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Review: Fred’s Arena Bar and Steakhouse

Cook Phil Morrison cooks over the mesquite grill in Fred's dining area.

Cook Phil Morrison cooks over the mesquite grill in Fred's dining area.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more authentically rustic Western steakhouse than this big, noisy A-frame, which sits approximately a mile south of nowhere.

This is not one of those places that gets its tack from a restaurant-supply outfit. The ranch and rodeo implements were pulled from nearby barns, retired after years of overuse. The booths are as weathered and worn as a 20-year-old baseball glove, and the menagerie of stuffed animals mounted on the beams tough it out in various states of decay in the company of intermittent herds of dust bunnies. Despite the appointments, and quite possibly because of them, Fred’s offers a distinctly entertaining and satisfying dining experience.

A recent Saturday night had us feeling like interlopers at a place that got its start more than two decades ago as a concession stand next to Fred’s roping arena a couple of miles east of Three Points. Just about everyone who came through the door was either greeted with shouts and hugs or jeers and snorts. The locals here are the kind of people who wear boots and hats all year long (not just during Tucson’s “rodeo week”), people accustomed to bumping down a long, dirt road past the occasional pack of semi-wild dogs, people who know each other so well that they know some things they wish they didn’t know.

The place was already bustling about 6 p.m., so much so that we had a few minutes before our server greeted us to alternate between watching country music videos on one large-screen television and “Wheel of Fortune” on the other. It was easy to settle in, soak up the atmosphere, and watch the servers hustle from the mesquite-fired grill smack dab in the middle of the dining room to the booths and tables.

Our Vegetable and Cheese Platter ($5.95) was pretty much what we expected – a mammoth, oval plate loaded with chunks of tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and about two dozen one-inch cubes of colby, Monterey Jack and Swiss cheeses. The Buffalo Wings ($3.95) were a pleasant surprise, served dry with a spiced-up breading rather than slathered in sauce. The breading was substantial but not overbearing, and the wings had been cooked to a good crispy finish without drying out the meat.

The 16-ounce T-Bone ($17.95) was expertly grilled to our medium-rare request, but carried an aftertaste imbued with a slightly sour tinge, and was outperformed by the 10-ounce Top Sirloin ($13.95). This underrated cut of meat is almost always relegated to the lower tiers of menus below the sexier filet mignon, porterhouse, T-bone, rib-eye and New York strip. Fred’s version reminded me of just how good a humble sirloin can be when done right. It was lusciously tender and uncommonly robust in flavor. I got the feeling that Top Sirloin may be the most popular steak ordered here, and that as a result, Fred’s goes through them at a timelier pace than more expensive cuts, a pace that makes for a better tasting steak.

The baked potatoes, fries and Texas Toast that accompanied the steaks were well-prepared and generously portioned. The dinner salads were nothing to write home about, but they rarely are at places like this.

The plates and sides at Fred’s are huge enough to have you wondering how anyone could have room for dessert, so it was no surprise that there was not much to offer.

“We might have some brownies in the back,” our server told us, later returning to inform us that they’d been 86ed. We hung around for a while anyway, as this is the kind of place that makes you want to hang around, even if you and your companion are the lone city slickers.

Fred's Mesquite Broiled Top Sirloin, perhaps its most popular steak dinner.

Fred's Mesquite Broiled Top Sirloin, perhaps its most popular steak dinner.



For more on this and more than 800 other Metro Tucson restaurants, check out the Taste Plus Restaurant guide at the top of this page or the home page.



What: Fred’s Arena Bar & Steakhouse

Address and phone: 9650 S. Avra Road, 883-7337

Prices: Appetizers from $3.50 to $6.95; soup, salads and sandwiches $2.50 to $3.25; entrees from $8.50 to $17.95; desserts for $2.50

Bar: Full

Vegetarian options: Yes, including Dinner Salad ($2.50) and Baked Potato ($2.50).

Desserts: Brownies ($2.50) and ice cream ($2.50)

Currency: Cash and credit

Latest health inspection: A “needs improvement” rating July 16. Critical violations were reported for potentially hazardous foods not held at proper cooling temperature, for food contact surfaces and equipment not cleaned frequently and properly to prevent food contamination, and for foods not correctly date marked. Those violations were corrected at a follow-up inspection July 24.

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