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PRIME TIME

What's the difference between an eleven-ounce, dry-aged, corn-fed, USDA Prime piece of beef at a big-name, nationally known restaurant and the same hunk of meat at a small, local steakhouse? Oh, about fifteen bucks.

That, and such subtle nuances as these: At the homegrown joint, a spokesman doesn't come out and fondle the raw meat as he lovingly describes its charms; a waiter dressed better than you doesn't chew off the end of a cigar and light it for you; the side dishes tend to be smaller than most domestic dogs and, if not included in the price of a meal, don't cost as much as the tip.

Besides, when beef is what's for dinner, it's the meat that matters.
Anyone who cares about steak should need no cattle-prodding to head to Luke's--A Steak Place. Just off I-70 in a quiet Wheat Ridge shopping plaza sits one of the best steakhouses in town, an unassuming, uncluttered restaurant with lacquered-wood tables and a few plants. Jus' plain folks cook and serve the food, overseen by owner Mike Lucas, a former jock type who opened Luke's in 1992 because he thought Denver was losing its cowtown touch with meat.

Lucas, a fourth-generation Coloradan, had retired and gone off fly-fishing for a few years; on a return trip home, he found his favorite steakhouse floundering. "Emil-Lene's was the best around," Lucas says fondly. "But when I came back to town after four years away, they had changed the beef and it wasn't as good. It turned out that the owner, Frank, had died. It just wasn't the same." During his travels, Lucas had fallen in love with a hole-in-the-wall in Northern California named Jack's Bar and Grill. Jack's offered only two steaks a night, along with a family-style serving of salad. "It seemed so simple," Lucas recalls. "So I thought, `Well, hell, I'll open a steakhouse.'"

And so he did. Initially, he followed Jack's lead, offering a short roster of three types of steak and one fresh, grilled fish each night. Since then, however, Luke's menu has evolved, with a few appetizers, a pork-tenderloin entree, some desserts and three side dishes joining the lineup. The family-sized bowl of salad remains, as does Lucas's commitment to tasty beef at reasonable prices.

We put that commitment to the test with the eleven-ounce filet mignon ($18.95), the thirteen-ounce New York strip ($17.95) and the twenty-ounce Porterhouse ($21.95). Each steak arrived at precisely the temperature we'd requested (an explanation at the bottom of the menu helps the cooking-challenged understand what medium-rare is going to look like: red), gently charred around the edges and dripping with meaty juices slightly salty from garlic salt. "I had a Greek friend in my early twenties who used to grill the fish we caught with nothing but a little olive oil, some garlic salt and oregano," Lucas explains. "One day he told me to try my steaks with the garlic salt, and I've made every steak I've ever had that way ever since." He shouldn't give up now, because the salt works wonderfully to bring up the flavor of the beef. And the beef itself is top-quality. After trying dozens of companies, Lucas settled on a packer in Minneapolis who provides the Angus Charlet steaks; the kitchen dry-ages the meat for ten more days after it comes in.

At Luke's, the steaks are clearly the meat of the matter. But the appetizers and sides have their own, low-key appeal. That big bowl of salad allowed us to control our portions of a mix containing field greens, iceberg and romaine lettuce, red cabbage, parmesan-cheese-encrusted croutons, carrots and celery, all lightly tossed in a vinaigrette of red-wine vinegar, olive oil, parmesan, lemon juice and lots of herbs. Bread and butter helped sop up the steak juices. And the simple starches that came with the steaks--an enormous Idaho baked potato with the usual blob of butter, sour cream and chive sprinkles; heavenly slices of oily pan-fried potatoes with onions and garlic salt; vermicelli under a ladling of red sauce--provided a nice break for the tastebuds before we dug back into the steaks.

Luke's recognizes that not all diners are hungry enough to eat a horse--or a large steer. For kids under twelve, the spaghetti, along with a salad and bread and butter, is free. The restaurant also offers the option of splitting an entree: an extra $5.50 gets the steak divided between two diners, with each receiving a side and salad. The only splitting we did, however, was over a piece of cheesecake ($3.75). It was homemade, heavy and rich, and covered with fresh--yes, really fresh--strawberries.

Across town, the Aurora Summit could use some freshening up. Wayne and Jan Lapp opened this steakhouse in 1977 and moved it to its present location in 1989. But the decor has the early-Seventies trappings of a "nice" restaurant: all low lighting, low booths and autumnal-colored walls. Even the menu has an outdated feel, with chicken teriyaki, shrimp scampi and vegetables made casserole-style keeping company with the steaks.

Steaks are the reason diners seek out the Summit, and they aren't bad. But they'd be better if they were prepared differently. The Summit uses a top broiler, which means no charring and less flavor, then atones for that with the butter sizzling atop each steak. Unfortunately, from the first bite, you know it's butter providing that nice, rich flavor; we missed the intensity that comes from charring. Still, the quality of the meat can't be faulted, and our fourteen-ounce filet ($20.75), sixteen-ounce Summit strip ($23.25) and sixteen-ounce rib-eye ($19.75) all displayed the juiciness, marbling and even tone of Prime meat, even if they weren't cooked to our specifications. We sent back the strip because we'd ordered it medium-rare and it was pink--to his credit, the waiter immediately agreed it wasn't cooked properly and whisked the steak away. The filet was an obvious eight-ouncer instead of the fourteen we'd ordered. We never did find out if that was a service or kitchen error, but the waiter took that steak away, too, and brought a round of drinks to apologize for the error--which was fine with us, since on that visit we'd ordered nothing but steaks and martinis.

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