STEAK 'N' IDENTITY
Texaz Grill, 6003 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 248-7827. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.
What's in a name? Plenty.
Yes, it's true that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. But unless you want to get cited for trademark infringement, you'd better make sure that you don't create a new flower variety and name it the Lone Star blossom.
That's because the words "Lone Star" have become fighting words in these parts. Back in 1985, a couple of entrepreneurs opened a north-central Phoenix cowboy steak parlor and called it Lone Star Steaks. But a Midwestern steak-house chain sporting the name Lone Star Cafe had the smarts to register the moniker with the feds. And when the company swaggered into the Valley a few months ago, its operators quickly determined that this town wasn't big enough for two Lone Stars. Threatening legal action, it demanded that Lone Star Steaks change its name.
So Lone Star Steaks now does business as Texaz Grill, while the chain gang holds on to the Lone Star name.
What's in a name when it comes to steaks? I checked out Texaz Grill and Lone Star Cafe to see what the beef was all about.
Texaz Grill oozes with friendly, down-home charm, despite being furnished with staggering, Texas-style excess. I figure this is how Ross Perot might decorate his house if he were single and earning $25,000 a year. Every square inch of this place seems to be covered with license plates, caps, advertising signs or a celebrity sketch. A full range of condiments--steak sauce, ketchup, mustard, hot peppers and honey--supplies the table decoration. Meanwhile, a jukebox loaded with 200 nonstop country hits massages customer eardrums.
Diners have to work past several consumer-unfriendly touches before they come face to face with the food. Parking is horrendous. Nor does Texaz Grill take reservations for groups of fewer than six. If you can't round up at least five friends at prime dining hours, you'd better come armed with a book or some interesting conversation to pass the time. (Watching new arrivals circle the tiny parking lot hunting for a space is another entertaining alternative.) And if you're sensitive to secondhand smoke, Texaz Grill may seem like the dining room from Hell--there's no nonsmoking section.
On the other hand, once you've actually found a parking spot, heard your name called and had the good fortune to be seated in an oxygen zone, your problems are over. Get ready for good food, swift service and reasonable prices.
I was surprised Texaz Grill doesn't offer any munchies to complement the cold Texas brews (Lone Star and Celis). They'd be a source of sure-fire profits, I'm certain. After a 40-minute Friday-night wait, I know our group was hungry enough to gnaw on the wings of a live chicken.
But our waitress assured us that the kitchen would speedily deliver nourishment, and, happily, she was right.
First out are salads, which come with all dinners. The ample plateful of greenery is strictly routine, but we made short work of the outstanding biscuits that accompanied it. Why management even bothers offering dismal whole-wheat rolls in the same breadbasket is a mystery.
There's nothing mysterious about the straightforward menu. Except for a catfish plate, chicken kebab and chicken-fried chicken, Texaz Grill deals in beef.
If you're thinking about converting to vegetarianism tomorrow, consider making your farewell to animal protein with the Texaz T-bone tonight. It's 16 cholesterol-packed ounces, full of beefy juices and flavor.
At eight ounces, the filet mignon doesn't have the sheer bulk of the T-bone. But for steak lovers who prize tenderness, it's the best option. The model here comes expertly cooked, and is buttery enough to give your jaws the night off.
The 12-ounce rib eye can't compete with prime-grade rib eyes that I've had at Ruth's Chris and Morton's. Texaz Grill, like most restaurants, uses choice beef, and you don't need a trained palate to taste the difference between the two grades.
But the appropriate comparison isn't with pricey steak houses--after all, their steaks cost about twice as much as Texaz Grill's. Compared to other steak houses in the same class, its $11.95 rib eye is about as good as it gets.
However, I got the most pleasure out of one of the least-expensive platters. Texaz Grill's man-size chicken-fried steak is simply wonderful--fork-tender meat encased in crisp, puffy batter, moistened with a ladleful of thick, peppery gravy. Eat this at lunch, and your co-workers will be nudging you awake all afternoon.
The side dishes are good enough to distract you from the beef. Honest-to-God mashed potatoes, with pieces of skin blended in, are how the West was won. Wedges of crunchy potatoes furnish similar spudly delight. And for $1.60 more, you can gild your steaks with saut‚ed mushrooms, served in a coffee mug.
