If you still casually lump cowboys and Indians together, as in children's games, you're behind the times. The power of fashion has divided them into two separate--this time non-belligerent--camps, each with its own kind of fashionable cooking.
First came Southwest cooking, a new cuisine elaborated from traditional Southwest ingredients served in restaurants decorated with Southwest Indian motifs. They helped inspire the neo-Navajo pastel and geometric craze called Santa Fe style.
With "Indians" all over the place, could "Cowboys" be far behind? Of course not. But this time the fashion came before the food: chairs with wagon wheels for arms and dishes with brands on them seem to be on display in collectible shops all over and in the new Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum.
New York, of course, has gone even further, with such done-to-the-hilt Western-style eateries as Home on the Range and Cowgirl Hall of Fame. But don't you fret, pardner, we jest got one of our very own: Encino's Oklahoma Pit Far Westaurant. Now, if the name sounds a little nah'eeve, don't let it bother you none, so is the whole shebang--and I, for one, am glad about it.
For openers, there's obviously no designer in the kitchen at Oklahoma Pit--this is chuck wagon food, simple and straightforward, and some of it quite good. Just like out on the range, there's steaks and ribs and burgers and beans and sausage and very little else (vegetarians stay away). Fortunately there probably wasn't a designer in the dining room either. Objects (blessedly few of them) seem to have landed where they are by accident: a Mexican rug draped diagonally into a corner of a wall, a Colonial-style weather vane sticking out of the lava rocks or what may once have been a Japanese carp pond.
If the decor seems haphazard in a carefree, non-urban way, the food and service match it well--good steaks and beans, terrible salad dressings, food not always hot.
If they didn't have it on the chuck wagon, they probably don't have it here: There are no appetizers and no vegetables. What you get is meat on your plate and plenty of it. The Buffalo Bill Cut steak is 27 ounces of porterhouse, bone-in, fat on and at an amazingly low price. It is a meat-eater's delight, flavorful and juicy. Although at first glance you might think you should have ordered the smaller Lone Ranger (22 ounces), savoring the meat should remind you of the Italian saying: \o7 L'appetito vien mangiando \f7 (the appetite comes with eating, or the more there is, the more you want). The thinner T-bone (Annie Get Your Gun) is tasty but not nearly as succulent as the porterhouse.
I'd steer clear of the ribs, both beef and pork. The beef ribs are so big they look as if they came from a mastodon in the Natural History Museum; the same goes for the tough meat. By comparison, the pork ribs looked delicate, but the meat was dry. The barbecued chicken was pedestrian. A cowboy-pleasing hamburger (Navajo Cut) is another matter. It's smoky and well-textured (although if you don't want mayonnaise on it, you'd better say so).
Up to this point, the fanciful names have made a certain sense, but the next one is just plain off the wall. The only "tribe" that the excellent Indian Cut Sausage might be native to lives along the River Seine. It's a plump, moist, fine-textured and delicately seasoned product dotted with green peppercorns. You'd expect to find it in a chic bistro, but it would be welcome anywhere.
What better complement could a fine grilled steak have than beans? None, if they're as good as the ones at Oklahoma Pit, which are cooked up with chopped beef and cumin. The meats also come with salad. If I were you, I'd totally avoid the dressings and just squeeze some lemon juice over the shreds of iceberg lettuce.
Odd as it is, Oklahoma Pit doesn't feel like some kind of theme restaurant. It has so little polish that it feels like the real thing. Naturally, they've got a good selection of domestic and imported beers and a little bit of wine (mostly Glen Ellen). But they also have some mighty mysterious aperitifs: "Dummonet," "Vir" and "Liciet White" ("Whatever it is," the spunky waitress said cheerily, "we don't have it"). I'd stick to beer.
Adding to the relaxed atmosphere is a low noise level--the country music is kept discreetly toned down and the place isn't crowded, perhaps because it's only been open a few weeks. With time, however, maybe they'll smooth out some of the rough edges (kitchen timing, for one), but I hope they leave enough to keep Oklahoma Pit's peculiar individuality.
Recommended dishes: Buffalo Bill Cut (27-ounce porterhouse steak) $13.95; Navajo Cut (hamburger), $5.95; Indian Cut Sausage, $7.95.
\o7 Oklahoma Pit Far Westaurant, 17970 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 343-3030. Open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two (food only) $30-$55. \f7