Shooting Star Ranch is a sprawling new restaurant next to the main gate at Universal Studios, safely beyond (by 100 feet or so) the throng milling around over at CityWalk.
The restaurant hasn't been crowded during my visits, partly because of its immense size, but more probably because this is definitely a restaurant for kids. CityWalk is a baby boomer playground, which is why the Walk offers, among other things, a sushi bar, a Wolfgang Puck pizza cafe and a Jody Maroni sausage stand.
Kids I've brought up here, though, definitely prefer the food at Shooting Star Ranch--a Western-themed restaurant featuring all-American barbecue, chicken-fried steak and a spate of kid food--to the sushi, fig sausages and salmon pizza consumed so passionately on CityWalk. I'd describe food at this restaurant as about average; slightly above, when it comes to barbecued or grilled meats and side dishes, well below with regard to the overly tame chili, goofy little pizzas and watery, tasteless salads.
Envision this place as a huge wooden shack, a sort of converted barn with American flag bunting draped everywhere. One side has a dance floor where regular contests are held. The other is a dining area where wannabe-Garth Brooks waiters in cowboy hats take care of customers. It's lively too. One of the entertainment coordinators, who really did look like a refugee from Frontierland, was actually coaxing people into saying "yee-ha" while competing on the dance floor. During that time, I wished I was eating a piece of rotisserie chicken with the rest of my fellow boomers at Puck's cafe, until the expression of glee on my young niece's face made me feel like a lowdown snake.
So now that we grown-ups are in on this, what do we eat while the kids chow down on their burgers, chicken tenders, pizzas and fries? How about an appealing bowl of soup like Black Bart's bean, a thick bowlful of beans and broth topped with a dab of salsa and a spoonful of sour cream? Certainly not the "kick ass chili," which doesn't at all live up to the name. Even when you add toppings such as onions, jalapenos, sour cream, tomatoes, Tabasco and cheese, this stuff still tastes like canned chili.
Campfire pizzas are baked up in little 7- or 10-inch cast iron skillets. The small ones are cute, dribbling two or three yellow-white cheeses, but their puffy, insipid crusts make them less appealing once you bite in. We ordered the "reel I-talian," blanketed with pepperoni, Italian sausage and chopped tomatoes. One of my nephews picked off everything but the cheese and polished off the remains.
Adults will probably be happier with entrees from the menu's Gabby's Grub section, though portions are far too big for kids. Cisco's sizzling cast iron catfish is one of the best choices, fresh tasting catfish breaded in a crunchy cornmeal coating and lightly fried. Buck Jones' buffalo steak is a good, tender eight-ounce cut of real buffalo steak, lower in cholesterol than beef but nearly as flavorful. But at $17.99, it is a bit beyond the family restaurant point.
But $16.99 gets you Diamond Jim's T-bone, a monster 22-ounce cut of tasty beef that strikes me as a better bet. Nothing beyond these two steaks are even close in terms of price, with most other entrees under $8 apiece. There is a tasty hickory broiled chicken and a credible chicken-fried steak in the low range, for instance, all entrees coming with a choice of two good side dishes.
"Better n' ma's mashed potatoes," topped with a creamy country gravy, are actually pretty good. There are sides like sweet corn on the cob, good, ultra-thin French fries the restaurant calls haystack potatoes, fried onion strings known as tumbleweed onions.
If the kids are finicky, the under-12 menu has peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grilled cheese and hot dogs.
Desserts are guaranteed to please even really finicky kids. Old-fashioned fruit cobbler is not a cobbler but a deep-dish apple pie, but since it is such a good, buttery version, we won't kick up a fuss. Cheesecake is the New York-style incarnation, a creamy creation the restaurant brings in from Cheesecake Factory. Finally, there is good old chocolate peanut butter sauce over plain vanilla ice cream. If you want something more exotic than that, CityWalk is only 100 feet away.
Where and When Location: Shooting Star Ranch, 666 1/2 Universal Terrace Parkway, Universal City. Suggested Dishes: Black Bart's bean soup, $2.99; tumbleweed onions, $2.99; Hoss' hickory broiled chicken, $7.99; Cisco's sizzling cast iron catfish, $7.49. Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Price: Dinner for two, $15 to $30. Full bar. Valet parking at CityWalk. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Call: (818) 777-3939.