Restaurants employ a variety of tactics to win customers. Mustang Sally's, a four-month-old steak house in a desolate Flamingo Road shopping plaza out in cow country (a.k.a. Cooper City), is currently utilizing a time-honored method. No, it's not exploitation of the Wilson Pickett song, the all-American car, or even the horse. It's milking -- I mean attracting -- the family-oriented diner.
See, Mustang Sally's is kid-friendly, which explains the arcade game smack in the middle of the hallway, right behind the hostess stand. The machine, stocked with appealing stuffed animals, allows the player to try to "catch" one of the large creatures with a mechanical claw for a mere two bits. (You've seen these at amusement parks, in Toy Story, and though the Humane Society frowns on it, stocked with live Maine lobsters in seafood restaurants.) You can't escape to the smoke-filled bar or to the dining room, cozy with brick walls and big red booths, without walking past it. And if your children are with you, the game is either a terrific distraction or a terrible nuisance, depending upon the age of said offspring.
In my case the game turned out to be a problem, given that my daughter is two years old -- old enough to be a consumer but too young to waste my money without adult supervision. My husband spent half of our recent visit at the machine with her, trying to snare the gorilla that caught her eye. After watching him come up empty a good dozen times, the staff took pity on him and started coaching him. One kindly waiter went so far as to win the gorilla himself, presenting it to my daughter as a gift.
5834 S. Flamingo Rd., Cooper City
954-434-2008. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.
So, OK, this gesture was incredibly nice, and after Zoe stopped screaming -- she found the big gorilla very scary close up -- she was properly appreciative. But I find the whole incident a little disturbing, because other staff members had been eyeing the gorilla for themselves, and every time my husband went back to the machine (Zoe subsequently yearned for the dolphin), he would encounter one or more of them pining for the now-captured beast. All of them also had stories about other great stuffed animals they had snagged and were in evident competition with each other. One staffer told my husband that she had a carload of the animals, and the hostess' boyfriend, who had come to hang out with her while she was on the job, played so regularly he often won two or three animals in an evening, he said.
The point? Only that this barely postpubescent wait staff seems to be running Mustang Sally's for itself. Indeed we couldn't find one employee who appeared to be over legal gambling age -- including the manager and the Johnson & Wales jacket-clad chef -- or who had any interest in doing anything but entertaining him- or herself.
Granted, because the place wasn't busy, many of the servers probably didn't have much to do. And I couldn't help but be grateful that Mustang Sally's welcomed my rambunctious child so openly. But the lack of parental supervision -- I mean the obvious, week-round presence of owners Ed Feaster, Bill Carroll, and brother Jim Carroll -- has resulted in lax service, indifferently prepared food, and improper responses to customer complaints.
First the service. It's earnest, but it stinks. The server didn't know the food, shrugging off or bluffing through our questions. Is the filet mignon eight ounces? I think so, he said. Can you do the filet mignon Pittsburgh-style? I think so, he said. Are the mushrooms (a side dish) sautéed in butter? I think so, he said.
Should a training session include a food tasting? I think so.
Our waiter's hands were as shaky as his mental grasp of the menu. He bobbled our appetizer of steamed littleneck clams, then, in case we hadn't noticed, said, "Whoops. Almost dropped these," as he laid them on the table with visible relief. He then proceeded to drop containers of butter and sour cream directly onto my daughter's diaper bag (but not, I am thankful, onto the gorilla), and spent a good five minutes mopping up the mess, sweating profusely all the while.
In retrospect it's a pity the tough, musty clams didn't hit the floor, because they were long past the point where they should have been dumped. The filet mignon, set on a soggy piece of bread and topped with cold, steamed julienne vegetables, would have been better off on someone's shoes as well. Served medium-rare rather than Pittsburgh-style -- black-and-blue, seared to a crisp on the outside and rare as tuna in the center -- the filet tasted rancid. But when we called the server over to tell him that the meat was funky, he just stood there. My guest, a professional chef and a 20-year veteran of restaurant kitchens, told him you could even tell the meat was bad by smelling it. So he picked up the plate, sniffed it, and set it back down in front of her.
We eventually convinced the waiter to take the steak back to the kitchen, where Mustang Sally's chef, it seems, sampled it. Because he then came out of his lair to argue with us. It's not spoiled, he said. My guest was appalled, both by the chef's bad form and by his apparent lack of taste buds. Did it seem all right to you? she asked. Well, no, he admitted, but that's because the steak was rare, and he didn't like rare meat. In fact it was Buckhead beef, the best in the country, he wanted us to know.
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Look, I could be eating $150-per-ounce beluga caviar, I still reserve the right to be horrified if the stuff is off. At least the restaurant took the bum steer off the check. But since we'd already complained about a bowl of ice-cold clam chowder, made with a clear broth that might have been palatable at the proper temperature, as well as the steak, we didn't dare bring attention to anything else that evening. That included the slipper lobster tails that were also iffy in terms of freshness. The lobster tails, about two ounces each, had appeared on a sampler platter along with a diminutive stuffed crab back, a rubbery boneless chicken breast, and overly sweet St. Louis barbecued ribs. We also didn't care for the roasted red peppers, which exuded a tinny odor and canned flavor, on top of a Mexican pizza appetizer, the base of which looked like the Boboli you buy in the supermarket.
Oddly enough the two most successful items of the evening were ones that don't seem to fit the steak house theme. "Dried and fried" string beans, an Asian-influenced starter, were slightly soggy green beans, stir-fried with a tangy, spicy red chili sauce. A main course of jambalaya, spelled "jumbalaya" on the menu, featured a pile of rice topped with tender chunks of chicken, rounds of andouille sausage, mussels, and shrimp, all blanketed with a zesty pink cream sauce.
Aside from those dishes, a serving of mashed potatoes -- a creamy, lumpy, home-style mixture topped with rich gravy -- was pleasant. Another side portion of sautéed mushrooms did indeed seem to have been cooked in real butter. A diner who likes iceberg lettuce could make do with the generous house salad that comes with many of the entrées; though dressings are commercial blue cheese or Thousand Island, they're served on the side and are plentiful.
Desserts include a Belgian waffle topped with Jaxson's ice cream and the "chocolate beast," a layer cake with chocolate sauce. But given the tenor of your meal at Mustang Sally's, you might just wish to spend your money on more rewarding beasts: the stuffed animals in the arcade game. Otherwise Mustang Sally's is just a monkey on the diner's back.