“Did you ever see the customers in health-food stores? They are pale, skinny people who look half dead.
In a steak house, you see robust, ruddy people. They’re dying, of course, but they look terrific.”
Bill Cosby probably didn’t have actor Robert Mitchum in mind when describing the type of people who visit steak houses. Heralded by movie critic Roger Ebert as “one of the greatest actors of all time,” the masculine Mitchum was certainly robust (evincing strength and vigorous health) and ruddy (inclined to a healthy reddish color often associated with outdoor life), but he wasn’t the type of he-man you might envision in a steak house. Presiding over a campfire, yes, but sitting down at a restaurant, no.
Over an open flame, Mitchum would, of course, be grilling a sizzling, flame-kissed slab of thick, red beef destined to overfill his plate. There would be no vegetables in sight nor would you find a tablecloth, candles or soft music. With the rousing composition “Rodeo” playing in the background, Mitchum would be heard to say, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner!”
Largely through Robert Mitchum’s compelling voiceovers, the American Beef Council has been telling America beef is what’s for dinner for more than a quarter-century. Thanks to its increased availability, not only is beef for dinner, Americans are eating it for breakfast, lunch and brunch, too. They’re eating it at home and at restaurants, at picnics and at special events, on paper plates and on fine china. There’s a steak priced just right for every wallet or purse.
Until recent years, Duke City beef buffs wanting sizzling steaks at an economy price were, with few exceptions, forced to choke down the artery-clogging, gristly, anemically flavored mediocrity that passes as steak at a plethora of chain steak restaurants. Ironically some of those restaurants are named after manly western television shows of yore–classic shows which deserve better than their names taken in vain.
In the summer of 2009, Duke’s Steakhouse, a steak restaurant at the economy to mid-point price range opened at the Far North Shopping Center in the space that previously housed Athens Eclectic Cuisine. Interestingly, Duke’s is within a couple of miles of two comparably priced restaurants which closed in the late 1990s: Austin’s Steakhouse and the Copper Creek Steakhouse. Duke’s reminds me of the former.
As with Athens Eclectic Cuisine, Duke’s Steakhouse is owned by Gus Petropoulos, an entrepreneur who prior to setting up shop in Albuquerque, owned six restaurants in Florida, including an affordable steak restaurant. He must have seen something in the economic winds when deciding to convert from a gourmet Greek restaurant to an affordable steak house.
The first thing you see after stepping into the restaurant’s anteroom is a decorative wagon wheel underneath which is a faux vanity plate reading “New Mexico Beef is Great.” The New Mexico Beef Council would certainly agree with that assertion as would anyone who’s sampled the beef which grazes on northern New Mexico’s lush, verdant mountain pastures.
Enter the restaurant and to your immediate right is a large refrigerated display case which showcases Flintstone sized slabs of beef. Even the most prolific gurgitator will be intimidated at the 72-ounce steak, a gargantuan steak the size of a large roast. Similar to the world-famous Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, Duke’s Steakhouse offers a challenge to prolific eaters. Finish the 72-ounce (that’s a whopping four and a half pounds) steak and all the trimmings (salad, two vegetables, dessert, bread and a skewer of shrimp) in an hour or less and the meal is on the house. Fail and you owe the house $72.
The 72-ounce mountain of meat dwarfs a 44-ounce steak next to it on the display case. Both are hand-cut and aged sirloin marinated with olive oil and fresh herbs. Brawny beef isn’t exclusive to Duke’s steaks. Behemoth “Ol West” burgers offer their own challenges, the type of which caloric overachievers relish.
Now you might think a burger called “Motherload” would be Duke’s most substantial burger, but at a half-pound, it’s a bitty burger. “Duke’s Signature Cheeseburger” weighs in at a whopping three pounds. It includes “lots of lettuce, tomato, Cheddar cheese, green chili, onions, mustard, a pickle spear and the restaurant’s signature green-chile mayonnaise. If you feel shortchanged, you can add on several optional ingredients.
The appetizers on Duke’s menu are pretty standard economy-priced starters: buffalo wings, loaded potato skins, onion petals, chicken strips, fried mushrooms, red chili poppers, fried mozzarella cheese and a combination of the aforementioned artery-hardeners. Three “garden fresh”salads occupy the column opposite the mostly fried appetizers.
