Nature's ceaseless, unchanging seasonal rhythms bring a welcome predictability to what seems to be a capricious, chaotic world. It's comforting to remember that each spring, the swallows return to Capistrano; each summer, the rains water the parched African plains; and autumn's first cool breezes bring the grapes in France's vineyards to ripened perfection.
Here in Arizona, our lives also follow the seasons. Every year at this time, for example, we prepare ourselves for a new legislative session (this year's issue: "One man, one bazooka") by dropping our jaws and locking them in a "they can't be serious" position. Newly arrived snowbirds driving recreational vehicles the size of the QEII on Scottsdale Road can count on receiving the traditional welcome winter salute from local drivers: a friendly 15-second tap on the horn.
And every resident unlucky enough to have a spare bedroom or a fold-out couch girds himself against the arrival of shivering friends and relatives from the Midwest and Northeast, all eager to experience "a taste of the West."
Moments after the guests arrive and begin soiling the towels, my first impulse is to give them a taste of the West they'll never forget. Then I remember the code of Western hospitality, and shepherd them to a frontier steak house instead.
There are two kinds of Western-themed steak houses in the Valley. One features staged shoot-outs, Indian dancing and phony saloon settings with three inches of sawdust on the floor. Milwaukee tourists in shorts, staring at Milwaukee retirees in bola ties, think they're rubbing elbows with the descendants of Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. You can spot these places without even setting foot in them--just look for the tour buses belching diesel fumes outside the entrance.
The other type isn't nearly so flashy--or tacky. At the best of them, you find authentic sons of the pioneers, natives who don't take their cowboy-fashion cues from the Village People and who don't punch up "Achy Breaky Heart" on the jukebox and start line dancing. You also find good cowboy grub.
It's that second type I was looking for when I checked out the Barn Steak House and Silver Spur Steak House, two Bell Road establishments far from the Scottsdale tourist trail.
It's hard not to take an immediate liking to the Barn. It's aptly named--a large, family-friendly, barnlike place set under a big, pitched wooden roof. You sit on wooden benches at wooden tables lined with red-checked oilcloth; you gaze at mounted elk heads, framed sketches of Indians and ranch-house paraphernalia including ropes, horse collars and pickaxes.
But be warned: There's no nonsmoking section. At the Barn, you not only get to taste the West, you also inhale it.
There's lively entertainment as well, if the smooth country-western band we heard is any guide. It covered everything from Joan Baez to the Eagles, and diners and their kids weren't shy about twirling on the dance floor. The musicians get started early, too--about 6:30.
The fare is just as unpretentious as the setting. You'd better like your appetizers breaded and deep-fried, pardner, because that's the only way you can get them. That means onion rings, mushrooms, zucchini, mozzarella sticks and cheese-stuffed jalapeos poured right out of the freezer bag, plunged into bubbling oil and served in napkin-lined baskets. In retrospect, I know they were nothing special. But I confess that, at the time, under the spell of the music, atmosphere and cold beer, I enjoyed them all.
However, not the music, the atmosphere or the beer could dull my critical faculties enough to overlook the soup and salad served with the meals. You don't have to undertake a chemical analysis of the chicken noodle soup to detect massive amounts of sodium and only a trace of poultry. Just take one spoonful. The iceberg-lettuce salad, meanwhile, deserves swift frontier justice. And, for some reason, the Barn neglects to put out a breadbasket.
But you haven't lugged your visiting greenhorns here to sip chicken broth or nibble on greenery. They're here for mesquite-grilled meat.
And some of it's pretty tasty. At $16.50, the porterhouse is the most expensive cut, but it's also the best. The slab looks to be about a pound, and it's tender, beefy and infused with the scent of mesquite. The top sirloin is not too shabby, either. While just a bit chewy (the Barn uses choice grade, not prime--what do you expect at these prices?), this cut should satisfy most carnivorous longings. Filet mignon, however, is somewhat less than thrilling. Blame the texture--this steak isn't so much tender as squishy.
