Cafe Reviews

The Loin King

The Stockyards Restaurant, 5001 East Washington, Phoenix, 273-7378. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 p.m. to close, seven nights a week.

During the last generation, certain forms of once-tolerated behavior have come to seem much less benign. And for good reason. Light up a cigarette at the office or at home? Your employer will banish you to the streets, and your kids will call you a drug fiend. In a loud voice, share your deep-seated belief that all minorities are lazy welfare cheaters, or that a woman's place is in the home, raising children, feeding her husband and cleaning the house. Even the hood-wearing bigots and misogynists in hearing range likely will slide away from you, because views like these now fall outside the borders of acceptable public discussion. Stopping at the tavern with your buddies for a few drinks? These days, you'd better make sure you have a designated driver before the bartender starts pouring.

We used to eat more innocently, too. Thirty years ago, red-blooded Americans believed a slab of beef was good for whatever ailed you. Today, that same slab is considered a toxic mass of cholesterol, fat grams and calories, a Love Canal on a plate. And, as if that weren't enough, cattle are also blamed for everything from destroying the rain forests to polluting the groundwater.

Americans are conflicted about how to reconcile their love of meat with their fear of it. But with Yankee ingenuity, we've found a way to have our beef and eat it, too. We've more or less banished beef from our homes, replacing it with chicken and fish. But we're eating more and more beef at restaurants, mostly as a weekend "reward" for our ascetic health worship the other five days. What we have is a most unusual paradox: Although per capita beef consumption is way down, steak houses are flourishing, the hottest segment of the restaurant market.

Nobody, however, can accuse the Stockyards Restaurant of jumping on a trend. This Arizona landmark has been around for almost half a century, at a site rich in history. It's hard to believe now, but this spot once housed the world's largest feedlot operation, where up to 40,000 head of cattle would be penned at one time. The restaurant displays a marvelous 1959 aerial photograph, showing the sweep of the operation.

The feedlots are long gone, but the Stockyards retains a considerable amount of old Arizona charm, embedded in a Gay Nineties theme. You sit in plush booths, surrounded by lots of dark wood and etched glass. Colorful murals adorn the walls. In the bar, the mural disconcertingly illustrates the popular 19th-century song "The Face on the Barroom Floor." In the nonsmoking dining room, you can gaze on 1890s vignettes: a woman being laced into a corset, shopping at the milliner's, a street scene. Overhead, ornate chandeliers drip with shiny crystal teardrops, while piped-in country music furnishes audio background.

This is a comfortable, unpretentious place, the kind of old-fashioned steak house that's under assault from copycat national steak-house chains like Outback, Austin's and Lone Star. To me, however, there's no comparison between the two types. It's not that the fare in general is so utterly superior or that the beef in particular outshines the competition's. It's just that there's a style and feel to the Stockyards that makes dining here such a gratifying carnivorous experience.

The menu is small, and it deliberately ignores every culinary trend that's come down the road since the restaurant opened in 1954. That's why you still get a relish tray--celery, olives, scallions and carrots--set in an icy metal dish, as soon as you're seated.

Like the relish tray, the appetizers aren't long on novelty. Look for the familiar deep-fried staples, like onions and mushrooms. There's also a first-rate shrimp cocktail, five meaty critters who are worth every cent of the $7.95 tag. Adventurers may enjoy "calf fries," especially if they can keep from dwelling on their origin. Calf fries are simply a smaller version of Rocky Mountain oysters, derived from a younger source. At the Stockyards, they're breaded and fried, then paired with a tangy cocktail sauce.

Dinners all come with salads. Make sure you top yours with the blue cheese dressing, thick with creamy chunks of sharp cheese. It's very 1950s, and very tasty. Warm biscuits also make for good nibbling, especially if you coat them with the honey butter.

When a restaurant is called the Stockyards, you expect the emphasis to be on beef. So, if you've been living on twigs and berries from Monday through Friday, be assured that a Saturday-night steak here can make life seem meaningful again.

The one-pound T-bone is beautiful, tender and beefy, grilled just right. By the time I finished, the bone was stripped bare. The New York strip is also topnotch, armed with big flavor and meaty texture. Prime rib is a winner, extremely tender with little gristle and very, very juicy. If you're a prime rib fan, the hefty Cattleman's Cut will provide a long-lasting animal-protein thrill. The filet mignon is soft enough to cut with a fork, but it's somewhat drier than the town's best models.

