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GRUB BAG

Most people think my ever-faithful dining accomplice Goat earned his nickname because he will eat anything. This is not true. For instance, on a recent pre-Fourth of July expedition in search of cowboy steak, Goat scorns the endorsements of James Garner, Cybill Shepherd, and Michael Cooper, and orders chicken.

How, then, did he acquire the nickname "Goat"?
Well, that's another story. This story is about our search for flame-licked red meat, a quest which takes us far and wide.

By far, the farthest, and maybe even the widest, restaurant we visit is the Mining Camp Restaurant in Apache Junction. Nestled at the base of the awesome and spooky Superstition Mountains, the ponderosa pine structure imitates the look and feel of an authentic cook shanty from the last century's mining camps.

While this place packs 'em in during the winter-visitor season, it's not too crowded the sultry June night we journey out. Most of the folks inside have finished eating. They cruise the gift shop for cactus pins and other take-home treasures.

We have business to conduct in the gift shop, too. At the Mining Camp, you buy "tickets" for your meal there before entering the dining room. The choices are limited. We buy one adult All-You-Can-Eat for Goat and one ten-ounce rib eye steak for me. Tickets in hand, we proceed toward the dining room. Goat is perceptive as usual when he notes, "It's like boarding a ride." Let me interject a warning here. If you have unpleasant memories of summer camp, the Mining Camp may not be the restaurant for you. The pine-paneled dining room contains six long, varnished-pine tables. Metal cups, plates, mugs and silverware mark twenty place settings at each. Within minutes--in the off-season--you will be sitting at one of them.

Naturally, food is served "family style." On a crowded night, we'd be dining with strangers. But not tonight. Just three other parties occupy the dining room, so we are seated alone at the end of a table. Our waitress asks us what we'd like to drink. Our choices are coffee, iced tea, milk or water. We choose water. She shrugs, collects our meal tickets and heads for the kitchen. A pitcher of water is already on the table.

One of the other, more conspicuous tables is occupied by a group of crew-cut college boys. They are loud, bordering on the rude. One of them has a laugh as annoying and distinctive as Frank Gorshin's "Riddler" character on the classic Batman TV series. I wish I could reproduce it here in print, but I'm sure you can imagine how awful it sounds. And let me tell you, these boys laugh a lot when not snarfling all-you-can-eat grub.

Our waitress brings us some bandanna-covered sourdough rolls, a tub of whipped butter substance and jam, a metal bucket o' beans and a square tin of coleslaw. She asks me how I'd like my steak cooked and I tell her medium rare. She disappears back into the kitchen. We begin sampling.

The beans are piping hot and brown-sugar sweet. The waitress tells me later the beans themselves arrive in cans, but the flavoring is prepared by the cook. "It's the same barbecue sauce as on our ribs," she boasts. Both Goat and I like them, though I suspect they are store-bought.

The rolls have a long way to go before I'd call them sourdough. Or even rolls. They are large and textured like Wonder Bread. Some are white, but certainly not sourdough, the others are cinnamon-raisin. The whipped butter substance overpowers whatever flavor these baked goods really have.

The coleslaw suffers from lack of definition. It is simply shredded cabbage and mayonnaise. It's not noxious, just plain.

In the corner of the rustic room, a miner sings and plays guitar. He's got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle and an okay voice. The college boys find him hysterical. While he renders his version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky," one of them intones "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors. Jim Morrison is indeed a ghost and the juxtaposition of these two songs comical, but I find the college-boy mentality tiresome. Fortunately our miner entertainer is more mature than they and handles their comments good-naturedly.

The rib eye steak arrives au jus on an oval metal platter. "I hope I don't spill it on you," says our waitress. So do I! Later I wonder why there is juice anyway. It's supposed to be charbroiled steak.

It's also supposed to be medium rare. Instead, it is solidly gray. Well-done is what I'd call it. Our waitress offers to have the cook prepare another steak for me, but I don't want one. With this quality of meat, the fuss isn't worth it. I eat what I can and leave the rest. Any way you cook it, it is not a very good steak.  

Goat's all-you-can-eat platter is obscenely huge. It consists of towering mounds of roast chicken covered with pale-yellow chicken gravy, roast beef with brown gravy and a row of barbecued ribs. Both the steak and all-you-can-eat platter come with roasted potatoes; mine are cool.

Surprisingly, given the steak, the chicken and ribs are decent. The chicken is tender and fresh flavored and piled on top of stuffing made from the cinnamon bread. The ribs are, like the Who album of the same name, "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy"--smoky, meaty, tender and gloppy with sauce.

Sadly, the so-called "big juicy slices of sirloin beef roast" are gray, thin and tough. They taste like the roast beef you get at camp, which is to say, like some kind of universal generic "meat." Canned green beans with tomato and ham are equally dreary.

