Come And Get It

Tucson McGraw's Cantina Serves Up A Tasty Array Of True-West Chow.

MENTION RESTAURANTS AND boot logos in this town, and chances are your listener will assume you're speaking of the Tack Room, one of Tucson's oldest and most distinguished Western fine-dining venues.

The fact is, however, there are two boots to be reckoned with in this part of the desert, and the other is as inimitable in its humble way as its high-flying counterpart.

Situated atop a hill on South Houghton Road is a local landmark known as Tucson McGraw's Original Cantina, recognizable from the road by a modest western boot with a single red rose. Haute cuisine is hardly the order of the day here; instead you'll find steaks, ribs, burgers, fries and plenty of icy cerveza, served amidst an atmosphere of oilcloth tables, neon lights, Mexican pastels, saltillo tile, and of course, various boot icons. An outdoor deck provides a bird's eye view of the desert and distant Santa Rita Mountains, and is a restive place to quaff a cold one when the temperature allows.

Although my experience with McGraw's is fairly recent, friends who've lived here a good long time tell me the establishment did not always exude such squeaky clean family ambiance. According to these sources, McGraw's was more reminiscent of a bona fide saloon, with pool tables and a jukebox stacked with several country favorites.

The recreation is gone, but the platters remain--only now they've been updated to include rock-blues classics by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt, among others.

I could really get to like this place.

Beer, tunes and views aside, McGraw's draws 'em home with grub: the kind of meat-lovin' meals that stick to your ribs and make you proud to be American.

Appetizers are fairly predictable, with buffalo wings, nachos and onion rings figuring prominently. On our first visit we kept things simple with a basket of freshly crisped tortilla chips and homemade salsa ($3.25), venturing on a subsequent sojourn into an order of nachos grande ($6.25), with tortilla chips smothered in melted cheese, refried beans, guacamole, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, onions and loads of salsa.

Apart from a nagging thought that simple chips and salsa in a place like this ought to be gratis, we nonetheless enjoyed the spoils considerably. McGraw's salsa is pureed and loaded with mild tomato, tasty but perhaps too mellow for true lovers of the picante. For a table of mixed tastes, however, it was perfect. Bottled hot sauce offers extra zip for those who need more heat.

Burgers are a McGraw's specialty, with 11 varieties. We tried the basic with cheese ($6.35), a bacon cheeseburger with guacamole ($6.95), hickory cheeseburger with tangy barbecue sauce ($6.25), and the original crunch burger made with grilled onions, Swiss cheese and a split English muffin ($6.75).

Comments from the table ranged from "Great!" to a noncommittal "Okay," the latter inspired, perhaps, by an exceptionally well-done patty (if you prefer it otherwise, you'll have to speak up). No one could complain about the size of the burgers, which was joined by a generous basket of French fries.

McGraw's has a reputed notoriety for its steak, featured every Tuesday night in a $9.25 special that includes a 10-ounce sirloin, ranch beans, green salad and fluffy white roll. On another weekday, we sampled an eight-ounce sirloin ($9.95) served as above, with a baked potato and Iceberg salad mix, tossed with lots of creamy ranch dressing, besides. The steak was nicely seared over an open flame, and although cooked a shade past the requested medium-rare, remained acceptably tender and juicy.

The ranch beans were distinguished by a liberal sprinkling of black pepper and tender onion bits, and the baked potato was just as it should be (served with butter and sour cream). It may not be the Ritz, but it's darn tasty.

The final McGraw boast put to the test was the claim to Tucson's best barbecue ribs. A half rack of baby-back pork ribs was summoned (beef is also available, both for $9.95), along with the standard greens-and-beans sides. After ample sampling they were pronounced a success, though we decided to leave the "best" debate for later. These smoky ribs pull easily from the bone, and the sauce, applied circumspectly rather than slathered on, was a satisfying spicy-sweet.

Desserts by Christal are not to be missed, especially if you happen to like thick wedges of apple pie and strawberry shortcake piled with sliced fruit and loads of whipped cream. The selections change daily, and we were fortunate on our visit to encounter a huge slice of coconut cream pie ($3.95) that landed just this side of Grandma's kitchen. A flaky crust held a luscious vanilla custard studded with shredded coconut, topped with a mountain of whipped cream and dusted with more of the toasted fruit. It was an impressive display of baking talent.

Service can be erratic at McGraw's. The first time we stopped by, everything clipped along at a brisk pace and our waitress was frequently at our table refilling drink orders and promptly clearing the table as we finished each course. The next time, the pace had ground to a halt, with interminable delays between ordering and receiving food and drink, and what proved an aggravating lapse in getting the bill (which arrived untallied when our waitress finally handed it over).

Even so, McGraw's is worth a trip out to the far east side. Consider stopping in for a spell the next time you wander out to Saguaro National Monument East or the Pima County Fair. This boot was made for walk-in.

Tucson McGraw's Original Cantina. 4110 S. Houghton Road. 885-3088. Open daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $2.75-$13.95.
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