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Cattle Call

The National Western Stock Show had its usual effect on me. I bought a pair of cowboy boots for myself and a cowboy hat for my daughter. I spent a few days dreaming of rippling-muscled steer rasslers--where have all the cowboys gone?--and deftly sidestepped questions from my kids about when we're going to get some bunnies and a miniature horse. But a week after my visit to the rodeo, after I'd fully digested that Tornadough pretzel thing, I was starting to think that maybe sitting through The Horse Whisperer again wasn't such a good idea.

And then one night, I found myself two-stepping at the Trail Dust Steak House.

How I got there, I'm not sure. Something about it being on the way home and, hey, we could press up against each other just like Kristin Scott Thomas and Robert Redford at that hoedown in the movie. Except that we don't look like either of them, and they didn't have two small kids in tow, and my husband hates to dance in public. But I could wear my new boots, and my daughter could wear her new hat, and we could eat big, juicy steaks and watch Alan Jackson on the country-music video monitors doing something other than selling Ford trucks, which, apparently, he's crazy about.

Fellow country singer LeAnn Rimes is crazy, too--about Trail Dust Steak Houses, or so the front of the menu claims. LeAnn ate at the original Trail Dust in Denton, Texas, and quickly proclaimed it her "favorite restaurant." According to the menu, she declared almost as quickly: "It's the Great Steaks, friendly folks and just plain fun that makes Trail Dust Special to Me!" The menu's cover boasts a big photo of the singer, along with this line: "LeAnn Rimes, Official Lifetime Fan of Trail Dust Steak House." Since she's about seventeen, that means she's going to be having a lot of Great Steaks and just plain fun for a mighty long time.

Personally, I found it hard to remain an official fan of Trail Dust for even a week, which is how long it took me to eat there twice. On both occasions, I must admit, the steaks were really, really good, and my kids loved the thirty-foot slide the eatery has fashioned out of a steep staircase. But I'd rather cook my own meat on the grill at home than eat even a really, really good steak while wedged up against strangers in a dining-hall setup, drinking bad margaritas, getting whacked in the back by servers trying to squeeze between the too-tight tables, and eating greasy fried foods that made the Tornadough seem like the equivalent of yogurt and wheat berries.

On our first visit, the Western-themed place was packed. Based on the number of kids standing on their dress-pants-clad fathers' feet on the dance floor and the number of times the restaurant staff banged on a dinner bell and yelled, "Happy Birthday!" I'd say weeknights at Trail Dust are prime time for family celebrations. There was a band, a cheerful and kid-tolerant group of country-and-Western boys who got through "Tequila Sunrise" without gagging; more entertainment came via the music-video monitors that silently and incessantly displayed Garth, Shania and Mr. Ford Truck with a minimum of hanky-panky--except for that one lingerie-wearing chick who wound up committing suicide with Alan Jackson as their taxi dove into a lake and sank; guess it wouldn't have ended that way if they'd been in a Ford truck.

While we watched, we waded into a bowl of chilled peel-and-eat shrimp ($5.99), twenty of the squishiest crustaceans I've ever attempted to peel--a tedious process, and hardly worth the effort. By the time we'd gotten tired of trying, our starter sampler ($4.59) had arrived. It offered two each of the appetizer list's fried items: cheese sticks, zucchini, mushrooms, onion rings and jalapeno pepper "hot flashes." (Would somebody please introduce me to the menopausal woman who thinks that's funny?) The hot flashes turned out to be the best of the lot, filled with molten cheddar cheese instead of the usual cream stuff. But the rest of the samplers were either oil-soaked or done in by the stodgy crumb coating--which, despite the menu's assertion that the cheese sticks had a "special crust," was exactly the same on everything.

The entrees come with the same sides, too: a garden salad of browning iceberg lettuce and one pale tomato wedge, "ranch bread" (strangely dry, butter-colored Texas toast), and the "famous Trail Dust Country Style Beans," which a friend of mine who used to work at the restaurant says are made by a group of Mexican women who laugh at the idea that the beans are "country style." According to my informant, the beans are made by soaking them, draining them, rinsing them, then adding more water along with onions and spices and boiling the crap out of them. The result is a bowl of watery beans with onions and spices.

