TNT Diner

Down home at Steel Creek: New steakhouse in Tacoma finding its groove

It's a steakhouse with a side of honky tonk, a country-western bar with a stunning wood dance floor the size of a modest house and a mechanical bull beckoning would-be cowboys and girls. Servers wear jeans and cowboy boots. Pendant lamps are made out of whiskey bottles.

The menu is pure steakhouse, with prime rib, burgers and pot roast adding meaty alternatives.

Gone is the sports bar and entertainment emporium that was Varsity Grill. Welcome Steel Creek American Whiskey Co., a country-themed steakhouse that opened in downtown Tacoma on June 7.

Think of the opening as a "rebrand." The chef, menu and decor are new, but the ownership is still Jon Tartaglia, Paul Muller, Charlie Snyder and Fred Roberson. Does Steel Creek's theme sound just a bit like Big Whisky, the downtown country-rock club that closed in May? If it does, here's why: Tartaglia was one of the owners of that club, which is now the cocktail lounge 502 Downtown.

Varsity Grill's theater room has been converted into an enormous dance floor where line dancing is the entertainment of choice on weekends. Expect to see live county-rock music acts roll through the club, too.

The two-week conversion of Varsity Grill to Steel Creek probably was one of the quickest I've seen, which may explain why some details haven't been tended. A visit last week found the promised whiskey list and flights weren't yet available to diners, and servers didn't seem to know the menu.

Our server's stumble over the pronunciation of demi-glace proved a point I'd like to make about how the food can seem at odds with the achy breaky theme of the cowboy saloon. Drinks are served in jars, and the menu has pot roast, burgers, wings and nachos. Yet plates of steak arrived with a full rosemary sprig pointing skyward. Steak was perched atop potatoes a bit fussily. And demi-glace was a steak topper. The presentation aims squarely at fine dining, but Steel Creek's atmosphere begs plating with cowboy appeal. The theme and food seem disconnected, and diners might be rightly confused.

Service at the Varsity Grill always trended friendly, as it does at Steel Creek. However, I was annoyed with how casual it was. Example: Our server didn't know what kind of whiskeys the bar stocked (unexpected for a restaurant with "Whiskey Company" in the name), but she told us we were welcome to mosey on over to the bar and take a look at the bottles. Minus 10 points for requiring diners to do a server's work. Or better yet, how about getting the whiskey list printed up?

I found a lot to like in the menu, despite the service and plating nitpicking. With the closure of The Keg near Fircrest, I've been asked relentlessly where diners can find a good, affordable steak. My current answer is Steel Creek.

Four Certified Angus Beef steaks - a porterhouse, rib eye, top sirloin and flat iron - were well priced at $15.99-$27.99. Three steaks sampled over two visits came out of the kitchen with precision execution, the work of new chef Roman Aguillon, formerly of Green Turtle and Morso in Gig Harbor. Flame-grilled steaks come with a choice of sauce. Add prawns, mushrooms and onions, or a blue cheese crust for a surcharge of $2.99-$5.99.

A flat iron ($15.99) with whiskey butter - served tableside in a metal bowl set over a candle for quick melting - was perfectly beefy, a dynamite piece of meat with the slightest tug of chewiness. A rib eye ($21.99) was a touch thinner than I wanted, but almost slippery it was so tender. Spot-on perfect seasoning rendered the pepper port demi-glace unnecessary. Conversely, the cognac peppercorn cream sauce I ordered with the top sirloin ($19.99) only enhanced the beefiness of that cut of meat. I love the graininess of a good top sirloin, and this one had it.

As for sides, there's a choice of fries (which are fine) and rice pilaf, but I'd stick with the outstanding butter-licked mashed Yukon golds or roasted fingerlings. Veggies were served on the side.

At Varsity Grill, salad or soup came with entrees, but the menu at Steel Creek no longer offers that. Here's something else that's gone: the all-day, every-day kids-eat-free promotion. The kid's menu is priced at $6.99.

Tip: Catch this serious dining deal - a $7.99 Wednesday special offers a small cut of steak, a skewer of shrimp and fries.

Note: Do not go to lunch expecting a steakhouse menu. There's only one steak on the menu - the flat iron for $13.99. But don't miss the Wild West Burger ($10.49), a half-pounder patty, cooked over flame, topped with cheddar, bacon, barbecue sauce and a jumbo onion ring.

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Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.