Wagon Yard Steakhouse, 2625 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 992-6860. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. January, in the Valley of the Sun: Snowbirds, in recreational vehicles large enough to have their own zip code, drive 20 mph below the speed limit in the left lane, while the right blinker flashes.
Movies that opened six months ago in New York and Los Angeles arrive on local screens.
And winter freeloaders from colder climes park themselves in my home, sporting the appetites of Midwestern grasshoppers in the plague phase of their 17-year cycle. My refrigerator looks like Sarajevo, the pantry like Beirut.
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These visitors always want "a taste of the West." So far, I've managed to control the urge to pack them some sandwiches and point out the Donner Party's trail.
Instead, I shepherd them to cowboy steak houses. The Valley has two types. The first is the good-time tourist haunt: sawdust on the floor, Indian dancers and lots of yee-hawin'. The closest the patrons come to "tasting" Western life is when they pour ranch dressing on their salads. Wagon Yard represents the second type of cowboy establishment. It's a Western steak house and saloon with a gritty, neighborhood feel. The clientele here--clustering around the bar, dancing to country-western music or shooting pool in the back--doesn't wear cowboy garb because GQ declares it fashionable. First-time patrons who dab of a bit of Chaps cologne behind the ears, display a neatly tied neckerchief and look for Village People tunes on the jukebox are definitely not going to impress too many Wagon Yard regulars.
But everyone, I suspect, will be impressed by the fare. Like a lot of restaurants, Wagon Yard is way too dark. But darkness does have its compensations--what I could see doesn't look like much. There's a battered-brick-and-worn-wood interior, the requisite rusted ranch tools hanging on the walls and pictures of NFL helmets and logos strung across the room. I confess, however, to getting a kick going through the swinging-saloon-door entrance.
I got a kick out of the food, too. It's genuinely tasty, and served by genuinely affable folks. Appetizers are the usual breaded and fried specimens, but at least they're hot, crispy and relatively greaseless. Mozzarella sticks, battered mushrooms and onion rings may not meet the rigid specifications of your new year's diet, but if you're like me, that temporary bit of self-discipline is probably ancient history by now, anyway. The salad bar, which accompanies all meals, has lots of low-fat, intestine-cleansing veggies. Unfortunately, they were pretty much inedible the night we sampled them, because someone set the unit's temperature gauge to "Greenland." Once thawed, however, the coleslaw did exhibit potential. But who goes to a cowboy steak house for appetizers and salad-bar munchies? Meat is the lure, and Wagon Yard serves up heaping, first-rate slabs of cholesterol that left us pretty much hooked. The one-pound, mesquite-grilled T-bone tasted tender enough to be graded prime. This cut is not always the easiest to chew, but the version here seemed especially soft and juicy. And at the same time, it packed T-bone's traditional beefy heft. Good thing, too, that the T-bone didn't require much cutlery power. The silverware here is pretty chintzy--my fork more or less bent under the weight of a French fry. But it had no difficulty dealing with the superb, eight-ounce fillet. This gorgeous hunk of tenderloin was all meat, not a speck of untrimmed fat. The kitchen got it cooked right at medium-rare perfection, and the result was a moist, satisfying fix of animal protein, at a not-unreasonable $13.99. Maybe the kitchen has different cooks keeping an eye on the beef and pork. The two substantial, thick-cut pork chops had to be returned for further grilling--their centers were almost raw. When they returned properly cooked, though, happiness was restored. And the bargain $8.99 price for about a pound of pork helped compound the pleasure. The least exciting entrees featured chicken and ribs. Neither is in the class of the steaks and chops. Nondescript, nonthreatening barbecue sauce keeps them tethered to mediocrity. When it comes time to tell your server what kind of potato you want to accompany your meal, don't hesitate. Go right for the huge helping of luscious mashed potatoes, bathed in a delightful, peppery country gravy. Maybe those Midwesterners with their meat-and-potato yearnings are onto something--steak and spuds can be a mighty fine combination. Desserts don't stray far from the well-traveled sweets trail. The hot, deep-dish apple pie is homemade, and tastes it. But it needs a better brand of vanilla ice cream to ride shotgun. The cheesecake isn't worth the calories. In the restaurant trade, it's pretty common to see owners touting their place as "World's Best." In a commendable fit of humility, Wagon Yard's proprietors claim only that they're "Best on Bell." That's too modest. If you're looking for a nontouristy Western steak house with diners, pool players and dancers who haven't just flown in from Milwaukee, Wagon Yard is probably tops on Union Hills, Greenway, Cactus and a number of other thoroughfares, too. Rustler's Rooste, Pointe Hilton on South Mountain, 7777 South Pointe Parkway West, Phoenix, 431-6474. