First in an occasional series by writers David Hanson and Chef Kathy Watson
Where's the Beef?
A RAMBLE AROUND THE GORGE IN SEARCH OF A GOOD STEAK, AND MAYBE A MARTINI TO GO WITH IT.
What makes a steakhouse different from a restaurant that serves steaks? It’s the throwback kitschy vibe, that aroma of charred meat when you step in the door, and a no-nonsense menu that clutches meat close to its chest.
So we picked three, places that put a fork in the steakhouse lore: The Mesquitery in Hood River, Huntington’s Steakhouse in Klickitat and The Hi-Way House in The Dalles. And we ate our way across a month of dinners.
We knew something going in: not much chance of local Gorge beef on any of these menus, for lots of reasons. Which is a shame. But the economics are challenging: the volume doesn’t lend itself to buying a whole animal and breaking it down. As far as we can tell, all three steakhouses work with wholesale beef distributors such as Columbia Empire Beef, which in turn stocks their trucks with beef from the inter-mountain west, with ranch/feedlot brands you’ve probably seen at Rosauers: Mt. St. Helens Beef and Snake River Farms.
So we thought we’d finish our beef interlude with local steaks in the backyard, which is almost a steakhouse, without the banquets or the lounge singer.
The Mesquitery is the sort of local’s place on the Heights in Hood River where you can get a Pepsi and wear a camouflage baseball cap, backwards, and fit right in. You can also get a generous Bombay Sapphire martini with three olives as big as eyeballs for $12, or chicken schnitzel, pork tenderloin, shrimp, salmon, and in a nod to the restaurant’s Polish owner, Krzysztof Ukleja, pierogi and plenty of Polish beer.
Steaks? Yes, there are steaks, and they are grilled over a fire you can see behind the bumped-out glassed-in kitchen where cooks, like untouchable zoo animals, are on display. Steaks range from top sirloin – a cut no one has ever claimed is tender and juicy, though the Mesquitery folks try – through a 12-ounce New York strip, a 14-ounce rib eye, up the food chain to a 10-ounce filet mignon, and finally, to their signature steak, a 20-ounce Porterhouse. Choose your sides, and the price slides up, so you are only paying for what you can fork in. Want a 10-ounce filet with just a salad? That’s $35.95. Add another side (of which there are many to choose from) and it’s $39.95. Go full boat-load with three sides, and it’s $43.95.
The joint has a habit of declaring it serves the Best Caesar in the Gorge, the Best Chowder in the Gorge, and is the Only Steakhouse in the Gorge, which may comes as a surprise to Huntington’s and Hi-Way House that also stake their reputations on … steak. Hyperbole aside, it is well-loved nonetheless, and has been here for 35 years. As one diner, Tom, wrote on the restaurant’s web site, “Your food never disappoints. My steak was cooked to perfection, just as God and Chris intended.”
It’s possible Tom is a fan of medium-well beef. It is hard to pass a three-quarter inch thick 14-ounce ribeye over a grill, take it just to medium rare, and also impart that crusty sear that makes a steak the perfect marriage of bloody tenderness on the inside and smokey char on the outside. If you are searching for thick hunka hunka burning love beef, the 20-ounce Porterhouse ($39.95, which two could easily share) might get you closer to steak nirvana.
There are two sneaky-good things on the menu that might not jump out at you unless you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen and broken down a whole beef tenderloin. There’s just a lot of trim left when you cut a tenderloin into steak medallions. Chunks called the chain and the head will never live to see the big time. But are they delicious? Oh yeah, baby, and you can get them two ways at the Mesquitery: in a steak sandwich on ciabatta, and on something called a Thai salad, which may have glanced once at a map of Thailand but never made landfall. No worries, though, because the salad is piled with crusty grilled tenderloin bites, avocados, tomatoes and cucumbers, for $18.95. Just avoid the overly sweet chili sauce served alongside, and ask for some blue cheese dressing. Now, that’s a steak salad.
Ambiance: Neighborhood cafe, oldies on the radio, where everyone looks vaguely familiar, or taught your kids in the fourth grade.
Hours: Every day, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. No tricky closed hours to remember.
Bonus: Watch for that coupon pub that arrives in your mailbox. There’s almost always a 10% off coupon for the Mesquitery.
Bottom line: Dinner for two: two martinis, a ribeye with a salad and baked potato, and the Thai beef salad, $77.90
– Kathy Watson
Klickitat, population 262, has an Alaska feel to it, a no-frills outpost 13 miles up-tributary from where the town’s namesake river meets the Columbia. You can pick up last-minute snacks for a Klickitat River float or, if you’re lucky enough to live there, have the river all to yourself in the off-season. Timber and dry ice manufacturing (the Gas Ice Corporation drilled carbon dioxide wells at the nearby Klickitat Mineral Springs) built the town, but these days, among steak insiders, the main draw aside from river access is Huntington’s Steakhouse.