The college boys' giggles slow as their bellies fill. Every now and then we hear them use an expression which I feel compelled to mention, as it involves a New Times colleague. "Are you doin' a Cap'n Dave?" one crew cut asks of another. Just what this means, I'm not sure. Write if you know. Our meal concludes with a platter of six homemade chocolate chip cookies. These are pretty good. I eat two on the spot. Goat eats one, and we wrap up the rest for the long drive back to Phoenix.

The Mining Camp is a good bet for people who thrive on all-you-can-eat deals. Neither Goat nor I am a winner at these things, burdened as we are with finite capacities. On the whole, the food is mediocre. I would not recommend making the drive for a steak--there are plenty of places to find better ones. Still, dinner at the Mining Camp is an interesting experience. Most assuredly it is one that will remain popular with Arizona visitors.

And hungry college boys.

It's hot as hell and there's a dust storm on the horizon, but the parking lot at Rawhide Steakhouse is packed anyway. Though I've driven by it millions of times, I admit I've never been there until now. I guess that means my out-of-town visitors just aren't steak-eating folks.

To my surprise, I like Rawhide. It's off-season and the ghost-town setting has an even more ghostly feel to it this night. Sure, the carny/cowboy/hawkers are yelling things in the street, but they're not too annoying. Goat and I make our way to the large Steakhouse dining room relatively unscathed.

We're seated quickly in a booth with a blue-checked tablecloth and linen napkins. Lots of families on vacation occupy the large tables nearby. I can tell from their attire: shorts, tattoos and tie-dye. Oh, and cameras. Video, Kodak Instamatic and 35mm Japanese. Cameras are snapping right and left.

In our booth, Goat and I are somewhat insulated from all of this. As you can imagine, that's okay by us. Our waitress, who looks like a plump Debra Winger, takes our drink order for sarsaparillas. She leaves us to study our menus, printed on newsprint to resemble a souvenir newspaper.

This is where Goat proves his lack of discrimination. When our waitress returns, I order the sixteen-ounce T-bone Cowboy steak; Goat orders Belle's Fried Chicken. On the drive up, he'd asked me if he had to order a steak. Of course not, I told him. I'm pretty lenient about these things.

A scruffy country band mounts the stage just as our bowls of tossed salad arrive. I have a feeling these guys are being paid to look grizzly. Our salads are pretty ordinary. The blue cheese dressing tastes a bit watered down, but the ingredients are fresher than I'd expected. I appreciate the band's low volume. We're sitting awfully close.

With our salads, our waitress delivers some saltines. Curiously, minutes later, just after I've offered them to Goat, she returns to ask, "You want these crackers?" At first I think I've heard her wrong. Holding the basket of crackers in her hand, she repeats, "You want these?" Flabbergasted, we mumble no. She takes them to a nearby table and deposits them. "Use it or lose it at Rawhide," Goat observes. How odd!

As at many restaurants catering to hungry tourists, service is highly efficient at Rawhide. Without exactly rushing you, there is no lag time between courses. We finish our salads, the plates are cleared and here comes our waitress with our dinners.

My mesquite-broiled T-bone is very good. Grill-striped, it is perfectly pink, juicy and easy to cut. I like the big bowl of smoky cowboy beans best of all the go-withs. The austerity of "just" pinto beans makes them seem authentic. Texas toast smeared with orange liquid is forgettable; a corn "cobbette" is mealy and mushy.  

Belle's fried chicken is wonderful. It has a real old-fashioned, homemade quality to it. I like it, and so does Goat. The skin is nicely crisp-fried and free of augmentation from corn flakes and other batter additives. The meat is flavorful and melts in the mouth like butter.

A side of green beans is light-years better than the Mining Camp's. These are fresh and green, but cooked a tad too long. Although they've lost their crunchiness, they're not thoroughly overcooked, either. No sooner have we polished off this feast than our waitress wings it over to ask us if we'd like dessert. We admit we would. We go with the cherry and apple pie, both a la mode with cinnamon-swirl ice cream.

The pies allegedly are baked on the premises, but prove unspectacular. The cherries in the cherry pie are missing in action. Cinnamon-swirl ice cream, on the other hand, is pretty good.

Our check comes promptly. We pay it and wander outside. I'm immediately drawn to the petting zoo. While Goat communes with his cloven-hoofed namesakes, I can't resist feeding some baby pigs a bottle full of formula for 50 cents. They empty the bottle in seconds, rip the rubber nipple off--and the squealing! Now I know why they're called pigs.

But you still don't know why Goat is called Goat. And I'm not going to tell you--not in this story, anyway. As for Rawhide, I have to say I enjoyed my experience. It was painless, the steak and chicken both were good, and I got to feed some pigs.

Mining Camp Restaurant, north off Highway 88, Apache Junction, 982-3181. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m.

Rawhide Steakhouse, 23023 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 563-5600. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

The ribs are, like the Who album of the same name, "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy"--smoky, meaty, tender and gloppy with sauce.

The austerity of "just" pinto beans makes them seem authentic.

HAUNTED BY A LANDFILL... v6-27-90


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