Don & Charlie's, 7501 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 990-0900. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.
I strongly suspect that we live in a world teetering on the edge of breakdown. Every day, it seems, I run across disturbing indications that incompetence and unreliability have joined death and taxes as part of life's inevitabilities.
My kid's English teacher sends home notices filled with misspellings. I arrange to take a morning off so I can be home when the garage-door company schedules a repair job. But the guy never shows up. The insurance company sends important information to an address I haven't lived at since 1978. Frankly, I'm beginning to think that if people were responsible for the Earth's rotation, our planet would stop spinning on its axis in about 24 hours.
Have we entered a reign of error? Has life conditioned us to expect someone to foul things up and let us down at every turn?
On second thought, perhaps it's not quite as bad as all that. At both Don & Charlie's and Chops, I saw solid evidence that human fallibility is not as universal as I feared. Both of these popular chop houses, which feature steak, seafood and prime rib, perform their culinary chores skillfully, professionally and dependably.
I may be the last person in town to realize just how marvelous Don & Charlie's is. My only prior experience here had been at happy hour. In years past, the proprietor offered one of this town's great happy-hour spreads--a huge variety of first-rate grub, all free, too. But he had to pull the plug after the snowbird-Winnebago crowd took advantage of his largess. These blue-haired matrons and their nickel-squeezing spouses would descend on the parking lot a half-hour before the 4:30 bell, swarm like locusts over the groaning buffet tables the moment the doors opened and then order an iced tea with two straws. No wonder management cried, "Enough!"
But judging from the crowds I saw here recently, the move didn't hurt business. I guess that's because just about everything at Don & Charlie's is worth paying for.
That includes the decor. Don & Charlie's is a shrine to sports in general, and baseball in particular. Gape at a wall case of neatly lined baseballs, signed by such legends as Feller, Di Maggio, Koufax and Banks. Stare at the uniforms of Will Clark and Robin Yount hanging from the rafters, or the autographed photo of Pete Rose on the wall. And while you're waiting for a table, you can buy a copy of Baseball Weekly from the rack outside the front door and check on your favorite team.
The food is also worth gaping over. Moments after you're seated at a linen-draped table, you'll receive a mound of chopped liver that would do my mother proud. It's accompanied by marinated red pepper and chopped onions, along with a basket of crusty, deli-perfect rye bread (from Karsh's Bakery, I was told), lahvosh cracker and bagel crisps.
Since meals also come with soup or salad, you'd think appetizers would be superfluous. And, at least physiologically, they are. But they're also quite tasty. The jumbo pile of onion strings is fresh, crunchy, a bit greasy and wholly addicting. Shrimp de Jonghe, meanwhile, brings five meaty shrimp crusted with crushed lahvosh cracker, submerged in a puddle of butter.
The kitchen obviously takes more than a cursory interest in its soups. Split pea was the featured broth one evening, and it was flavorfully embellished with smoked sausage and croutons. Another visit showcased a refreshing gazpacho. And the generous salads--choose either a plateful of greenery or a bowl of coleslaw--will put a severe dent in even a hungry athlete's appetite.
But it's the main dishes that put Don & Charlie's in the top rank of the Valley meat league. The menu says that the 16-ounce New York sirloin is prime beef. I believe it. This tender slab, enhanced by a gorgeous grilled crust, rivals anything you can get elsewhere. The prime rib is just about as dazzling. It's not too fatty and packs a juicy, beefy punch. (And if you're like me, you'll want to scoop up the juices with a spoon.)
Three double-thick lamb chops are a he-man alternative. They're just a tad gristlier than optimal, but after a bit of trimming they're gnawingly good. Even the fresh fish daily special is outstanding. The kitchen knows what to do with swordfish, grilling it to moist perfection, then drizzling on a kicky caper-basil vinaigrette.
Oddly enough, Don & Charlie's signature entree--barbecued baby back ribs--is nothing special. These bones are perfectly serviceable, but not especially memorable. They lacked smoky vigor, and the barbecue sauce also seemed a little too tame.
