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DOGIE BAG

T-Bone Steak House, 10037 South 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 276-0945. Hours: 5 to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

All over the country, people pick up on the little clues that signal the change of seasons.

Back East, for example, autumn is on the way when the nights turn brisk and the leaves turn color. In California you know spring is coming when the air turns color and Tommy Lasorda predicts a pennant for the Dodgers. But Valley dwellers don't even have to glance outside to know what time of year it is. Just peer into the refrigerator, probably as empty now as the day you bought it. If it's like ours, it's been stripped of every consumable item--including yogurt whose pull date reads "2/23/88"--by hordes of hungry out-of-towners who have taken over the house like termites. Forget about the four seasons. If Vivaldi were living in Arizona, he couldn't stop his musical tribute after spring, summer, fall and winter. He'd have to add a fifth season: tourist.

No doubt he'd put it in a minor key.
Unlike termites, who make do with whatever nourishment they can find, visitors make demands. They want a taste of the West. I resisted the temptation to satisfy my guests by setting them on I-10 with a mule, canteen and directions to Blythe. Instead, I took them to a couple of cowboy steak houses, the kinds of places they're not likely to encounter back home.

T-Bone Steak House is a trip, in every sense of the word. Located at the very southern end of 19th Avenue, halfway up the mountains, this place gives you a taste of the Old West about a mile before you get there. The road's not paved.

On the night we came, the Western theme continued in the parking lot. The sheriff was in town--four squad-cars full, in fact. Their presence promised, I hoped, not only secure dining, but also decent grub.

There are more cowboy motifs inside, as we sat on wooden benches alongside heavy picnic tables topped with red-and-white oilcloth. Most of the decorating budget went toward old-fashioned kerosene lamps that illuminate each table.

But anything more would have been a waste of money, because T-Bone Steak House offers a fabulous view of the Valley. We timed our arrival to sunset and were treated to a spectacular reddening sky and a carpet of city lights that actually twinkled.

And, most astonishing of all, even a greenhorn could see that the cowboys eating here far outnumbered the tourists. Several leather-faced, leather-chapped guys, who all looked like Jack Palance, did not strike us as the sort who'd just flown in on America West from Milwaukee.

The small menu is posted on the walls, featuring basic cowboy fare and basic cowboy spelling. Perhaps, I thought, "banquits," "partys" and "salid" are acceptable regional alternatives. In any event, the sheriffs sat idly by, making no attempt to impose lexicographical justice. Is it the code of the Old West that keeps T-Bone Steak House from offering any appetizers? Maybe real cowboys don't hanker after fried zucchini strips. Maybe the risky prospect of spelling "Buffalo wings" or "onion rings" seemed too daunting.

Or maybe the restaurant simply thinks the tubful of self-serve salad, the bowl of marinated green beans and the plastic-sheathed crackers are enough to get the gastric juices flowing.

They aren't. But you won't need them, anyway. So resist the urge to poke around the salads. Just sit back, enjoy the view and think about meat. You'll be getting wonderful, first-rate steaks, huge slabs cooked over a mesquite grill. They were so good, after a few bites I wouldn't have cared if the menu called them "stakes."

Forget about those ridiculous Beef Council ads that promote three-ounce servings of beef. By that standard, the monstrous porterhouse steak--about two pounds worth, by my reckoning--contains enough animal protein to tide you over to Memorial Day. But it's impressive not only in size. It packed a full, beefy flavor into a surprisingly tender cut. My visitor demolished it with gusto. I strongly suspect that in a state of nature, or just about any state except California, people naturally are drawn to beef cooked over an open fire. After all, how many prehistoric pictographs have you seen depicting the hunt for avocado-and-sprout sandwiches? And who ever got strung up for radicchio rustling?

The T-bone steak was about the juiciest cowboy steak I've encountered. The steak knife that accompanied it was superfluous--a fork and a decent set of choppers are the only tools primitive diners really need. T-Bone Steak House does provide an alternative to the four cowboy steaks on the menu. City slickers can order half a mesquite-grilled chicken. It won't dent too many he-man appetites, but in its own way, it's just as tasty as the steaks, very moist with a pleasing, smoky flavor.

