On a roadside in the Verde Valley, a restaurant beckons to passersby with the scents of hearty, home-cooked Southern and Southwestern cuisine. Nate's Cowboy Cafe relishes in its charming frontier aesthetic, a place where guests can sink their teeth into a well-marbled, charbroiled ribeye, sip margaritas from mason jars, or say "consarn it" without attracting any funny looks. Friendly, cowboy-hat clad servers roll out pints of frosty beer and plates laden with country-fried steaks, smoked-salmon tacos, and succulent, slow-cooked baby back ribs.
Though the nearly 3 million-acre Tonto National Forest surrounds Payson with pine trees and saguaro cacti, many of the city's natural features and recreation options come from the Mogollon Rim, a towering cliff that stretches up to 2,000 feet and about 200 miles long. Hundreds of miles of roads slink through the rim’s awe-inspiring scenery, passing campsites, hiking trails, and lakes rife with fishing opportunities. Animals including black bears, bobcats, and whitetail deer have been seen—many of them on mopeds—among the forested hills. In town, Payson’s idyllic Main Street harks back to its Old West roots with antique stores and cowboy-centric history museums.
Harold's Corral gussies up mealtime with an eclectic menu of western-inspired eats, two full bars, patio seating, and live entertainment. Round up hungry herds for dinner with dishes of chicken, fried to a golden finish and side-kicked by yellow-bellied mashed potatoes ($9.99 for 4 pieces, $15.99 for 8 pieces). Southwestern penne pasta ($14.99) brings new meaning to spaghetti westerns with poblano cream sauce and Cajun chicken. Barbecue barons smoke slabs of ribs and brisket ($11.99–$24.99) on-site daily, crafting nuanced flavors with mesquite wood chips. Dig into classic Mexican dishes such as the chicken enchiladas ($9.99), or light off meat-based fireworks with a juicy light show of burgers, strip steaks, and a grand finale of the Meatball Bomber ($8.99), dripping with sauce, cheese, and glory.
Carvers Steaks & Chops prepares a menu of certified Angus beef in a traditional, friendly American steak-house atmosphere. Dive into an 8-ounce stuffed fillet, brimming with blue-cheese mushroom duxelle and tucked into a sleeping bag of bacon ($31), or wrap tongues around a 14-ounce whiskey-peppercorn pork chop crowned with mushrooms ($22). Nonbovine entrees include the parmesan-crusted sea bass, swiftly swimming through béarnaise sauce ($26). Specialty beverages from Carvers' full-service bar make excellent escorts for the upscale fare.
A bowl of clear soup and a salad serve as the opening act for the main attraction at Ooka Hibachi: the hibachi chefs. They stage cooking performances from behind the grill right by your table, flipping shrimp and sizzling steaks with the skill of a blackjack dealer with spatulas for hands. Away from the searing and excitement, there are sushi chefs in the dining room, who build maki rolls and hand rolls from fresh cuts of fresh fish and vinegared rice. Rounding out the menu of Japanese fare: teriyaki and tempura entrees, noodle dishes, and a number of sweet desserts, including a fried banana with ice cream.
Offering breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner, Saddle Ranch’s menu of succulent steaks—such as the New York strip ($28.99) with a demi-glaze, Jack Daniel’s sauce, or herb-garlic butter—are, of course, the big draw. But its specialties extend far beyond that to include barbecue baby-back ribs ($21.99), seasoned sweet and spicy black-tiger shrimp ($18.99), and fresh Atlantic salmon garnished with fresh lemon and garlic-herb butter ($19.99). Lighter appetites, meanwhile, can tuck into sandwiches like the Jack Daniel’s sloppy joe ($10.99) or a south-of-the-border Hacienda Salad ($12.99). Top off a gut-busting repast with the deep-dish cobbler ($8.99) before riding Saddle Ranch's mechanical bull into a credits-rolling sunset.