Mining Camp Restaurant & Trading Post, 1U2 mile off Highway 88, four miles past Apache Junction, 982-3181. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Open November through May.
Every year about this time, Arizonans can count on three things: The Cardinals will be home, watching the Super Bowl; the Legislature will be in session, creating mischief; and visitors from the ice belt will be at your doorstep, demanding to experience "a taste of the West."
During my first few years as an Arizonan, I enjoyed giving my guests the Grand Tour. But now, after seven tourist seasons, my tour-guide zeal is flagging. These days, even my cat can sing the words to "Rawhide." I've seen enough "authentic Indian dances" to set up my own troupe. And I secretly root for the Clanton gang to shoot down Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral gunfight show, just as a change of pace.
After a couple of days absorbing the Old West atmosphere, my guests often yearn to dress like the sons of the pioneers. Unfortunately, after spending a fortune getting outfitted at the Scottsdale Western-wear shops, most of them still look less like the Marlboro Man and more like the cowboy in the Village People.
The "taste of the West" I'm expected to provide also extends to food. "Where can we get some down-home cowboy grub?" ask my visitors. My first impulse is to tell them, "On the next America West flight back to New York." But our Western code of hospitality checks that ungracious thought. Instead, I seek out a place where the kitchen is at home on the range, and at least a few of the other diners haven't arrived in diesel-belching tourist buses or cars with Wisconsin license plates.
One restaurant that meets the specifications: the Mining Camp Restaurant & Trading Post, a 35-year-old Apache Junction landmark. It's certainly off the beaten trail, so far out in the East Valley that you may instinctively set your watch to Central Standard Time when you pull up. Still, the ride out there is lovely, especially once you hit the stretch of Highway 88. And the restaurant itself is set right at the base of the imposing Superstition Mountains.
Inside, the Mining Camp will probably look equally imposing to your out-of-towners. You buy your meal ticket at a booth just inside the front door. Then you're directed through the gift shop (where the proprietors no doubt hope something will catch your eye) into the dining room. It features wood-plank floors, ceiling beams and rough wood walls that still have the bark on them. Farm tools, mining equipment and old photos hang on the walls. Cigar-store Indians stand sentry in the corners of the room. Electrified miners' lamps furnish light, and rows of ominously wobbling fans overhead circulate the air.
Diners sit on benches at long, heavily varnished, picnic-style wooden tables, set with metal plates, cups and tumblers, as well as a full complement of chuck wagon condiments. Make sure your party doesn't mistake the squeeze bottle of prickly pear jelly for ketchup, as we did.
The Mining Camp is not where you want to come for a secret rendezvous: You'll be sharing table space with lots of strangers. Of course, if your guests are getting on your nerves, that can be an advantage.
A wandering troubadour, guitar in hand, also makes intimate conversation difficult. You'll hear all the old favorites--"Oh Susanna," "You Are My Sunshine"--usually with enthusiastic audience participation. It's not exactly Woodstock, but in a corny way, it's fun.
As in the mining camps of old, dinners are served family-style, all-you-can-eat. And as a dining-room sign reminds you, "No food could be carried from the cook shanty of the old mining camp--the same rule applies here." Another sign reminds you that no alcohol was served, either, and that tradition also continues.
The Mining Camp cooks don't need to have their creative juices flowing when they come to work. The menu is just about the same every day: roast chicken, roast beef and barbecued beef ribs (on Sunday, the roast beef gives way to ham). You get all three.
Before the animal protein makes an appearance, the server hauls out a heap of fixings. Homemade raisin bread and sourdough rolls look tempting, but occasionally "homemade" is not synonymous with "high quality." This is one of those times. There's a tray of green coleslaw that looks like it's on its way to a St. Patrick's Day potluck. Along with food coloring, it sports a tangy vinegar snap that will make your toes pucker. You'll also get a big crock of beans, sweet and thick, that will have your out-of-towners thinking they've been transported to a prairie campfire dinner.
The Mining Camp's meats are easy to fill up on. The tender beef ribs have an adequate meat-to-fat ratio, and they're aided by a wonderful sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce that packs a potent brown-sugar/vinegar punch. The moist chicken will also benefit from a dip in the barbecue sauce. The somewhat leathery roast beef is the least interesting of the trio, and hard on the jaws, as well.
