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Saddlerock Rides to Success With Ranch-Style Fare

August 11, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition

Saddlerock Ranch, named for a working ranch in Malibu, is the newest link in a chain that includes a number of Orange County's best-known upscale restaurants, such as Kachina, Bistro 201 and Diva. But it's something of a departure for West Coast Restaurant Ventures, the company that owns the chain.

For one thing, Saddlerock Ranch is heavily themed, done up in a hokey Western motif. For another, the place is geared toward families. The other restaurants in this chain mostly court a sophisticated night-on-the-town crowd through flashy decor and creative cooking.

The flashy approach has already flopped convincingly in this location. When Saddlerock Ranch was Zuni Grill, it served trendy Southwestern cuisine in a dimly lit, cave-like setting (the dining area had bulbous, faux- rock walls)--and it struggled, despite having the lowest prices of any West Coast Restaurant Ventures operation. Meanwhile, not far away, Mimi's Cafe and Claim Jumper were playing to packed houses.

That's why the company, under the direction of corporate executive chef John Sharpe, has totally revamped this place, installing a kid-friendly design and an all-American menu that cowboys, country boys and city folk alike can appreciate. Today, the restaurant is dominated by a mural of a mountain ranch. Walls are painted in earth tones and pastels, the tables covered in thick, spill-proof oilcloth.

Lovers of chic, take two steps back. These booths are off-white vinyl splotched with irregular patches of brown, like the hide of a spotted cow. Wagon wheel chandeliers hang down from the ceiling; a life-sized buckboard has been glued to one of the rear walls.

This new approach appears to be paying dividends. The last two times I visited, the floor was covered with peanut shells, people were lined up at the door and armies of children were frolicking on the enclosed patio, making a three-alarm commotion.

Almost every entree here is under $10, a bargain when you consider what that gets you. Dinners come with squares of honey-butter corn bread, salad with homemade dressings and a choice of homey side dishes. That explains the shortage of appetizers, which are limited to soup, chili, shrimp cocktail, fried onions and a terrific guacamole made at the table.

I would come back just to take another crack at the guacamole. It feeds around four and is a steal at $5.95. The main component is Haas avocados grown on the eponymous Saddlerock Ranch itself. Friendly waiters mash up the avocados in an old-fashioned wooden salad bowl, then swirl in chopped tomato and a secret salsa. (Do you think Sharpe would divulge the recipe? No way.)

The fried onions have a curious name, onion cactus blossom, and they are indeed curious. The top of the onion has been sliced off and pieces pulled out of the center until the whole thing resembles, in its golden brown cornmeal batter, some kind of bionic sunflower. The result is tasty, but unwieldy. The onion pieces are not detached from the base, and when you attempt to pull off a "petal," you end up pulling the whole thing apart.

You'd be hard pressed to find anything too unfamiliar on the list of "large plates" (or, rather, entrees). Sharpe has stacked the deck this time, putting foods like beef brisket, turkey, Louisiana catfish, meatloaf, steak and ribs on his menu, and furthermore he does so with practiced skill.

The home-style brisket, for instance, is terrific: thick, nicely braised, at least 10 ounces for only $8. As if that wasn't enough, the meat comes with an accomplished creamed horseradish. Fresh Louisiana catfish can be had fried or blackened. I had mine fried, and discovered that meant juicy fish inside a crackly cornmeal skin.

Turkey is more mundane than you'd hope for here, just a nondescript, cafeteria-type bird with decent gravy, a reasonably light corn bread dressing and a flavorful cranberry relish. The slab of ribs, though, might be the most impressive entree here. It's definitely the most expensive, at $11.99.

This is a big slab (it hangs out over both sides of the plate) of extra-lean baby back ribs smeared with a good, tangy barbecue sauce. I like the fact that you can really taste the mesquite it was grilled on. The steaks have a heavy mesquite flavor too. Kansas City steak is a 14-ounce cut smothered with onions. The rancher's steak (you or I would call it top sirloin) is a little on the tough side.

With the large plates you get a choice of two side dishes, and here the kitchen is in its element. The roasted corn on the cob, slightly blackened, is so good you may not even want to butter it. The macaroni and cheese (not for weight watchers) is properly creamy and soft, while the good creamed corn has a sweet, crunchy bite.

You may not be hungry for dessert, but if you are there are two choices to note. Corn bread pudding is a cross between bread pudding and Indian pudding--a hot, heavy, maple-y dish of cornmeal, raisins, whipped cream and maple syrup.

Even more impressive, and quite a bit gooier, is the restaurant's homemade chocolate turtle. Picture a rich brownie drenched in hot caramel sauce, then covered with chocolate syrup, nuts and whipped cream.

Saddlerock Ranch is moderately priced. Appetizers are $1.95 to $5.95. Large plates are $5.99 to $11.99. Desserts are $2.50 to $4.25.

* Times Link: 808-8463

To check an Orange County restaurant by name to see if The Times has reviewed it recently, call TimesLink and press *6170 For other weekly recommendations from Max Jacobson, press *6160

* SADDLEROCK RANCH

* 3966 Barranca Parkway, Irvine.

* (714) 262-0864.

* Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* American Express, Diners, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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