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Upscale Buffalo Ranch Sizzzzzles

April 15, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

The folks at Sizzler are planning to turn that well-worn whisper ("sssizz-ler") into a rumbling snort. They're about to convert more than 100 of their 722 franchises into a nationwide chain of Buffalo Ranch Steakhouses.

What makes this especially relevant to Orange County restaurant-goers is that the company has chosen to launch the new chain right here on Marguerite Parkway in Mission Viejo. Yep, podners, the nation's first Buffalo Ranch opened Dec. 18 and is up and running on all cylinders, or rather on all fours, with more to follow soon. (In March, a second Buffalo Ranch has opened in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, and several others are planned for early fall.)

But where Sizzler offers medium-quality family dining at bargain-basement prices, Buffalo Ranch takes clear aim at a very different market. By choosing a well-heeled exurb as its test market site, Sizzler is trying its luck with people who don't mind paying between $12 and $20 for an entree steak. So don't expect a salad bar or a seven-ounce cut of top sirloin at a Buffalo Ranch.

On the contrary, do plan on being pleasantly surprised by all the fuss and effort. And expect to find the place crowded. Come without a reservation at peak hours, and you'll probably wait a good long time for a table.

You might want to know that this is a lively, upbeat place that rings with country music, exuberant singing and whooping any time there is a birthday, and lots of childlike noises. Buffalo Ranch is yet another restaurant that employs the already infamous vibrating pager, which shimmies instead of beeps when your table is ready. This does make a certain amount of sense in a restaurant of this decibel rating.

We're talking pure, flag-waving Western Americana with the restaurant's concept. This former Sizzler room has been completely redone into a dark, woody, high-ceilinged barn-like affair. The floor is strewn with hay, and there are actual woodpiles and saddles to sit on while you're waiting for your table. There are antler chandeliers and murals of running buffalo. An enormous buffalo head nailed up over the bar snorts mechanically and spurts steam like Old Faithful at odd intervals, giving unsuspecting customers a bizarre little jolt.

Indian-style jewelry and Buffalo Ranch T-shirts, jerseys and steak sauce are for sale from a glassed-in gift case sitting conveniently next to the front door (parents, watch your wallets).

Luckily, the steaks are choice cuts of meat flamed over real hickory wood, a wood that imparts a sweet, distinctive flavor ideally suited to beef. That means you're not just paying for a marketing hook. You get something for your money at Buffalo Ranch.

Speaking of buffalo (and marketing hooks), there are appetizers made from buffalo meat, though none threatens to make the animal an endangered species any time soon.

"Buffalo bounty" is spiced-up ground buffalo meat with melted cheese, pico de gallo and tortilla chips--a huge serving of food, enough for four. Smokin' buffalo chili mixes smoked prime rib and ground buffalo with pinto and kidney beans into a chunky chili, albeit a rather bland model that could have been made with any kind of meat.

Before getting to the main event--namely the hickory-flamed steaks and "ranch wagon entrees" such as the smoky ribs and chicken--everyone gets long, narrow, chewy garlic baguettes baked on wooden planks and something the restaurant calls haystack Caesar, which is hearts of romaine lettuce topped with lots of shredded cheese and a lightweight, olive-oil based Caesar dressing.

On to the steaks: They're all top-notch, USDA Choice grain-fed beef, seasoned, flamed and hickory broiled for what the menu calls "that real Western flavor." My favorite is the ranch foreman's filet mignon, nine ounces of fork-tender beef, nicely wrapped in bacon. It's a thick, smooth, grainy steak with enough marbling to be juicy.

There's a 12-ounce New York cut--a bit dry perhaps, but tender and very tasty. The pepper steak is distinguished by a coating of coarsely crushed black peppercorns, which stick in your teeth and eventually invade the olfactory passages. The Jack Daniels sauce that you're supposed to pour on it is mostly rich demi-glace, and it's a pretty good one for a high-volume restaurant.

The restaurant's much ballyhooed smoked prime rib, prominently displayed on the menu, impressed me much less than the steaks. The piece I had tasted good, but it was tough.

Items from the ranch wagon side of the menu are erratic, too. Honey-smoked chicken has rubbery, pale brown skin and looks like the kind of soy sauce chicken found in the window of any Chinese barbecue house. Though the meat is nicely perfumed, the skin puts off all but the most hardened diners.

The smoked back ribs are just great, though: meaty, messy, dry-style ribs glazed with a sticky maple barbecue sauce. The roasted duck is greasy and burdened with an insipid sweet sauce, as duck tends to be in American restaurants, this one with a jammy raspberry base.

This palace of red meat actually serves trout, butterflied and grilled with herb butter. True, it's the only fish dish on a menu that has been put together solidly for the beefeater, and not surprisingly, my waitress informed me, Buffalo Ranch runs out of it all the time.

Buffalo Ranch Steakhouse is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.25 to $4.95. Entrees are $9.95 to $18.50. Desserts are 89 cents to $4.75.

BUFFALO RANCH STEAKHOUSE

28241 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo.

(714) 364-1372.

Open for dinner Sunday 2-9 p.m., Monday-Thursday 4-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4-11 p.m.

All major credit cards accepted.

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