Side dishes should please your greenhorns. The big, thick wedges of roasted potatoes could have used a few extra moments in the oven, but they still have a starchy appeal. The chicken is teamed with a tasty sweet stuffing. And the bowl of green beans, seasoned with tomatoes, onions and celery, furnishes a welcome bit of greenery.
Dinner concludes with "prospector cookies," chocolate chip disks with no discernible taste. You can wash down everything with iced tea or some of the worst coffee west of the Pecos.
Nobody will mistake the grub here for gourmet fare. But the place has genuine Old West charm. There's none of the sawdust-on-the-floor, line-dancing, six-shootin' manic gaiety that afflicts most of the Valley's other tourist cowboy eating spots. At the Mining Camp, you get a taste of the West that's easy to swallow.
Plum Creek Ranch Steakhouse, 3300 South Price, Tempe, 756-2480. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to close, seven days a week.
"Please check all city slicker ways at the door. Everyone here is yur pard'. We'll entertain ya, fill yur belly and maybe even tell ya a tale or two of the old days. So 'Step Back Into the Old West,' but always watch where ya step!"
After you read the front of Plum Creek's menu, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that this is the kind of place that will leave no cowboy ranch-house cliche unturned.
Check out the clues and cues. There are peanut shells on the floor. Cow skulls and framed pictures of Indians hang on the wall. A country-western band plays "Ghost Riders in the Sky." A stuffed cowboy dummy sits at a piano. An employee in a coyote costume wanders around the room, shaking hands with the men and pretending to bite off the heads of women and children. Taking in the setting, my kid predicted the rest rooms would be labeled "Cowboys" and "Cowgirls." Bingo.
Perhaps Plum Creek's location, just outside the Mesa no-smoking border, is helping to attract a crowd. Come here at prime dinner hours and you'll have to wait for a table, especially if you want to light up. I can't imagine any other reason folks are flocking here. The food is completely unremarkable.
The appetizer list shares a common thread, and it isn't the American Heart Association's seal of approval. Scope out these offerings, and see if you can detect a pattern: deep-fried cheese sticks, deep-fried mushrooms, deep-fried okra, deep-fried onion rings, deep-fried zucchini sticks, deep-fried veggie medley, deep-fried jalapeno poppers. And it's doubtful whether the kitchen help has been breading and battering any fresh-picked produce. If taste is any indication, I think it's more likely the staff has been ripping open 25-pound bags from a warehouse freezer and dropping the contents into a vat of bubbling oil.
The bread and salad that accompany dinner don't show any more flair for creativity. Over-the-hill rolls, right out of the package, and bottled dressing poured over iceberg lettuce are unlikely to fill visiting dudes with admiration for Western gastronomy.
The featured entrees--steaks, prime rib, pork ribs--are strictly routine, almost instantly forgettable. The "Dallas Style" prime rib may tickle your memory for a few seconds. It's got a pleasant, smoky aroma, it's reasonably tender and it's coated with lots of grilled onions and peppers. However, I have a hard time recalling anything newsworthy about the two steaks I sampled, a one-pound T-bone and an eight-ounce filet. Both fill you up, but otherwise don't leave a mark. Why would anyone pay restaurant prices for beef of this indifferent quality?
The "Trail Dinner" is a total disappointment. This platter is definitely not how the West was won. It includes a quarterpound of dry, lifeless, chewy, thin-sliced smoked beef; a quarterpound of dry, lifeless, chewy, thin-sliced pork loin; and a half rack of lackluster pork ribs in a snoozy barbecue sauce that could put even a hungry insomniac to sleep.
Don't expect a boost from the potato side dishes. Both the mashed potatoes and fries look a lot better than they taste.
Desserts? Go back to sleep. Our "cake of the day" was a sorry chocolate cake with absolutely no detectable chocolate flavor. The apple-cherry cobbler also couldn't budge the needle on my excitement meter. Don't expect miracles from the coffee, either.
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Are your out-of-state winter visitors falling in love with Arizona and making threatening noises to move here permanently? A trip to Plum Creek Ranch Steakhouse may be just the "taste of the West" antidote you need to send them back where they came from.
Mining Camp Restaurant
& Trading Post:
Plum Creek Ranch
Dallas Style prime rib (8 oz.)