Good chop houses traditionally pride themselves on good side dishes, and Don & Charlie's upholds that tradition. The au gratin potatoes, double-baked potato and thick-cut steak fries all perform admirably. And you don't have to worry about whatever nutrients originally resided in the creamed spinach. They've all disappeared forever under an avalanche of butter and cheese. Desserts are as effective as the rest of the meal. As you might suspect, there's nothing dainty about them. Skoog pie is a candylike confection held together with dark chocolate, caramel and pecans. A little goes a very long way. The deep-dish apple cobbler is only marginally lighter, and not as tasty. Honors go to the house creme brulee (the menu even has the accent marks right): rich, creamy custard enfolding chocolate-covered banana, all glazed with a caramelized sugar crust. Share it--you may have trouble standing up if you hoard this treat for yourself.
Serious carnivores can confidently step up to the plate at Don & Charlie's. With fare this good, it's impossible to strike out.
Chops, 1371 North Alma School, Chandler, 899-6735. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.
The clientele at Chops isn't going to be awed by anything as glitzy as Don & Charlie's collection of sports memorabilia. What will strike it is Chops' retro look. Even though this place is only about five years old, the blueprints seem to have come from the 1970s.
Check out the dark wood paneling, the dim lighting, the plush booths separated by etched glass, brick walls and hanging, green-shaded lamps. High shelves hold pots of fake greenery, rows of books, old clocks and brass instruments. About the only missing 1970s touch was disco background music.
The menu is also rooted in time. But dated appetizers like potato skins, a brick of onion rings and garlic cheese toast evidently still appeal to East Valley diners who crowd the restaurant. So do the unfussy entrees of beef, pork and chicken. One nice '90s touch: a daily listing of several fresh fish specials.
Chops is clearly not going to wow anyone with novelty. But no one will complain about the thoroughly professional way it dishes out the old standards.
This kind of place practically cries out for you to order a deep-fried, finger-food munchie. And the fresh, battered slices of zucchini make it easy to yield to temptation, especially once you've dipped them in the creamy garlic sauce.
If this were the 1970s, at this point you'd be wandering over to the salad bar. But this is the 1990s--now, the salad bar comes wandering over to you.
Meals all come with a family-size bowl of greenery, doused with a pleasant house raspberry vinaigrette. It's accompanied by five little cups of add-ons: teeny shrimp, bacon bits, shredded Cheddar cheese, grated Parmesan cheese and scallions. The idea is that you mix and match to suit your own taste. It's shtick, of course, but it's innocuous shtick.
In contrast, Chops keeps main dishes as straightforward as possible. And why not? The customers here don't want their meat adorned with chipotle cream sauce or topped with a shiitake mushroom demi-glace. And Chops delivers the high-quality animal protein they're looking for.
The beef is graded choice, not prime, but there's nothing second-rate about it. The filet mignon is wonderfully tender, soft enough to gum. The peppered top sirloin is a little on the dry side, but it lacks nothing in the taste department. Coated with olive oil, crusted with cracked peppercorns and grilled over mesquite, it should satisfy most beefy yearnings. The herb-basted prime rib, though, gets top bovine honors. It's a juicy, almost gristle-free slab packed with beefy flavors. One bonus: To accommodate daintier appetites, most of the beef dishes can be ordered in smaller cuts.
Barbecued ribs also merit serious consideration. They're surprisingly good--smoky, meaty and nicely charred--brushed with a barbecue sauce that doesn't get in the way.
Salmon Wellington is about as wild as the kitchen gets. It's well-fashioned: a big portion of moist, flaky salmon teamed with spinach and mushrooms, seasoned with dill and baked in a light puff pastry. The $13.95 tag makes this dish even easier to swallow. However, the bland mesquite-grilled shrimp, eight medium-size specimens floating in butter, seems aimed at the one member of the group who simply can't be pleased by anything else on the menu.
I'm sure it's both simpler and more cost-effective to contract out for desserts, but perhaps Chops should rethink that policy. The prefab-looking sweets taste perfectly fine (especially the carrot cake), but they send diners a message that the restaurant doesn't attach much importance to this course. And if that's the case, why should we stick around for it?
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These days, just about every neighborhood in Maricopa County is saturated with look-alike steak restaurant chains serving look-alike fare. At Chops, though, you get the feeling that somebody besides marketers and accountants is running the operation. And if you're an East Valley meat lover, that's a good feeling.
Don & Charlie's:
New York sirloin