tender, flavorful, two-pound porterhouse, a serious slab of meat that hangs over the edge of your plate. Knock this steak off, and your animal-protein needs will be taken care of until Labor Day.

The 14-ounce New York strip is where you'll find beefy contentment and big-time flavor. The 12-ounce, bone-in Kansas City steak, however, is the weak link. There's a reason it's not as pricey as the other models: It's thin-cut, and not nearly as juicy.

But price alone isn't always the best measure of quality. If that were so, Pinnacle Peak Patio's hamburger wouldn't be the beauty it is. This hamburger will show you how the West was won: a half-pound of beef ground from steak trim, packing a breathtaking beefy wallop.

As you may have surmised, Pinnacle Peak Patio is not where you want to feed your visiting Hindu guests. There's only one entree that doesn't come from a cow. But I expect only a vegetarian wouldn't enjoy the hickory-smoked chicken, a half-bird that's as moist and tasty as it could be.

Unfortunately, the go-withs are a serious letdown. Cowboy beans are much too bland; the baked potato tastes exactly like every spud you've ever eaten; and the boiled-to-death ear of corn that was harvested and frozen six months ago should be banned by the Geneva Convention. Some fresh-cut French fries would be a welcome menu addition.

You can wash down everything with Pinnacle Peak Patio's two microbrews, Diamondback lager and bock.

The two desserts are surprisingly effective. The New York-style cheesecake comes just the way it should, thick, heavy and creamy. And the hot apple pie tastes like someone just baked it. A scoop of cinnamon-swirl ice cream only adds to its charms.

Sure, Pinnacle Peak Patio is aimed directly at tourists. But it's no trap.

Greasewood Flats, East Pinnacle Peak--Star Route, Scottsdale, 585-9430. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m, seven days a week.

In stark contrast to Pinnacle Peak Patio, Greasewood Flats oozes with genuine, Old West charm. However, reasonable folks may disagree about the exact nature of this "charm" and the manner in which it is "oozed."

Without putting too fine a point on it, Greasewood Flats is basically a drinking hole. The major function of the grub is to keep customers from starving to death. If you're looking for a kitchen manned by a culinary-school graduate, pilgrim, you've come to the wrong place.

Owned by the operators of touristy Reata Pass Steakhouse, just a few hundred yards away, Greasewood Flats' bar and kitchen are housed in an atmospheric, hundred-year-old building. Most customers, however, will choose to sit outside, at wooden picnic tables, where they can listen to country-western bands Thursday through Sunday and swig their brewski of choice.

If you do decide to drink at the bar or sit at one of the decrepit indoor tables, you'd best warn your womenfolk not to gaze at the walls or ceiling.

Why? Practically every inch of space is scribbled over with graffiti, including X-rated drawings that would make a bordello keeper blush. Believe it or not, there's actually a sign that reads, "Do Not Write on Bathroom Walls." How effective is it? Imagine putting a cat in your parakeet's cage, and protecting your feathered friend by posting a "Do Not Disturb the Bird" message.

Prudes aren't the only ones who might have a tough time adapting to the setting. On one visit, when rain drove everyone indoors, the cigarette smoke was so thick I thought I'd wandered into the world's largest fireplace.

While Gloria Steinem and the surgeon general may not find Greasewood Flats all that appealing, less sensitive souls can have a good time. Weekends are the best time to come. Not only is there music, but that's also when the Mexican-food shack is open.

It's a separate building, housing a senorita, a stove and lots of pots. The oversize nachos platter should take care of three or four appetites. A small mountain of chips comes draped with cheese, ground beef, guacamole, sour cream and a sprinkling of olives. The thick tomato salsa is a plus.

The tamale plate also goes well with the music and beer. The two models, green corn and pork, are well-fashioned, and so are the refried beans. The shredded-beef taco is small, but serviceable.

If you come at other times, your dining options are severely limited. But that shouldn't be a problem, as long as you like hamburgers. The green chile cheeseburger is luscious, thick and juicy, and the cowboy-beans side shows a lot of spunk.

Greasewood Flats is probably not where you should be entertaining your Aunt Edith and Uncle Walter, who've just arrived from Milwaukee. But if you've got visitors who want to get beyond staged shoot-outs, phony Indian dances and Frontierland settings, this place should give them something to talk about on their flight home.

Pinnacle Peak Patio:

Greasewood Flats:
Shredded-beef taco
Tamale plate
Green chile cheeseburger


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