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DOGIE HOUSES

Rawhide Steakhouse, 23023 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 502-1880. Hours: Lunch, Friday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

This time of year fills most of us Valley residents with dread. That's because those aren't sleigh bells we hear jangling--it's our nerves. They're pretty well shot after dealing with the season's first wave of winter visitors. Guests are completely predictable. You can count on them to empty your hot-water tank. You can count on them to use your phone to make peak-hour calls to their 50 closest friends back home. And you can count on them to demand you chauffeur them to some touristy Western steak house so they can have a "real frontier experience." Of course, this authentic encounter with the Old West generally consists of stepping on sawdust, hearing "Achy Breaky Heart" on the music system and staring at Chicago retirees wearing bola ties at the next table. In my weaker moments, I envision for my guests a more genuine frontier experience--say, reliving the last days of the Donner party. But eventually, my evil impulses subside, and I grudgingly pack everyone off for an evening of T-bone gnawin' and yee-hawin'.

One of my favorite spots used to be the steak house at Rawhide. Sure, it was corny, from Frankie Laine's endless crooning of the old television show's theme song to the chicken-in-a-booth that skillfully played tic-tac-toe when you dropped in a quarter. But the grub is what really grabbed me. This once was the best cowboy restaurant in town. Not anymore. Rawhide seems to be in the middle of a quality free fall. At first glance, nothing seems to have changed. The barnlike room, brick walls, red-checked oilcloth and antique furnishings provide the right Western atmospherics. But closer inspection revealed that the glass dome over the front door was coated with dust, and the rest room looked like it hadn't yet seen a mop this season. It made me wonder if this inattention to detail might spill over to the kitchen. You couldn't tell from the buffalo kebab appetizer, one of the few palatable items we ran into. Buffalo is significantly lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, and I wouldn't be surprised to find it popping up on more Valley menus. One drawback, though, is that the meat's leanness sometimes makes it tough and chewy. But Rawhide's supply sidestepped this shortcoming, and provided some admirable animal protein. More adventurous diners can munch on Rocky Mountain oysters and rattlesnake fritters, and get a commemorative certificate attesting to their courage, if not their good sense. Don't look for a certificate commemorating the salad that comes with all meals. It's a thoroughly forgettable bowl of iceberg greenery, drenched in dressings that tasted like they came out of a 25-gallon Price Club vat. But busloads of Midwestern visitors don't trek here to nibble on buffalo meat or load up on green, leafy nutrition. They're here to devour big slabs of mesquite-grilled beef. Unfortunately, these steaks are not how the West was won. The one-pound T-bone steak didn't remind me one bit of the T-bone I'd enjoyed here in the past. Tender? Not particularly. Juicy? Not particularly. Worth $15.50? Not by a long shot. You're better off spending seven bucks more and taking beef-loving guests to Ruth's Chris, where the meat's ten times better. If they insist on a Western touch, hum "Red River Valley" while they chew. Rawhide's tough, 12-ounce New York steak didn't leave anyone singing anything, except the blues. It didn't help that the chintzy, lightweight knife and fork were no more up to the task than my overmatched choppers. I'm from the clean-your-plate school, but I couldn't go beyond a few bites into this leathery critter. The inoffensive barbecue combo plate lacks any distinctive features. The quarter chicken, half slab of pork ribs and single beef rib are filling, but tame enough for a newborn tenderfoot. There also wasn't enough barbecue sauce on the platter even to get your fingers dirty. But that really didn't matter, since the sauce I did find had about all the frontier flair of a knish. But just as I was ready to toss my cutlery in despair, I flagged down some prime rib. This is how I recall the meat here--butter-soft, moist and beefy. Apparently, the kitchen can remember how to do something right. But the prime rib turned out to be the evening's only high note. Like most everything else, the side dishes were hopelessly inept. The spongy Texas toast had the texture of a spring cushion--I was ready to mete out frontier justice to whomever made it. Zipless cowboy beans were seasoned only by the Scottsdale night air. And what would a December cowboy steak dinner be without a just-thawed corn cobbette frozen since the Fourth of July? Desserts couldn't get the meal back on track. Cherry pie was sent out smothered with a blob of half-melted cinnamon ice cream. Is anyone paying attention? The mud pie was fine, but couldn't wipe out the memory of the rest of the meal. And a word about beverages. The iced tea is, hands down, the worst I've had the misfortune to sip. As for the coffee, our waitress said it's prepared from a box of liquid concentrate that's combined with hot water. This isn't corner-cutting; it's assault and battery. Along Rawhide's Main Street, you can get a variety of animals to perform for you for a quarter. Drop 25 cents in the slot, and the "Educated Hen" will tug on a ring and drop a prize in the chute. Put two bits in the slot of "Guitar Duck" and the creature will strum a few chords on an electric guitar with its beak. The next training project? Getting the kitchen to perform, by giving diners their money's worth after they drop 20 dollars in the steak-house till. Let's hope the staff can take instruction as easily as the chicken and the duck.

