Lakeshore Restaurant, 14011 North Bush Highway, at Saguaro Lake, 984-5311. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Wednesday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Weekends aren't what they used to be. Once, folks used Saturdays and Sundays to relax, kick back and recharge their batteries. Not anymore. Now it seems like we spend most of our time off taking care of all the chores and errands we don't have time for between Monday and Friday. By the time my wife and I have restocked the empty refrigerator, chauffeured the kids to their soccer games, waded into Home Depot for house-repair supplies and halfheartedly pushed the vacuum cleaner around, the prospect of going back to work on Monday almost seems like a relief. A couple of weekends ago, we changed the pattern. Instead of responsibly discharging our obligations as homeowners and parents, we got in the car for an hour's leisurely drive and headed to the outskirts of town. Our goal: some adult conversation and diverting scenery on the way, topped off by a good meal at the end of the road.
The trip out to Lakeshore Restaurant ("Arizona's best-kept secret," according to the staff's tee shirts) is enough to make you weep with both anger and joy. Almost the entire length of Shea Boulevard to Fountain Hills is pocked with horrid developments. It won't be long, I predict, until the roadway is lined with fast-food joints and a Wal-Mart. But after you turn north on the Beeline and then east on Bush Highway to Saguaro Lake, your spirits will be refreshed. And they'll practically soar when you sit down on Lakeshore Restaurant's patio. That's because if you come before the temperature drops (there are no heaters), about an hour or two before sunset, you'll gaze on a vividly blue lake, framed by majestic, rocky cliffs dotted with saguaros, all bathed in surreal twilight. The Desert Belle, an old-fashioned paddle-wheel boat, rests just below the restaurant at the foot of the marina, providing another picture-postcard touch. While you can get the usual assortment of burgers, sandwiches and salads, Lakeshore Restaurant also offers meals that suggest somebody in the kitchen wants you to talk about something besides the view. Unfortunately, the restaurant decor doesn't match either the splendor of the surroundings or the quality of the food. The patio features bare-bones metal chairs bolted to the tables. The inside room is no more elegant. Maybe with reason--be prepared to dine alongside people who've been handling motor oil and live bait for the past several hours. And the gum-chewing, "How ya doin', hon?" service, though friendly and efficient, also jars with the scenery.
Happily, management isn't nearly as casual about preparing the food as it is about the setting it's served in. But don't look for anything on the menu to be remotely trendy, innovative or accompanied by a grams-of-fat or sodium-per-serving analysis. Take the appetizers. The operative word here is "fried"--chicken fingers, potato skins, nachos. But these munchies are also fresh and tasty. The jalitos, breaded jalape¤os stuffed with "krab" (not crab, as the menu misleadingly says), are perfect with a cold brew. Mozzarella sticks won't win any originality awards, but the chunky marinara sauce you dip them into showed some flair. The house dinner salad suggests a certain amount of culinary schizophrenia. It's mostly just nothing-special iceberg lettuce. But you can douse it with a terrific homemade raspberry-walnut vinaigrette that begs to embellish a more sophisticated pile of greenery. Imagine wearing a cummerbund with your sweat pants, and you'll get the idea about the salad. Main dishes, all in the $12 to $15 range, tilt heavily toward ocean fare--halibut, swordfish, salmon, orange roughy, mahimahi, red snapper. But one choice, according to our waitress, comes right out of Saguaro Lake. That's the filleted walleye pike, something different that you're unlikely to encounter on fish-restaurant menus in this town. Pan-fried and lightly breaded and seasoned, it's mild-flavored, without the "fishy" aroma that many people find off-putting. There's no stinting on portion size, either. Tasty new potatoes make an admirable accompaniment. The garlic shrimp is just as successful. At least a dozen medium-size critters come heaped over a mound of pasta, drowned in heart-stopping amounts of butter and garlic.
But when I come back again, it won't be for the fish. It will be for the outstanding baby-back pork ribs, a full rack that flops out over both sides of the plate. The ribs are meaty, delicately charred and soft enough to gum. They're coated with a smoky, not-too-snappy sauce that doesn't interfere with gnawing pleasure. Try them with the side dish of garlic mashed potatoes. Sometimes, however, the kitchen gets careless. I don't know if my blackened yellow-fin tuna was chewy and rubbery because it had been frozen or because it had been left on the flames too long. Whatever the explanation, the only creature that derived any pleasure from it was my none-too-picky cat.
