Cattle Robbed

Whatever Reputation For Prime Rib The Baron's Once Enjoyed, The Cows Have All Gone Home.

By Rebecca Cook

THE LAND IN and around Tucson was once the playground for a host of colorful cads and characters intent on transforming this western landscape of cactus and sand into an oasis of opportunity that would support any number of lucrative scams.

One such scoundrel was James Addison Reavis, popularly known in history as the Baron of Arizona. A former car conductor and real-estate agent from St. Louis, Reavis devised a clever scheme to make his fortune in the 1870s by claiming 12 million acres of prime property in the southwestern United States for himself. Reavis accomplished this impressive feat by invoking a bogus accord known as the Peralta Land Grant. Present-day Tucson was included in the spoils.

Chow In a convoluted series of events, Reavis left Tucson for San Francisco only to return in 1882 with a new wife, whom he introduced to one and all as the landed Baroness of Arizona. Using quit claim deeds and imperious assertions of dominion (Reavis even had the railroad company paying him for the privilege of using their own tracks), the royal pair managed to bilk thousands out of the good citizens of the territory.

Eventually, the hoax was exposed and in 1896 Reavis was convicted of fraud and sentenced to an extended stay at the U.S. Penitentiary at Santa Fe.

I recount this tale by way of introducing The Baron's, a restaurant with a long-standing home on South Wilmot Road near Golf Links. The eatery is named after the counterfeit royal couple as well as the so-called cattle barons of the area who used copious acreage to graze herds of soon-to-be prime beef. I'm quite certain that it's the beef connotation the owners of The Baron's would like to you to remember. Unfortunately, it's the specter of fraud that looms large.

Years ago, The Baron's enjoyed a reputation for serving some of the best prime rib in town. Located near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and popular with the service men and women who were stationed there, the restaurant also attracted loyal customers from every part of town. Anyone who had lived in Tucson for any length of time seemed to have a Baron's tribute in their anecdotal repertoire.

In existence for nearly 30 years, the restaurant has undergone a few changes in ownership, but the theme has always remained the same: Beef, in particular prime rib, reigns supreme. Having an unrepentant passion for red meat, I have no idea why I didn't hasten to The Baron's back when it was in its heyday and the accolades abounded. All I know is that my recent experience there was like arriving at a party too late, long after the wine bottles have been turned upside down and the foie gras has vanished. If I may paraphrase a royal quote, we were not amused.

The gleaming blue-and-white marquee still held out the promise of the best prime rib in town, so I entered the establishment in a state of lustful expectation. Perhaps we should have been tipped off by an unintentional entry through the bar. The smell of smoke and stale beer emanating from patrons glued to their bar stools and staring glassy-eyed at a luminescent TV screen did not bode well for a class-act dining experience.

Slightly more reassuring was the actual reception area, intriguingly enhanced by three large, grape-stenciled wine casks against a far wall. Walls of river rock and a sunken main dining area with white linen tablecloths, black leather booths and overstuffed chairs on gold casters elegantly recalled another era. A large table in the center of the room, surrounded by three generations of a family engaged in celebration, completed the Norman Rockwell tone of the space.

Drinks and menus were forthcoming, and we placed an order for sautéed mushrooms to nibble while we decided our evening's repast. Appetizers at The Baron's run along the lines of your standard bar food--fried vegetables and nachos figure prominently--although the mushrooms and a shrimp cocktail provide slightly more refined alternatives.

Eyebrows rose as the sizzling mushrooms were placed before us. Not of uniform size, the larger fungi appeared white and undercooked while their smaller brethren looked shriveled and black. Sautéed in wine, a little butter and a smidgen of garlic, the resultant flavor was not wholly unpleasant, although the varying textures encountered with each bite ranged from mildly disconcerting to downright nasty.

Not yet completely disillusioned, we placed our entrée orders and enjoyed a piece of whole-grain bread cut from warm mini-loaves and spread with whipped honey butter. Yeasty and vaguely sweet, the bread would constitute one of the few highlights of the meal. A choice of soup or salad comes with each order; we opted for salad, as the beef vegetable soup that evening sounded much too heavy for a warm summer night.

The Baron's house salad is of the iceberg variety, although a few tears of romaine, shredded red cabbage and carrot have been thrown in for color. A blue cheese dressing was a bit on the thin side, but did at least contain some satisfyingly crumbles of the marbled fromage. The greens were not a total disaster, but certainly nothing to write home about. The same could be said for the Caesar salad, which arrived pre-prepared with a creamy dressing absolutely devoid of character.

Onward and upward: the lauded main course, the featured dish, the curiosity I'd waited decades to satisfy. It was time to check out the renowned prime rib.

I'll cut to the chase: I've eaten rump roasts with greater tenderness, juiciness and flavor than the piece of meat set before me at The Baron's. This prime rib didn't just miss being great, it was dreadful. The roast beef served in any of Tucson's popular cafeterias would run circles around this hunk of flesh. The premium cut was cooked way beyond my request for medium rare, and the meat was so thoroughly dried out that not only was it exceptionally tough, it could literally be pulled (with some effort) into sinewy strings. I attempted to cover the meat's egregious failings with a creamy horseradish sauce, but this turned out a futile effort, as the condiment exuded a distinctly bitter and unpleasant flavor. Abstaining from eating the crinkle-sliced carrots (straight out of a school cafeteria's lunch line), I took refuge in the simple comfort of a baked potato topped with butter and sour cream. I'll say this for The Baron's: At least they can bake a spud.

My husband, who does not eat red meat no matter how grand the reputation that precedes it, gravitated towards the non-beef dishes, a selection that includes pasta, seafood and chicken. The shrimp scampi was actually quite edible. A few mushy spots on some of the shrimp belied a frozen past, but other than that, they were nicely buttery and full of a round, garlic flavor.

The rice pilaf that accompanied the shrimp, however, was a resounding disappointment--so tough and grainy it left us with two unflattering hypotheses: Either the rice was undercooked or it had sat out so long it was returning to its former pellet-like existence.

Dessert, a chocolate-butterscotch-rum pudding, proved to be the zenith of the evening. Smooth, sweet, creamy and liberally soused in the demon liquor, this confection salvaged the meal from complete calamity.

The service was adequate though slightly distracted, reminiscent of dining at Denny's.

Total cost for the evening: $54.91, not including tip. Ouch.

I confess I didn't go back for lunch, so I suppose it's conceivable The Baron's was just having an off night. I doubt it, though. Frankly, I suspect supernatural possession: Perhaps the swindling spirit of James Reavis has taken over the restaurant named in his honor.

The Baron's. 2401 S. Wilmot Road. 745-9250. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DIS, checks. Menu items: $4.95-$25.95. TW

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