Following up steak dinners with rich sweets may not be nutritionally correct, but it is primally satisfying. Texaz Grill serves up two homemade crowd-pleasers: a dense bread pudding, drizzled with a hard-hitting whiskey sauce, and a pecan pie that my Southern-born mother-in-law would be proud to claim as her own.
High-value meals and genuine neighborhood warmth turn Texaz Grill into a destination country-cowboy steak house even if you don't live in the neighborhood. No bum steers here.
Lone Star Cafe, 1743 Camelback (Colonnade), Phoenix, 265-7827. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Lone Star Cafe is yet another giant copycat steak-house chain without a molecule of originality or charm.
Steak houses are the fastest-growing segment in the restaurant industry today. Analysts say it's because of our pathological relationship with food. Americans spend so much time ruminating over every ingestible morsel that we feel we "deserve" an occasional binge. And what we want to binge on are belly-busting slabs of meat.
Over the past few years, we've become more and more schizoid about what we eat. We're obsessed with looking lean, but are porkier than ever. We're obsessed with fat grams, calories and cholesterol, but are consuming as many of them as ever. Now, no one is suggesting that the entrepreneurs behind chain steak houses cooked up this national neurosis. But they certainly have been savvy enough to cash in on it.
So hundreds of cities across America, including ours, have been invaded by Outback Steakhouse, a Florida chain that offers steak in a pseudo-Australian setting. We have Buffalo Ranch Steak House, part of the Sizzler operation out of Southern California, which dishes out steak in a pseudo-Western setting. And now, the Valley has Lone Star Cafe, a Kansas-based corporation trying to strike restaurant gold serving steak in a pseudo-Texas setting.
Everything here is as calculated as Operation Desert Storm. We've seen it all before: the twice-an-hour employee country-music line dance; the cow skulls and moose heads on the wall; the peanut shells on the floor; the woodsy interior; the bread loaf served on a cutting board; the perky young staffers; and the oversize portions of food that confuse quantity with value.
Apparently, though, Lone Star is giving the public just what it craves--this place has been packed since day one.
Check out the starter called Amarillo Cheese Fries. It's a none-too-subtle mound of mushy fries, big enough to conceal an armadillo, glopped with breathtaking amounts of cheese and bacon. Lest diners worry that they aren't getting the caloric binge they deserve, it comes with a bowl of ranch dressing for dipping. If you like this sort of thing, you probably fit the Lone Star Cafe customer demographic. (However, you probably don't fit into much else.)
Naturally, meals are preceded by salad, enabling diners to imagine for the moment that they're keeping their nutritional virtue. The greenery here is good enough, but the dark bread that accompanies it isn't. Our loaf was way past its prime.
As you might expect, Lone Star does a thoroughly reliable job with its beef. And I'm happy to report that all the steaks were cooked exactly to specs, too. But, after all, if there's one thing the proprietors know, it's economics. They're aware that there's no shortage of steak-house competition.
The massive 20-ounce T-bone should satisfy any yearnings for animal protein. The one-pound Texas rib eye is a best bet: juicy, well-marbled, with none of that mushy, stringy texture that betrays inferior models. The bacon-wrapped filet mignon is somewhat less interesting, more tender than the other cuts, but not nearly as beefily flavorful.
Lone Star makes a few concessions to nonbeefeaters, but none that will set any pulses racing. Innocuous baby back ribs are not terribly meaty, and they get no zip whatsoever from a corporately flaccid barbecue sauce. And why anyone would come here and order a $14 salmon fillet overpowered by a sweet glaze is beyond my comprehension.
Side dishes emphasize bulk, not taste. Sweet potato sounds like a good idea, but Lone Star's spud was obviously bred for heft, not flavor. I guess that's why it comes with a bowl of brown sugar. Steak fries won't make you think there's a squad of potato peelers back in the kitchen. And the dull "Texas" rice was an underheated snooze.
Lone Star Cafe didn't get to be a national powerhouse by taking any culinary chances. And it doesn't pretend to. The steaks are decent enough. The other stuff? No worse than that of its chain rivals. Meanwhile, the customers are satisfied. People have jobs. The company's making money. Isn't everyone happy?
I'm sure this Lone Star Cafe branch meets all Wichita home-office standards. But that's not hard when your standard is don't-rock-the-boat, do-what-everyone-else-does mediocrity.
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