Side dishes aren't the focus of any creative energies. The crisp wedge fries do come right out of the fryer; whatever nutrients the broccoli once contained are canceled out by the hollandaise sauce topping; and the less-than-robust cowboy beans could use some punching up.

Management ought to consider working on the small dessert list. After all, folks are here to splurge, but the Stockyards doesn't give them much opportunity. A dish of ice cream doesn't seem very festive. Neither did the supplier-furnished cheesecake, which arrived still frozen in the center. The kitchen does make one sweet, a strawberry shortcake, but fussy diners will note it's not real shortcake.

Next time you're tempted to stake out chain-restaurant beef, think the Stockyards instead. You won't find deer heads mounted on the wall, peanut shells on the floor, servers serenading patrons with "Happy Birthday" or televisions turned to sporting events in the dining rooms. You will find high-quality beef in a high-quality setting. It may be an old concept, but it's still a good one.

Hunter Steakhouse, 10237 North Metro Parkway East, Phoenix, 371-0240. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

The folks behind the Hungry Hunter have seen the future, and they've realized the Hungry Hunter wasn't it.

So they've spent some big-time money sprucing up their operations and revitalizing the menu, hoping to turn the Hungry Hunter into what they call a "serious steak house." They've changed the name, too. Their three Valley properties (at Metrocenter; at 4455 South Rural in Tempe; and at 2511 West Indian School) are now called "Hunter Steakhouse."

The place is definitely more stylish, with a lean, spare look that features lots of dark wood, designer lighting and framed art. There's also a consumer-friendly wine list, which lets diners order a two-ounce sampler of any three wines for five bucks. But despite the upgrades, management has been very careful to keep entree prices less than $20. Hunter Steakhouse is targeting the steak-house niche between the low-priced chains and the high-end, prime beef market, trying to balance value and quality.

Have they succeeded? You'd have a hard time being convinced after journeying through the unimaginative appetizer list. Potato skins, chicken strips, onion rings, cheese-topped stuffed mushrooms and barbecued ribs show little flair.

Hunter Steakhouse does much better with the soup or salad that accompanies each meal. The clam chowder is rich and creamy, and it's served in a covered crock. The waiters have been trained to whisk off the cover with a flourish, no doubt hoping to encourage the belief that you're dining in continental splendor.

That same pseudo-fancy touch shows up at salad time. In this instance, the shtick's more elaborate. The waiter brings over a large lazy Susan, with a bowl of lettuce in the middle. Ringed around it are slots filled with smaller bowls of add-ons: cheese, olives, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, bacon bits, carrots, cucumbers, croutons. Tell the server what you want on your greenery; then he'll put your salad plate together.

The one thing management didn't tinker with? It's the beef. The steaks and prime rib haven't changed, and there's no reason they should have. After all, if it ain't broke, why fix it? The New York strip, the T-bone and filet mignon are all well-trimmed, expertly prepared, juicy, tender and flavorful. The prime rib is also wonderful, a good-looking slab that offers a winning combination of taste and texture. And folks with daintier appetites will appreciatively note they can order half-size portions of most cuts (albeit at two-thirds the price).

Side dishes are served family-style. Let's hope everyone in your group likes potatoes, because you get a trio of spuds. The basil mashed potatoes are terrific, thick and fragrant. Stick with them. That's because the garlic-roasted potatoes could have come from a cafeteria chafing tray. And although the scalloped potatoes were properly sliced thin, they hadn't been cooked through.

Whatever improvements the desserts may have undergone in the menu makeover, they didn't go far enough. These sweets are routinely serviceable, but fall short of pastry-chef quality. Mudd pie, turtle cheesecake, Bailey's Irish Cream mousse cake and raspberry bread pudding don't pass the calorie-to-taste test.

Hunter Steakhouse is hardly the "classic American steak house" its publicity agents think it is. But if all you're after is a serious hunk of beef in quiet surroundings and small change back from a twenty, Hunter Steakhouse should do nicely.

The Stockyards Restaurant:
Calf fries
T-bone steak
Prime rib
(Cattleman's Cut)
Strawberry shortcake

Hunter Steakhouse:
Potato skins
Prime rib
(10-ounce cut)
New York strip
Turtle cheesecake

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Howard Seftel