Foothills Folly

Proud to be no-frills, El Corral steakhouse deserves its status as a Tucson tradition.

In 1915, local developer John Murphey purchased several thousand acres of property up in the Catalina Foothills that the esteemed editors of the Tucson Citizen decried as being "folly," since it was clearly a worthless investment that would never see a return.

The poor guy had to wait another decade before opening the first restaurant in the 'hood just east of North Campbell Avenue and north of East River Road. Then, in 1939, the owner of the El Corral Café subdivided a piece of the land into Los Ranchos Perkins, a seasonal ranch. In 1946, the name was changed to El Corral Night Club, and the rest is history.

It's hard to imagine a Tucson without El Corral, a jumping family joint that has celebrated and served witness to countless birthdays, weddings, engagements, retirements and just plain rhythms of family life. On the weekends, the doors open at 4:30 p.m. By 5 o'clock the restaurant usually is full, and the line winds along the waist-level adobe wall out front. No one seems to mind the wait; they perch on the wall, sit and chat, enjoy a cocktail and the Tucson twilight. I've never seen such a well-behaved line, and the silent agreement seems to be that wait is part of the ritual.

Once your name has been called, you'll meander your way through an old ranch house. Low adobe doorways, long narrow rooms, uneven floors and plaster walls lend a comforting feel to the place. It is also cavernous, which explains why the turnover is rapid and people are fairly cheerful in line. This is an oddity that we noticed carried throughout the evening: everyone comes to El Corral to be a part of an elaborate cattle call, and everything from the service, the food, the ambiance is unapologetic about this fact. In fact, we noticed customers and servers both seemed to embrace the notion.

The menu is all about meat. This is a no-muss, no-fuss approach to consuming cattle: you can have prime rib, a house specialty, in modest or large amounts. You can order filet mignon, T-bone steak, New York steak or ribs: baby back, St Louis-style. For those not inclined to revel in full-on red meat, you can have chicken, shrimp or fish. This is the extent of the menu, aside from some assorted appetizers. The decision-making process doesn't take very long, and most people seem to know what they want before they even get to the table.

Our server practically bounced on the balls of her feet as she rattled off the choices that came with entrees: tamale pie, baked potato, vegetables, or mashed potatoes and gravy. When we asked her what the vegetables were, she waved her hand around and said, "Oh broccoli, some carrots, you know ... vegetables."

"Are they frozen?" we inquired, possibly with a grimace.

Our server positively beamed at us. "You betcha!"

She confided many small worthy tips to us: that the tortilla soup did not have tortillas in it, has never had tortillas in it and will never have tortillas in it, but they weren't going to change its name, ever; that the tamale pie was worth trying; that "rare" meant "bloody;" that the fish, orange roughy, was frozen, as was the shrimp.

We instantly realized we had found a server worthy of a fat tip. Despite the enormous size of the station she was serving, we were impressed with her speed and accuracy. There is a grace to some souls who find themselves in the serving industry, and she was clearly in her zone: hefting trays, mopping up spills, sliding a bottle of ketchup within a breath of a plate's rim, spinning on her heel with a ballerina's precision.

Wanting to join the fray, we ordered two appetizers--Sonoran chiles ($3.99) and onion rings ($4.99). The Sonoran chiles were really roasted, peeled Anaheims, which were mild in heat. Stuffed with chunks of prime rib, a little melted cheese and salsa, they made an interesting appetizer. Served at room temperature, the textures were a little chewy and odd, but the flavors blended well. The onion rings were enormous and, no doubt, frozen. Still, someone had fried them so they were uniformly golden and crispy and reminiscent of carnival fare. The appetizers staved off any deep hunger pangs.

Reflecting a well-oiled practice of serving hundreds of people quickly, each entreé had been plated rapidly, with no frills. Each diner received her cut of meat and whatever starch had been selected. Baked potatoes come foil -wrapped and served with sour cream or butter. Tamale pie, a deep fragrant wedge of masa mixed with cheese and chiles, made an excellent foil for the richer, meaty dishes.

The prime rib ($11.99) took up most of the plate, and was cooked to a turn. Velvety and tender, this was meat as it is meant to be enjoyed: simple and unadorned.

The barbecue chicken ($7.99) was a healthy serving of bird in a lemony herb marinade. Smoked on a grill, this wasn't a sticky sweet barbeque, but a light and smoky flavor that permeated all the meat.

Shrimp scampi ($9.99) turned out to be a pretty straightforward garlic sauté with some fat shrimp. Served on a bed of linguine, this was a fairly routine dish that didn't seem as stout of heart as the others. The benign preparation might be due to the fact that El Corral is primarily a steak house, but readers beware.

Baby-back ribs ($13.99) were the full-on, slippy-sloppy, washed-in-barbeque-sauce affair. These are the get-messy-and-down-with-yourself kind of ribs that could convert or kill a vegetarian. Choose your guests wisely.

Desserts are limited: mud pie (a chocolatey ice cream pie), Snickers-bar cheesecake (tastes like the candy bar) or carrot cake (which our server blatantly warned us against). We tried mud pie and Snickers cheesecake and found that, in keeping with dinner, they weren't about putting on airs, but straight-forward, kinda simple fare that isn't sorry to be what it is.

There is a reason the lines are so long outside El Corral, and it's been that way for as long as I can remember. John Murphey might have been called foolish to believe there was gold up in them thar hills, but even he couldn't have fully imagined the scope of his own vision. This might have something to do with the very nature of "folly" but even so, it's a form of fool's gold with some serious heft.

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