But the steaks were fabulous. The Parker family, which founded the first of its five surviving Trail Dusts 25 years ago, say they use only corn-fed USDA Choice that is hand-cut at each location. They also swear that they never use chemical tenderizers, instead letting the mesquite logs on an open grill do the job, and after just a taste, I'd bite. The Cowboy steak ($14.99), a 22-ounce Porterhouse, was a well-priced, well-cooked piece of flesh, done precisely to our request of medium-rare, tender on the inside and covered with crispy-crunchy bits of fat that had been blackened and their flavor intensified by the grill. The Rifleman ($14.99), a 16-ounce bone-in ribeye, was smokier than I prefer, but also excellent. So were the kids' burgers ($4.49), each a quarter-pounder of high-quality ground sirloin on a big, soft bun and served with thick-cut steak fries so addictive that we adults kept stealing them.

Although Trail Dust avoids the trappings of more upscale steakhouses--there's no cigar room, for instance, and all of the wood is of the rough-hewn rather than mahogany type--it does share one similarity with its high-priced cousins: mammoth desserts. And not bad ones, either. The raisin-studded apple cobbler ($3.29) and the chocolate fudge cake ($3.99) were our favorites; but the pecan pie ($3.99), with its odd sugary center, had a weird chemical quality.

The menu had branded the pecan pie with a sheriff's star, indicating it was a specialty of the house. And so on a return visit, it was with some trepidation that we ordered the also-starred baby-back pork ribs ($13.99). Not to worry. A full rack of these tender suckers came slathered--ribs really shouldn't come any other way--with a sweet, gooey barbecue sauce and the same fixin's that are included with all of the other entrees. The ribs had plenty of succulent, fatty-edged meat on them, and the leftover sauce pooled on the plate was strong enough to moisten even the brittle ranch bread.

Not surprisingly, the swordfish ($10.99) was a bust and tasted more like mesquite-dried fish. I'd have asked what Trail Dust was doing serving swordfish during a boycott--but what was I doing ordering it in a low-end steakhouse, anyway? The pair of chicken breasts ($9.49) fared better over the flame, with the mesquite smoke making for moist meat with a sharp flavor. The smoke also added some kick to the Tenderfoot steak ($13.99), a nine-ounce tenderloin--LeAnn's favorite!--that typically would have been blander than its fattier counterparts but clearly benefited from Trail Dust's flame-broiling method.

The assorted employees, who were all very friendly and nice, might also have benefited from having a fire lit under them. At the very least, they could have used more training. My former-employee friend says new hires used to have to prove themselves at each station before being given more responsibility, but one of my servers told me it's so hard to get people these days that Trail Dust pretty much lets everyone have the run of the place just to keep the bodies around. She was much better than our first waiter, who kept setting down food while there were still dirty plates lying around--a faux pas I seem to be encountering a lot lately.

Trail Dust's attempt to duplicate a dining hall, though, ranks as unique. And while I appreciate the folksy intent, there was something unsettling about getting my chair slammed while I was holding a steak knife. No matter how many Jane and Michael Stern accounts you read of the "real America," people just aren't that friendly around here--at one meal, I was parked about six inches from a toothless old goat who grunted and frowned at my children while he gummed his swordfish--and to my cynical eyes, the too-close tables simply seemed a way to cram in more people and make more money.

Sort of like the weekend rodeos at the Stock Show.
If we go to the National Western next year, I'm going to buy one of those lasso ropes for my daughter, the kind she'll hand-twist herself after choosing the cord colors. Then I'm going to use it to tie myself to a chair to stop me from going to Trail Dust again.

Trail Dust Steak House, 7101 South Clinton, Englewood, 303-790-2420; 9101 Benton, Westminster, 303-427-1446. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-midnight Friday; 4 p.m.-midnight Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday.

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