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Flaming Truth

[whitespace] Elizabeth McCarthy
Christopher Gardner

Meat and Greet: Elizabeth McCarthy demonstrates a Flames claim to fame--the pepper steak.

Pepper steak, scampi and rack of lamb are just a few of the keepers of the Three Flames

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

WE'D JUST SLID INTO the button-tuck booth when my 89-year-old dinner guest leaned in close to me. "Get the pepper steak," Aileen whispered. "It's out of this world."

Pepper steak. That's what Ron, my barber, said too. "Since the Brave Bull in Town and Country shopping center closed," he once remarked, "the Three Flames serves the best." I've come to trust people like Aileen and Ron. People like them have been around. They love dining, love food, love to schmooze with friends over dishes they can count on.

But there's more to the Three Flames legend than pepper steak. I remember years ago when I suddenly began seeing coffee shops all over the place with the name "Flames." Well, the eateries eventually fanned out over the Santa Clara Valley like a brush fire on a windy day. Sometimes I'd grab eggs over at the Flames on Winchester, sometimes salads at the Flames in Los Gatos. "What's the connection?" my editor asked recently.

I made a few phone calls and quickly discovered that there are five remaining locations owned by the same three brothers (hence the Three Flames). The original Flames was a coffee shop in Los Gatos which was sold some time ago. The dinner house on Meridian opened in 1980. Ronald Reagan was president then. Remember?

Whatever the Three Flames has become, has done or hasn't done, it's remained true to its purpose, and because of that--because of its consistency, its fair prices--it has secured a steadfast clientele. I know people who come here for months on end, refusing to move onward to something different.

I guarantee that anyone who goes to the Flames won't be bored. Not everyone will like the food, but no one will be bored. This place is a romp.

I recommend a stop at the bar, and a seat at one of the stools, front and center. Then just listen. Gamblers might catch a tip on a good horse (track talk is big here) or the point spread on some game flickering on the big-screen TV. And anyone at all interested in people will hear some of the goofiest side notes to the human condition ever.

The type that frequents this bar comes from a generation of people who had style and weren't afraid to show it off. I've seen pinkie rings, diamond rings, hairdos from the '50s, tailored slacks and white shoes (yes, white shoes). The cars they drive are big American jobs with perfect power steering, the kind where you can turn the wheel with one finger.

I can't recommend everything on the menu--it's too big. And the kitchen, though proficient, just can't do everything well. That would be unrealistic. I come here when I have a yen for a steak, or prawns in one of those rich continental sauces, or when I want to sit in a quiet booth to find refuge under dim light amid the murmurs of steak-and-potato devotees.

After thoroughly researching this place, talking to the regulars--people like Aileen and Ron and Mardell from Willow Glen--I've put together a list of dishes I believe the kitchen does best. Begin with an antipasto ($9.50), an attractively assembled plate of fresh prawns and crabmeat, cucumber spears, tomatoes, kalamata olives and good salami. A light dressing of olive oil and vinegar ties it all together.

For a more substantial starter, order the scampi ($7.95 appetizer; $14.95 entree), a perennial specialty, and one so aromatic you can literally smell it on approach. Juicy gulf prawns with tails intact are sauteed in lemon, butter and garlic. I found the sauce too thick for my liking, but my guest disagreed and proved it by mopping the plate with bread.

Believe what you hear about the pepper steak ($16.95). It's the flagship of the menu, and perhaps--as I've been told time and again--the best rendition in this town. It begins with a well-aged, thick-cut New York studded topside with black peppercorns, bacon and minced green onions. Once cooked, the flavors blend together, penetrating the meat so that each bite jolts the palate with rich, spicy flavors.

The three brothers who own this place are Greeks, and believe me, Greeks know how to fix lamb. The rack of lamb ($26.95) is the best in this category and another specialty skillfully prepared by this kitchen. We went to work on a seven-rib rack crusted with herbs and roasted to exacting specifications. Midway through we discarded our forks and used our fingers to nibble every last morsel from the bones.

All side dishes mix and match butter-drenched seasonal vegetables with a choice of rice, baked potato or garlic mashed potatoes. Make a wide turn around the garlic mashed; they just don't work. If there was garlic in them at all, it must've been on furlough. Flavor and consistency were flat.

Service is a big part of why people return to the Three Flames. The bartenders, the waitresses, the hostesses, even the busboys remember you and make sure you're recognized when you come in. They appreciate your business, but aren't cloying and wimpish about it. And like everything else about this place, the service is never boring. With big hair and big smiles, how could it be?

Three Flames
Address: 1547 Meridian Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408/269-3133
Hours: Mon.-Wed. 11am-3:30pm and 4-9:30pm; Thu. 11am-3:30pm and 4-10pm; Fri.-Sat. 11am-3:30pm and 4-11pm; Sunday 4-9:30pm
Cuisine: Continental
Prices: $10-$27

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From the August 19-25, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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