There are some alternatives to steak. "Barbecue beef ribs" means three enormous bones not weighed down by too much meat. What meat there is on them is nothing special, and the hohum coating of barbecue sauce is too mild to furnish any boost. You also can get deep-fried shrimp. The only question is: Why? Fried shrimp in a Western steak house makes as much sense as Sylvester Stallone in Hamlet--both the shrimp and Stallone are clearly out of their element.
The side dishes could benefit from some better kitchen timing. The less-than-sizzling fries had spent too many minutes under the tanning lamp before they reached our table. The cowboy beans were barely lukewarm, and the foil-wrapped baked potato wasn't exactly steaming.
Supplier-provided desserts don't make a lasting impression. The only excuse for ordering the apple or blueberry pie is to linger through the band's next set.
While the Barn doesn't exactly redefine Western steak-house gastronomy, it's not a bad spot to rustle up a genuine Western-themed evening. Your best course of action: Grab a porterhouse and a pitcher of beer, and start tapping your feet. These days, that's how the West is won.
Silver Spur Steak House, 1606 East Bell, Phoenix, 7889002. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 4 p.m. to 1a.m.
The band at Silver Spur Steak House doesn't gear up until 9 p.m. But if you get there about 8,that gives you a full hour to give your undivided attention to some surprisingly fine-tasting grub.
I say "surprisingly" because Silver Spur doesn't make much of a first impression. Set in a Bell Road shopping strip, the restaurant doesn't lay on much of a yee-haw atmosphere. First of all, it's way too dark--you can't even read the menu without the aid of the candle on the table. Second, the room is cavernous, and the tables ringing the large dance floor accentuate the warehouse feel. Third, windows running along two sides of the restaurant provide a dreary view of the parking lot. A nifty mural of cowboy and cowgirl silhouettes perched on a fence railing helps improve the scenery somewhat. So do the sketches of cowboy types--they're for sale--hung across the opposite wall.
If the somber setting is short on Western charm, the food isn't. Someone in this kitchen knows how to rustle up a steak.
Don't expect much from appetizer munchies. They're the same battered and fried mushrooms, zucchini and cheese-stuffed jalapeos carried by every other place in town. Twenty-cent chicken wings also are strictly routine.
A bare-bones salad bar accompanies meals. Look for tubs of greenery, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, scallions and croutons, and the usual vats of dressing.
At this point, your visitors may be asking themselves why they ever left home in the first place. But once their steaks are set before them, they won't be having any second thoughts.
The 14-ounce T-bone steak is a beefy beauty, extremely tender and almost free of inedible gristle. The sirloin steak is a high-class piece of meat, perfectly textured and even more tender than the Tbone. Moist, flavorful rib-eye steak also met my every meat-eating expectation. You simply can't go wrong with the steaks here.
Apparently, you also can't go wrong with anything else on the small entree list. The half-pound burger is flat-out scrumptious. My juicy "Billy the Kid" model came dripping with two cheeses and sauteed mushrooms, along with lettuce and tomato. Chicken-fried steak is a winner, too: soft meat surrounded by a fresh, crispy crust, all doused with a peppery country gravy.
When it comes to side dishes, Silver Spur continues to take care of business. Thick-cut steak fries come hot and crunchy; pinto beans have been zipped up with chiles; and homemade potato salad is quite an improvement over the institutional glop scooped out of ten-gallon tubs most everyplace else. Even the breadbasket, filled with fresh, yeasty rolls, is better than I had any right to expect.
So are desserts. Whoever supplies the dense New York cheesecake in a graham-cracker crust does a more-than-credible job. The boysenberry cobbler also works, although the kitchen ought to consider upgrading the vanilla ice cream that accompanies it.
A trip to the Barn or Silver Spur will give your visitors a taste of the West without sending you to the poorhouse. But should your guests demand additional Western amusement, I have another suggestion: Sing a verse of "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds," then furnish them with a mule, a canteen and directions to Yuma.
Top sirloin steak
"Billy the Kid" burger