This time of year fills most of us Valley residents with dread. That's because those aren't sleigh bells we hear jangling--it's our nerves. They're pretty well shot after dealing with the season's first wave of winter visitors. Guests are completely predictable. You can count on them to empty your hot-water tank. You can count on them to use your phone to make peak-hour calls to their 50 closest friends back home. And you can count on them to demand you chauffeur them to some touristy Western steak house so they can have a "real frontier experience." Of course, this authentic encounter with the Old West generally consists of stepping on sawdust, hearing "Achy Breaky Heart" on the music system and staring at Chicago retirees wearing bola ties at the next table. In my weaker moments, I envision for my guests a more genuine frontier experience--say, reliving the last days of the Donner party. But eventually, my evil impulses subside, and I grudgingly pack everyone off for an evening of T-bone gnawin' and yee-hawin'.
One of my favorite spots used to be the steak house at Rawhide. Sure, it was corny, from Frankie Laine's endless crooning of the old television show's theme song to the chicken-in-a-booth that skillfully played tic-tac-toe when you dropped in a quarter. But the grub is what really grabbed me. This once was the best cowboy restaurant in town. Not anymore. Rawhide seems to be in the middle of a quality free fall. At first glance, nothing seems to have changed. The barnlike room, brick walls, red-checked oilcloth and antique furnishings provide the right Western atmospherics. But closer inspection revealed that the glass dome over the front door was coated with dust, and the rest room looked like it hadn't yet seen a mop this season. It made me wonder if this inattention to detail might spill over to the kitchen. You couldn't tell from the buffalo kebab appetizer, one of the few palatable items we ran into. Buffalo is significantly lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, and I wouldn't be surprised to find it popping up on more Valley menus. One drawback, though, is that the meat's leanness sometimes makes it tough and chewy. But Rawhide's supply sidestepped this shortcoming, and provided some admirable animal protein. More adventurous diners can munch on Rocky Mountain oysters and rattlesnake fritters, and get a commemorative certificate attesting to their courage, if not their good sense. Don't look for a certificate commemorating the salad that comes with all meals. It's a thoroughly forgettable bowl of iceberg greenery, drenched in dressings that tasted like they came out of a 25-gallon Price Club vat. But busloads of Midwestern visitors don't trek here to nibble on buffalo meat or load up on green, leafy nutrition. They're here to devour big slabs of mesquite-grilled beef. Unfortunately, these steaks are not how the West was won. The one-pound T-bone steak didn't remind me one bit of the T-bone I'd enjoyed here in the past. Tender? Not particularly. Juicy? Not particularly. Worth $15.50? Not by a long shot. You're better off spending seven bucks more and taking beef-loving guests to Ruth's Chris, where the meat's ten times better. If they insist on a Western touch, hum "Red River Valley" while they chew. Rawhide's tough, 12-ounce New York steak didn't leave anyone singing anything, except the blues. It didn't help that the chintzy, lightweight knife and fork were no more up to the task than my overmatched choppers. I'm from the clean-your-plate school, but I couldn't go beyond a few bites into this leathery critter. The inoffensive barbecue combo plate lacks any distinctive features. The quarter chicken, half slab of pork ribs and single beef rib are filling, but tame enough for a newborn tenderfoot. There also wasn't enough barbecue sauce on the platter even to get your fingers dirty. But that really didn't matter, since the sauce I did find had about all the frontier flair of a knish. But just as I was ready to toss my cutlery in despair, I flagged down some prime rib. This is how I recall the meat here--butter-soft, moist and beefy. Apparently, the kitchen can remember how to do something right. But the prime rib turned out to be the evening's only high note. Like most everything else, the side dishes were hopelessly inept. The spongy Texas toast had the texture of a spring cushion--I was ready to mete out frontier justice to whomever made it. Zipless cowboy beans were seasoned only by the Scottsdale night air. And what would a December cowboy steak dinner be without a just-thawed corn cobbette frozen since the Fourth of July? Desserts couldn't get the meal back on track. Cherry pie was sent out smothered with a blob of half-melted cinnamon ice cream. Is anyone paying attention? The mud pie was fine, but couldn't wipe out the memory of the rest of the meal. And a word about beverages. The iced tea is, hands down, the worst I've had the misfortune to sip. As for the coffee, our waitress said it's prepared from a box of liquid concentrate that's combined with hot water. This isn't corner-cutting; it's assault and battery. Along Rawhide's Main Street, you can get a variety of animals to perform for you for a quarter. Drop 25 cents in the slot, and the "Educated Hen" will tug on a ring and drop a prize in the chute. Put two bits in the slot of "Guitar Duck" and the creature will strum a few chords on an electric guitar with its beak. The next training project? Getting the kitchen to perform, by giving diners their money's worth after they drop 20 dollars in the steak-house till. Let's hope the staff can take instruction as easily as the chicken and the duck.