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Desserts are strictly of the icky-gooey variety. If all you need to make you happy is a great view and a brownie sundae or an ice cream cookie sandwich, this is the place. Splitting the strawberry shortcake and lingering over coffee is a somewhat more adult option. Lakeshore Restaurant proves that a million-dollar restaurant setting doesn't necessarily require tuxedoed servers, flaming desserts and a wine list the size of the Yellow Pages. And to enjoy it, you don't need much more than a few spare hours, a pair of blue jeans and an urge to drive. Rock Springs Cafe, I-17, Exit 242, Rock Springs, 374-5794. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
We pass Rock Springs Cafe every time we take a trip along I-17. But we never stop. That's because it's only an hour from home--too soon to stop on the way north, too close to the barn to stop on the way back. Big mistake. It's charming, in a roughhewn, old-fashioned sort of way. The restaurant has two big rooms, with a genuine frontier feel: rifles mounted over fireplaces, ornate mirrors, tin ceiling, brick and wood walls hung with photos of another era, shelves lined with old utensils and lace curtains over the windows. A 70-year-old general store attached to the restaurant furnishes another authentic note. Rock Springs Cafe feeds two kinds of customers: the freeway famished, and picturesque locals who keep their caps and cowboy hats on while they eat. They all get solid, unpretentious fare served with down-home friendliness. If you're eager to get a taste of the Old West, you could start off with Bradshaw Mountain oysters. "Have a ball," the menu slyly urges, referring to this local variation of Rocky Mountain oysters--deep-fat-fried lamb and calf testicles. (Fans of Rocky Mountain oysters can fill up on the critters the last Saturday of every month here, when there's an all-you-can-eat "Testicle Festival" from 1 to 8 p.m.)
Whatever you order as an appetizer, you can depend on its being breaded and deep-fat fried. In a halfhearted nod to the surgeon general and the nutritional pyramid, the menu puts a "happy heart" next to a couple of sandwiches and a fish dinner, "for those who are watching cholesterol, sodium and calorie intake." Who does the restaurant think it's fooling? The folks crowding this place aren't here for a turkey sandwich or a green, leafy salad. They're here for the half-slab of ribs, priced at a friendly $8.95. These are excellent bones, hefty, tender critters slathered with a Tennessee barbecue sauce packing a hot and vinegary bite. Slightly sweet cowboy beans and coleslaw that hasn't been drowned in mayo round out this hearty platter. After a couple of bites of the chili cheeseburger, the phrase "Be still, my beating heart" may come to mind, for a couple of reasons. It's a big, juicy patty, drenched with chili, cheese and onions, with a beefy kick. I wish the same attention to quality had been applied to the dismal French fries alongside. Chicken-fried steak is another filling option that should stave off freeway hunger pangs. Although not quite as fork-tender as the best models I've had, I enjoyed the crisp breading and ladle of peppery country gravy that smothered it. The side of mashed potatoes, though, lacked the texture of fresh spuds. And unfortunately, the kitchen steamed the one bit of greenery we encountered, broccoli, until it had all the crispy crunch of a chocolate eclair.
I've gotten extremely leery of cheap steaks. They're invariably dried out, gristly and tough. (Paying big bucks for steak is no assurance of quality. But a small tag usually guarantees a lack of it.) The meat here, an eight-ounce top sirloin served open-faced on thick toast, turned out to be surprisingly edible, reasonably soft and not fatty. Desserts are what really turn Rock Springs Cafe from just another roadside diner into a dinner destination. The pies won a Best of Phoenix a few years ago, and they haven't lost any of their power. Rhubarb sports a tart zing, and blackberry pie tastes like fruit, not sugar. The German chocolate is rich and thick with pecans. My favorite is the Tennessee lemon pie, with its buttery crust and tangy lemon custard filling. Rock Springs Cafe may not look like much when you're whizzing by at 65 mph. But you may find it's not a bad idea to take a break from driving: Sometimes, you have to stop and smell the chili cheeseburgers and pies.