A good example of this new strain of cowboy steak house is Rattlers at WestWorld of Scottsdale. WestWorld used to be called Horseworld until a year ago, when the horse, rodeo and riding activity center changed names. This is important to know. Especially if you get lost and confused and have to ask directions at some convenience store way north of Bell Road. Folks up here still call it "Horseworld" and I wouldn't correct them if I were you. They drive big trucks. Once safely inside WestWorld's gates, Rattlers is ahead on your right. The modern, mammoth-size restaurant, which opened last February, is housed in a free-standing building with a spacious patio overlooking the polo grounds. There's plenty of parking up here where the air is clear and the stars shine bright, especially on the weeknight we visit. As far as I can tell, most of the cars in the lot belong to the staff or to the guys in the country band which performs here nightly.
Inside, the attractive restaurant's seating capacity is impressive. Rattlers was clearly designed for big crowds and would be perfect for company dinners and events. But tonight, there are no corporate celebrants on hand, merely my dining accomplice and I and two or three other parties. Fortunately, the dining room has a warm, inviting feeling, despite its size. I like its flag-draped bandstand, its parquet dance floor, its cushioned hardwood chairs. I like the country objets exhibited on the decorator shelf that runs around the top of the room: things like hay bales, Western saddles, lariats and jugs. I also like the old-fashioned-looking lanterns that hang down over some booths, like ours. It is to Rattlers' credit that, though the dining room is 90 percent vacant, I don't feel dwarfed by the vast, empty space.
The menu here relies heavily on cute, cowboy-inspired names. "Festus's Favorite" is the appellation for barbecued beef ribs. "Hang 'Em High" is what the two-pound porterhouse is called. If you can get over this type of silliness, you won't have to put up with much more. Though Rattlers' staff wears Western-style uniforms, they don't demand that you participate in their recreational drama. You see, that's part of the philosophy of the new-breed yupboy steak house. You chow down on their neotraditional cowboy grub and listen to their country music, but they won't force you to wear a bandanna around your neck, participate in a gunfight or eat off a tin plate. Having said that, my city slicker accomplice and I start our meal with "Horse Hay." The plate of crisp-fried onion rings we receive is remarkable for several reasons. For starters, it's gigantic and could easily feed a hungry family of five. Second, the onion rings themselves are the hard-to-find kind. Shaved into thin slices, each ring is distinct, not part of an onion-ring block. Finally, no ketchup is needed to make these rings palatable. Their light and crispy coating is tasty enough to be addictive. In the end, they prove so dangerous that I beg our waitress to pack them up for us. I cannot stop munching.
Dinners here come with a choice of soup or salad. My accomplice's ham-flecked corn chowder is more interesting than my dismal toss of sorry tomatoes and tired lettuce. As a greens-loving individual, I'm concerned that gratis dinner salads are so often so bad. Who wants to eat lettuce that could double as packing material? All this is forgotten, however, when our entrees arrive. "Clint's Favorite" is a pinkened slab of smoked prime rib, cooked to mouth-watering perfection. The smoke flavor adds a wonderful new dimension to the traditional plate o' meat concept. I wonder how I'll ever go back to regular prime rib. "High Plains Drifter," Rattlers' cowboy steak, is a healthy one-pound T-bone. It comes crosshatched with grill marks and is flavorful, tender and juicy inside. I am quite pleased.
Side orders are traditional: cowboy beans, corn bread and corn-on-the-cob. The thicker-than-usual, spiced-by-golly cowboy beans are darn tasty. I actually want to eat them. Homemade corn bread, on the other hand, is only average. And, as you might expect--in Arizona, in late November--our pony-size ears of corn-on-the-cob have that once-frozen, mushy texture.
