Cafe Reviews

The Loin King

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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.

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Howard Seftel