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. In contrast to Wagon Yard, Rustler's Rooste takes dead aim at tourists. The strongest whiff of the West comes from Horney the Bull, the restaurant's mascot, who's penned up just outside the entrance. Horney's fun to look at, but no one is likely to mistake his scent for Chanel No. 5. More unfortunately still, his aroma is a lot more powerful than the French classic, reaching across the parking lot and permeating the restaurant vestibule. Inside, the multilevel place offers the traditional cowpoke look: sawdust on the floor, wood-plank ceilings, assorted cow skulls on the wall, oilcloth-draped tables and servers in red Western shirts and jeans. From its perch atop a small hill, the restaurant soothes diners' eyes with a pleasant view of twinkling city lights below. Meanwhile, the house band massages their ears with "Margaritaville" and "Okie From Muskogee." Meals get off to a surprisingly powerful start, thanks to the wonderful breadbasket. Instead of mushy dinner rolls, servers bring piping-hot, puffy Indian fry bread and excellent biscuits. A container of honey is almost superfluous. The appetizers don't damage this favorable first impression. Really hot chicken wings, crunchy, fried mushrooms and cheese crisps take the edge off hunger without arousing any alarm bells about the fare to come. The salad, however, gave us pause--a bowl of dreaded iceberg lettuce. Maybe this is what Midwestern tourists are used to in January, but the kitchen at this tony resort can clearly do better. The main dishes, with names like "Trail Boss," "Wagonmaster" and "Tenderfoot," showcase hunks of meat. One nice menu feature is the mixed grill, which lets indecisive folks sample two items. That's the trail we took to rustle up a combo of prime rib and top sirloin steak. And we were glad we did, because these are Rustler's Rooste's two best carnivore options. The prime rib, too often a stringy, fatty mess, is first-rate here--butter-soft, juicy and correctly cooked. The sirloin couldn't quite match it in tenderness, but made up for it with a powerful beef wallop. Nothing else, though, approached these items in quality. The one-pound T-bone couldn't have come from the same steer as the prime rib or sirloin--it was way too chewy. For $15.95, tourists are entitled to a taste of the West that's easier to swallow. If pork chops were judged solely by looks, the ones here would be finalists in any swine pageant. You can see their pedigree at a glance. But the kitchen cooked them to death--dry, toughened critters that never got the chance to strut their stuff. Barbecued chicken is a bit of a misnomer. The half hen appeared barbecued only in the sense that it came coated with an unmemorable barbecue sauce--no telltale crispy skin, for example. Rather than infusing the bird, the barbecue flavor seemed only to be loitering in the neighborhood. Serviceable beef ribs, meanwhile, came up short when we measured the crucial meat-to-bone ratio. And why, oh why do cowboy places invariably dish out side orders of corn on the cob? What ranch hand ever sat around the chuck wagon in January, nibbling a mushy ear of corn that was harvested on the fourth of July? Rustler's Rooste needs to work on its bland cowboy beans, too--they're not how the West was won. But desserts are another story. As with the bread and prime rib, they show what the kitchen can do when it's not coasting on iceberg lettuce and frozen corn. The big, round mound of crumbly apple pie is scrumptious, and it comes with great homemade ice cream. The homemade bread pudding is just as powerful, and it's gilded with a yummy layer of chocolate. Both furnish strong, inexpensive incentives to linger. With a bit more care and attention to culinary detail, Rustler's Rooste would be a fun spot to bring out-of-towners, especially just before you take them to the airport for the trip home. Make sure, though, the dudes don't tread where Horney has trod. @7col:Wagon Yard Steakhouse: Appetizer sampler $4.99 T-bone steak 13.99 Chicken-and-rib combo 11.99 Apple pie 2.00 Rustler's Rooste: Appetizer combo $4.95 Prime-rib-and-steak combo 18.95 Pork chops 13.95 Apple pie and ice cream 2.50