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The Cowboy Way

Christopher Gardner

Horns of Plenty: Robert Morris of Vaquero's has corraled a menu designed to make meat lovers hoot and holler.

Vaquero's brings some Southwestern style to the West Valley

By Christina Waters

WHEN A SNAZZY new steakhouse cropped up in the Westgate area, I rounded up a crew of unrepentant carnivores and led them down to that neck of the woods. We were among the first few to brand this place, which dares to take its name from the cowpokes that once worked the Southwest corner of America.

Handsomely hewn from rough pine and duded up in shades of sandstone with iron accents, Vaquero's aspires to be a border chop house where pinstripe-suited cowboys will be comfortable. If the color scheme and the furniture don't set the pace, the expansive rodeo mural ropes in the mood. And then there are the cooks hopping in the open kitchen, chatting into their headsets. It seems all the gears are well lubricated even at this early stage of the game, and that bodes well.

Mouths watering for some carnivorous action, we galloped through the garden part of the menu (four salads, $5 each) and commandeered a pair of serious appetizers. While the hefty basket of calamari was delectable with a squeeze of lemon, it was the grilled chicken skewers that made our gang of four hoot and holler. Rambling like a seaside fence atop a dune of mango, diced and tossed in a cilantro salsa with chile heat, the mini chicken kebabs excited our palates with perfectly grilled meat, almost crisp on the outside, juicy and tender inside.

For Vaquero's home-on-the-range cuisine, our draft pick was Coast Range Desperado ($4), a mild, amber brew with no aftertaste. Good stuff for cutting through the grease if not the decibel levels. (Intimate conversation? Ha!)

Had the kitchen not whipped up our grub faster than a bull can throw a cowboy, my crew would have done more than just grumble about the lack of bread. They weren't asking for cornbread, pan-baked rolls or anything complicated--just a hunk of bread, something to sop up the meat juices.

In our view there were finer ways to treat a filet mignon than either searing or blackening. Out of curiosity, we asked for a medium-rare cut ($18), iron-seared as advertised, but got instead a rare filet, plain and under-cherished.

Precisely medium-rare were our strips of marinated flank steak ($12) laid out on a flat of spicy red chile sauce in the company of uninspired black beans and charred goat cheese quesadillas. The grain-fed beef, tender and rich, was worth every buck. Another notable entry ($14) was the seared pork tenderloin paired with a nice cinnamony chipotle chutney of pear and raisin.

Since they were barbecued, we had to try them: baby back ribs ($16, or $10 for half rack). The full rack outsized its plate, so sides of black beans and zippy chile slaw topped with pecan and spiced brown sugar followed on a separate platter. The ribs scored good marks for moistness and flavor.

As far as sidekicks were concerned, the cooks wielded big ladles and we were happy with our portions. Robert Morris, head honcho of this chuckwagon, dreamed up some very tasty sides ($2.50 each): potato casserole, green beans with a fruit glaze, Texmati rice, mashed potatoes spiked with green onion and sour cream. All entrees came with at least one of the above, but our waiter informed us swapping wasn't allowed (not very sporting, we thought).

Because they claimed the lemon meringue pie was "better than Mom's," we called their bluff. And won--although we wound up paying for it ($4) anyway.

We all agreed the best thing on the dessert menu was the grilled banana sandwich a la mode ($5), with dainty finger sandwiches reminiscent of banana bread pudding atop a luscious sheet of caramel.

Despite spotty service and a few kitchen missteps--both attributable to the restaurant's greenness--Vaquero's performs with refined Southwestern flair. Certainly a contender to watch.


Cuisine: Spicy Southwestern steakhouse
Ambiance: Dressily casual, but "No tank tops allowed"
Prices: Starters $5­$7; entrees $10­$18
Hours: Sun.­Thu. 11am­10pm, Fri.­Sat. 11am­11pm.
Address: 1010 El Paseo de Saratoga, San Jose
Phone: 408/871-1114

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From the August 14-20, 1997 issue of Metro.

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