The side orders, however, are not how the West was won. The cowboy beans that come with the meal lacked zip. The $1.25 baked potato's principal benefit is that it gives you something on your plate to stare at besides a hunk of cow. If you can't live by meat alone, spring for a buck and get the thick Texas garlic bread, toasted and sprinkled with cheese. Only one dessert here, but it's good. The homemade apple pie with a vanilla-cinnamon-swirl ice cream provided a good excuse to linger and gaze at the stars above and scenery below.

If your visitors want Frontierland settings, staged shoot-outs, covered-wagon rides and Indian dances, don't come here. But for basic cowboy steak, brew and view, go south, young man. Reata Pass Steak House, 27500 North Alma School Parkway, Scottsdale, 585-7277. Hours: Monday through Friday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. On a recent Saturday night, Reata Pass was hootin' and hollerin'. Weekend cowboys and cowgirls came decked out in their finery--buckskin shirts, sharp hats and blue jeans creased to Marine Corps standards.

They twirled and line-danced as the mellow house band launched into "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds," "Achy Breaky Heart" and "Margaritaville." A few hopeless bumblers like myself watched with envy. If I danced with the Statue of Liberty, I'd step on her feet.

Reopened about seven months ago after a long down spell, Reata Pass looks like every tourist's idea of a cowboy steak house. It's got a reassuring, sawdust-on-the-floor, wood-beams-on-the-ceiling and dead-animals-on-the-wall look.

The fare doesn't hold any surprises, either. Still, Scottsdale cowboys must have different eating customs from their brethren in South Phoenix, because Reata Pass, unlike T-Bone Steak House, offers a half-dozen appetizers. We tried the barbecue pork ribs, five moderately meaty critters in a sauce so mild that it couldn't raise a blister on the tongue of a Midwestern tourist. Fresh, hot onion rings, meanwhile, had a pleasing, right-out-of-the-fryer taste. Salad comes with all dinners. The ones we got looked like every one you've ever had--iceberg lettuce, a single cherry tomato and some sliced red onion--but a zippy, sweet-and-peppery Italian dressing made it palatable. The accompanying rolls had a commercial taste, but at least were fresh.

But no one moseyed up here for appetizers, salad or rolls. These folks want meat. And Reata Pass does a pretty good job accommodating them. The ten-ounce rib eye steak had a strong, beefy kick, but seemed to have been on the trail just a tad too long. Make sure your visiting Uncle Walter's canines are in good working condition before you let him order it.

The hefty, one-pound T-bone was a winner. It had a saddlebag full of flavor, and enough juice to require repeated napkin swipes at my chin. Both steaks, cooked medium-rare as we requested, were grilled over mesquite wood.

The pork chops turned out to be the most disappointing main dish, but not because they had sunk to some low standard. What we regretted was how close they had come to perfection.

Two thick hunks of trimmed, center-cut pork chops looked gorgeously grilled, but tasted seriously overcooked. Meat this handsome deserved better, as did my crestfallen pork-loving companion.

Finicky diners who can't handle slabs of meat can retreat to some specialties you'd never find on a chuck wagon, like halibut steak and sliced-chicken-breast salad. There's a half-pound burger, as well.

The main dishes all share the plate with those horrible, mushy corn cobbettes. A bowl of cowboy beans also tags along. They're very bland, but come studded with lots of fiery, whole yellow peppers. Make sure Aunt Edith doesn't mistakenly chow down one of these babies, or she's liable to fly back to Milwaukee without the aid of aircraft.

John Wayne never seemed particularly big on desserts (Watch it, pilgrim, that's my cheesecake"), and neither is Reata Pass. The boysenberry pie and the cherry cheesecake are unlikely to go down in Western annals.

But Reata Pass' reasonably priced grub, good-time Western atmosphere and cheery service make it a genuinely pleasant tourist stop. My advice: Drop your guests here, then give them a mule, a canteen and directions to Blythe.

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T-Bone Steak House

10037 S. 19th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85041

602-276-0945

www.t-bonesteakhouse.com


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