Steaks range in size from a smallish USDA choice seven-ounce sirloin to the humongous hunks of meat previously described, but there are plenty of cuts in the more reasonable 10-, 12- and 16-ounce sizes. Carnivores can also order jumbo grilled pork chops, filet mignon kababs and a number of barbecue entrees. Some desserts are served in small metal buckets, the type in which complimentary salted peanuts are provided.
Normal eaters might have to exercise caution not to fill up on the complimentary bucket of salted peanuts in the shell brought to your table. In days past restaurants serving such peanuts considered it ambience to allow their customers to discard the empty shells on the floor. I surmise a costly litigious settlement courtesy of someone slipping and falling on the floor may be the reason this practice belongs to the past. Either that or Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department and their dreaded red stickers scared peanut-providing restauranteurs straight.
After placing your order, a roundish loaf of honey-glazed bread with soft butter will be brought to your table. Despite the sharpness of a serrated knife, the bread doesn’t slice cleanly and is apt to leave crumbs all over your table. It’s not the soft, doughy bread that goes so well with soft butter, but it’s a good “sopping up” bread for excess barbecue sauce (more on that later).
The entree your order will determine the number of sides accompanying your entree. Available sides are bbq beans, curly seasoned fries, garlic-basil mashed potatoes, country coleslaw, rice pilaf, baked potato, sweet potato, sauteed garden vegetables and sauteed mushrooms. You can load up your baked or mashed potatoes with cheese and bacon for under a dollar if you wish.
Difficult to resist, impossible not to love (at least among barbecue aficionados), baby back ribs are often a good test of a barbecue restaurant’s mettle. With meat between and on top of the bone, a rack of baby back ribs follows the contours of a pig’s rib cage which tapers so that the rack is smaller on one end than on the other. The perfect rack tapers, in fact, like the bamboo Zampona, an Andean instrument made in Peru. A typical rack of baby backs contains a minimum of eight ribs and generally includes as many as 13 ribs depending on the butcher.
Duke’s menu touts their baby backs as “our signature baby backs,” and describes them on the menu as “our incredibly tender baby back ribs are charcoal grilled and basted in our delicious homemade BBQ sauce.” Alas, our waitress broke my heart in telling me the “baby backs” were actually larger pork ribs–so large, in fact, that the rack of ribs extended beyond the plate on which they were served. The Flintstone-sized ribs were meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender, but the annoying membrane made it difficult to cut and separate one rib from the other.
The “do you remove the membrane or not” question has long been debated by better grillers than I. Leave the membrane on and your ribs are going to hold much more of their natural juices, but that messy annoyance of separating ribs can be an exercise in frustration. The sauce is more tangy than sweet and it’s generously applied though not so late in the preparation that it’s dry (or worse, lacquered on). It is still so moist, you’ll need several wipes to remove the evidence off your hands and face.
My two sides–a loaded baked potato and baked beans–suffered from the same cooking faux-pas. Both were just slightly undercooked–not so much that they were inedible, but enough that it was noticeable. Signs of a perfectly baked potato include a skin just crispy enough that it begins to separate from the fluffy potato inside. My preference is for the asada style potatoes offered by some Mexican restaurants, but it’s steak restaurants with which people tend to associate baked potatoes. As such, there’s no excuse for underdone potatoes.
My Kim asked for a twelve-ounce New York strip steak with salt, pepper and garlic on both sides and boy did she ever get what she asked for. It was a bit too garlicky for me, but my Kim likes her food garlicky enough to ward off werewolves. The steak was tender, juicy and perfectly prepared at medium. It was much better than the type of steak you might find at the chains which dare to co-opt the names of classic western television shows.
Instead of a bucket dessert, we opted for bread pudding which turned out to be more bread than pudding. It lacked the characteristics of great bread puddings: moistness, balance of flavors and that “wow” factor you’ll find in the bread pudding at one of Albuquerque’s best purveyors of bread pudding, Barry’s Oasis.
Duke’s Steakhouse fills a niche. It offers budget-priced steak in a fairly stereotypical milieu (country music, cowboy accoutrements, wood paneling, etc.). It’s a better steakhouse than the economy chains and it’s a fun restaurant to visit. Duke’s is open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday from 11AM to 9PM and Friday and Saturday from 11AM to 10PM.
6300 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bucket of Peanuts, New York Strip, Sauteed Mushrooms