 

Diamondback Steakhouse, WestWorld, 16601 North Pima Road, Scottsdale, 502-0815. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Diamondback Steakhouse is something of a new player on the Western eats scene. Formerly Rattler's, it's been cleverly refurbished. Don't look for a Western warehouse, where hundreds of diners are crowded into one huge room. Instead, the restaurant steers folks into one of three smaller, atmospheric theme rooms. There's the saloon, done up in gaudy red wallpaper. There's the blacksmith shop, crowded with tools of the trade. We were led to what looks like the dining room of a frontier hotel, with catchy, yellow striped wallpaper above dark green wainscoting. Flowered carpeting, brass light fixtures and white lace curtains on the windows enhance the effect. The food can't quite keep up with the charming setting. Yes, your guests can sample a ten-dollar deep-fried rattlesnake appetizer. But when it comes to rattlesnake meat, it's best to follow your natural instinct to recoil. No one will instinctively recoil from the prospect of freshly made onion rings. And Diamondback whips up an enormous mound in a crisp buttermilk batter. But these specimens arrived in enough oil to lubricate a 747. The salad comes full of good intentions. Your group gets a pile of caesar salad, served family-style in a big bowl, packed with romaine and croutons. But a heavy hand with the dressing--it must have been poured from a wheelbarrow--turned the greenery into an inedible soggy bog. A basket of mushy, microwaved dinner rolls couldn't turn this course around, either. The main dishes, however, are all completely satisfactory, although they stop well short of ecstasy. Diamondback Steakhouse uses choice beef, which lacks the exquisite juicy marbling of prime, the best grade. (Very little beef is graded prime, and most of the country's supply ends up in high-priced restaurants. Unfortunately for my pocketbook, I can tell the difference.) Still, not even a gourmet palate could complain about the hefty T-bone, a tender, 16-ounce slab of animal protein that pushes all the carnivore pleasure buttons. The bone-in Kansas City strip steak isn't quite as soft, but it's got a real beefy punch. And although the prime rib had a too-high fat-to-meat ratio, what meat there was provided ample pleasure.

If you're not wedded to eating beef, consider the combo platter of chicken and ribs. You get a whole, moist, boneless chicken breast, grilled just right, along with some topnotch meaty baby backs charred to a crispy edge. The only drawback? A harsh, vinegary barbecue sauce that's very distracting. Diamondback has wisely banished the awful corn cobs that darken most Western steak-house plates. You can actually get some decent sides, particularly yam coated with maple cinnamon butter and cowboy chili beans with a bit of bite. I'm not exactly sure what makes pecan pie and sweet potato pie Western sweets, but I'm not going to complain. These two homemade desserts are wonderful, numbingly rich and intense. There's also a tempting mud pie, bathed in lots of caramel and fudge sauce, for diners interested in uncomplicated delights. Diamondback Steakhouse doesn't have much yee-haw frontier atmosphere--no Indian dances, no fiddle music in the dining rooms and no performing poultry. But on the whole, the experience should satisfy out-of-towners curious to get a taste of the Old West.

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