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RESTAURANTS : A Feast at Claim Jumper Can Be Worth the Weight

August 24, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

Carl Nickoloff opened the first Claim Jumper in Los Alamitos 18 years ago (that location closed in February). Today his son, Craig, runs the company, and there are currently 17 Claim Jumpers, counting a branch in Littleton, Colo. An 18th is scheduled to open soon in Torrance.

I don't often review chains, but Claim Jumper's phenomenal success warrants an exception. At the huge new Long Beach Marketplace location (6501 E. Pacific Coast Highway), expect a 90-minute wait during peak hours. Every Claim Jumper I've visited has had a hungry, impatient crowd clustered just outside the front door. Claim Jumper is that rarest of restaurant birds: a chain with a no-reservations policy.

So what is going on? People hate to wait these days, but here are crowds cooling their heels for up to an hour and a half to eat prime rib and rotisserie chicken. And you won't hear a lot of complaining. Diners are wild for these restaurants.

One reason might be the freshness factor. High-volume restaurants don't have to keep food around for very long, so the products are served very fresh. Another reason is quality. The chain prides itself on its Angus beef, farm produce and freshly baked, volleyball-size muffins.

As with most chains these days, Claim Jumper revolves around a theme.

The Irvine restaurant is like a classy Gold Rush saloon--dark and clubby, with a vaulted ceiling and fin de siecle furniture. The snazzy new Long Beach location also evokes the mining town mystique, but it is bigger and more spacious than the Irvine branch. In Long Beach, I sat under a stuffed moose head, which was looking none too pleased about it. At the Irvine restaurant, I hunkered down in a comfy booth, a Tiffany lamp glowing nearby.

Whichever one you visit, you'll notice most customers heading over to the chain's pride and joy, the so-called "produce bar." As you've probably guessed, this is a generous salad bar, characterized by such extras as chilled forks, sweet corn, seasonal fruits, a half-dozen composed salads, shoestring potatoes, hot bacon dressing and about every cut vegetable imaginable. At $7.25, a trip to the salad bar (combined with one of the chain's surprisingly good muffins) is a full meal. By the way, I recommend the muffins over the greasy garlic toast, which you can also have with the salad bar.

Some of the newer Claim Jumpers are serving wood-fired pizzas with a medium-thick crust, a nice smoky aftertaste and too much topping. The bizarre fried chicken pizza is topped with mashed potatoes, spinach, red onions and country gravy. The unctuous and unusual four-cheese pizza drools ricotta, Gruyere, mozzarella and Gouda.

At any of the branches that serve pizza, you'll also see chefs twisting dough into soft pretzels, served buttered and sprinkled with salt--an ideal bar snack.

*

Claim Jumper makes a lot of fine sandwiches, such as burgers, a nice chopped pork, and a clever Cobb made with chicken, avocado, bacon and a particularly pungent blue cheese.

Another thing you can count on is the rotisserie. A Claim Jumper hallmark is a huge half chicken roasted without butter or oil.

The whole rack of baby-back ribs is a good value, even though the meat tends to be on the dry side. The barbecued beef ribs are enormous and meaty, slow-smoked over hickory. The beef is nicely marbled, and the ribs are permeated with the taste of the wood. Prime rib, when available, is a heart-stopping 26-ounce cut. Fresh fish such as snapper, halibut and sea bass are either blackened or grilled quite simply.

Among the lower-priced supper dishes are a hearty beef stew, a gluey chicken pot pie, fine grainy meatloaf and insipid turkey breast served in huge slabs on mountains of bland dressing. Often you suspect the real theme here isn't the Gold Rush but the idea of quantity. Country-fried steak, turkey and liver all come with a veritable moat of mashed potatoes and gravy. Order a baked potato with one of the roasts and you'll get one about a foot across, lathered with sour cream and butter and served with a fried tortilla boat filled with cheese sauce and crumbled bacon.

Pasta comes in huge servings of middling quality. The spinach lasagna, stacked nearly a foot high, is punctuated by an overly pureed marinara sauce--supermarket stuff. The tomato herb pasta with shrimp is as lackluster as something you'd find in a hospital cafeteria.

Even at dessert time, size often takes precedence over flavor.

I asked a waitress to bring the most indulgent dessert the restaurant serves, and she immediately came back with an "Ideclair," a custard-filled pastry the size of a steam pipe covered head to foot with aerosol whipped cream. It was vast and tasted of virtually nothing but sugar and fat.

The Jumper's mud pie isn't bad, though. It's an obscenely large wedge of ice cream with an Oreo crust and a heap of Helen Grace hot fudge. And there's always chocolate Mother Lode cake, a traditional, properly fudgy wedge big enough for three.

Mother lode--now, there's a concept the Nickoloff clan can relate to.

Claim Jumper is high-end moderate. Appetizers are $2.95 to $12.95. Sandwiches are $5.95 to $9.95. Specialties are $10.95 to $21.95.

* CLAIM JUMPER

* 3935 Alton Parkway, Irvine. (Also in Laguna Hills, Fountain Valley, Brea, Santa Ana, Buena Park and Long Beach.)

* (714) 851-5085.

* 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

* Visa, MasterCard and American Express.

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