The house band, a country outfit, climbs onto Rattlers' stage. Until now, all of the music we've heard this evening has been recorded. Now the live stuff starts. We watch with interest as a country-swing couple glides across the dance floor with skill and ease. When the first number is over, the band thanks the dancers for stepping out. "Folks like you make us sound good," says one of the guitarists. I think a couple of guys in the band are cute, but it's hard to tell. I'm sitting about a mile away and their faces are obscured under white cowboy hats. For dessert, my accomplice and I share a slice of "Rattlers' Famous Mud Pie." I've seen some gargantuan slices of mud pie, but this one is just right for two people. Made on the premises, the coffee ice cream pie has a chocolate cookie-crumb crust and is topped off with crushed peanuts, whipped cream and a cherry. I like that it's not too rich.
When we rise from our table to leave Rattlers some minutes later, the guitarist emcee speaks to us from the stage. "Don't leave yet," he says. "You'll miss the good part."
Happily, for all concerned, he's wrong.
Copper Creek Steakhouse and Grille is an even more sophisticated type of yupboy steak house. In fact, cowboy steak doesn't even appear on its menu, though a thinly disguised version of chicken-fried steak makes the cut. The range of foods is similar to Rattlers--steaks, prime rib, roasted chicken, barbecued ribs--but Copper Creek's seasonings (on the menu, anyway) have a decided Southwestern influence. We're talking appetizers like stuffed poblano chiles and sauces called "green chile bearnaise."
The restaurant has the dark-wooded, low-lit, intimate-booth appeal of Houstons. Each tabletop is covered with copper hammered to resemble a pebbled river bottom, which, though attractive, concerns me healthwise. It must be a difficult surface to clean properly. Little would be lost, aesthetically speaking, if the copper tops were covered with glass, and it would undoubtedly save the crew some work and worry.
Lighting is provided by table lamps silhouetted with Indian pottery designs. The illuminated vaulted ceiling is painted to represent the blue skies of the Copper State.
The country presence is strong here. Caricatures of celebrities, many of them country music stars, are framed on Copper Creek's walls. Country music plays over the sound system. The staff dresses down-home in blue shirts, khakis and pony-print aprons.
Again, my dining accomplice and I begin the meal with onion rings, partly for comparison's sake. Copper Creek's fried onions are listed as a side dish, but none of the bona fide appetizers really grabs me. Happily, our plate of thin-sliced, crispy coated rings turns out to be a perfect portion for two. Sadly, they lack the pizzazz of their cousins at Rattlers. In fact, despite the menu's emphasis on special butters and sauces, everything turns out to be plain at Copper Creek. A New York steak comes naked, its "Roquefort apple bacon butter" forgotten by the kitchen staff. (Some of the butter is brought to me when I realize it's missing, but by then my steak has cooled, rendering the flavored fat useless.) Similarly stark is the simple cup of salty black-eyed peas with bacon and a small arrangement of broccoli flowers discreetly topped with hollandaise sauce.
The southern-fried rib eye is served in a shallow pool of light and buttery country gravy. Copper Creek's red beans and rice (more like chili con carne) shares the plate. A saucer of stark, steamed summer squash and zucchini is brought separately. There is nothing wrong with all of this; I just expected that it would be different, homier, more country-style, as promised, and not quite so cafeteria-style.
The food itself is good, but unspectacular. I've had better chicken-fried steak in Phoenix.
We stick around long enough to sample Copper Creek's desserts. As she displays the dessert tray, our waitress tells us everything is made on the premises. Recommended for two is the sopaipilla empanada stuffed with banana cream filling. The deep-fried turnover is out of the ordinary and large enough to share.
Copper Creek has a tendency to get noisy. Even if they're wearing suits, yupboys like to laugh long and loud. Keep this in mind if you go. Oh, and happy trails.
Rattlers, WestWorld of Scottsdale, 16601 North Pima, Scottsdale, 483-8796. Hours: 4 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday.
Copper Creek Steakhouse and Grille, Arizona Center, 455 North Third Street, Suite 290, Phoenix, 253-7100. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday.
You chow down on their neotraditional cowboy grub, but they won't force you to participate in a gunfight.
I expected that it would be different, homier, more country-style, as promised, and not quite so cafeteria-style.