Huntington’s has the warm saloon glow of yellowed wood and tan taxidermy with shadows cast by the pool table light and walls covered in sports pennants, a reminder that the tavern’s history is more recent than the town, founded in the glory days of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. What can only be called Graffiti Americana – names and couples’ professions of love scrawled in indelible marker – pattern the paneled ceiling.
“Ladder and a sharpie, at your own risk,” the bartender says when asked about adding to the overhead art.
Behind the bar, immediately beyond a narrow kitchen door, Richard, the chef-owner, tends to sizzling steaks over a propane grill wearing an apron and a Packers t-shirt. A small portrait of his late wife and Huntington’s icon, Peggy, hangs above the bar.
Six booths line the walls for cushioned dining with a bar making a sort of T-bone down the middle. Huntington’s claims to be Home of the Biggest, Best Steaks in the Gorge, but it seems built for drinking. In addition to the margarita options, a few house cocktails require explanation:
Me: “What’s in a Klickitat Tea?”
Her: “All the alcohol.”
Me: “Anything else?”
Her: “Sweet-n-sour mix and Pepsi.”
Me: “What about the Klickitat Quaalude?”
Her: “Same but with Bailey’s and cream.”
We want to maintain gastronomical and (at least some) moral clarity so we stick to one liquor at a time. The martinis arrive in cocktail glasses full of ice and heavy on the olive brine. At one point I notice the bartender pouring neon maraschino cherry juice straight out of the gallon container into a Coke and whiskey order. As for the steaks, the T-bone is unavailable—Huntington’s doesn’t have a bone saw so the bone-in cuts come from Safeway and the T-bone supply hasn’t been replenished. The waitress suggests a Porterhouse instead, but we gravitate to the rib-eye, which, along with the New York strip and filet mignon, are cut in-house.
Cuts are 16 or 20 ounces and seasoned with Peggy’s original homemade blend. Kathy and Stu started with the blue cheese wedge, which was almost half-a-head of crunchy lettuce and a well-proportioned serving of sharp blue cheese dressing. Our medium-rare rib-eyes arrive with the crispy char glistening in the yellow light and perfectly tender inside. To the side is a baked potato squeezed wide open and filled with sour cream and butter (bacon can be added). For color, the veggie options are simple and concise: peas, corn, or broccoli smothered in melted cheddar cheese.
My wife, as if she lost a bet, ordered the fish tacos. They arrive looking somewhat monotone—pale cabbage and a white flour tortilla—but the tangy, vinegar-y slaw has a fresh crunch and the lightly battered and fried halibut chunks are delicious.
In a last-second audible, we order the cheesecake, not realizing it is homemade, as in, according to our waitress, “he makes it in his house.” I’m not a big cheesecake guy, but this almost ice-cream-cold welterweight slice with a dense graham-cracker crust has me rethinking my preconceptions, as any good steakhouse in a bar should.
We step out of Huntington’s into the dark Klickitat Valley, full of meat and vigor. We just never got the ladder and signed our names, so I can’t be sure it ever happened.
Ambiance: A semi-modern wild west saloon with a sports memorabilia dive-bar flare
Hours: Thursday to Sunday, roughly 5-10pm
Bonus: Call for reservations (likely not needed, but never know on weekends). And, it’s a bar, after all, so no kids.
Bottom line: Dinner for two: two martinis, a ribeye (with veggie, baked potato), fish tacos, and a slice of cheesecake: $99.47
– David Hanson
The Hi-Way House
In 1955, my father tried to talk my mother into homesteading in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley. So they drove up from sunny central California. My mother must have imagined herself wrangling cabbages the size of a washing machine, and decided, no, she wasn’t cut out to be an Alaskan farmer. On the way home, though, they stopped in Ashland, Oregon, for the night, and had dinner at the venerable Omar’s steakhouse, which is still there. The story goes that after my teetotaling parents ordered the cheapest top sirloin steak on the menu, they went back to their hotel, and conceived me. So you might say banquets, lounge music and charred meat are in my DNA.
The Hi-Way House, way out on the eastern edge of The Dalles, makes me feel right at home. Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, on the radio. A red leatherette banquet, the sound of a cocktail being shaken, not stirred, at the bar.
And they have the meat, served the old fashioned way with a green salad, vegetables and potato (baked, mashed or fried) baked right in to the price, including rib eyes, New Yorks, filet mignon and prime rib. A 16-ounce ribeye is $42; a 12-ounce prime rib, $32. Dressings are made in house and our fluffy greens were doted with blackberries, strawberries and cherry tomatoes. The 16-ounce ribeye was likely tipping the scale at closer to 20 ounces, a result of a new crew learning to cut steaks from a whole rib roll, as our excellent server Mimi explained. So you might want to visit before they figure that out.
The restaurant has held onto its steakhouse ways through a series of owners over the years, but in July, very quietly, Lily and Romul Grivov, owners of Romul’s Italian Restaurant in Hood River, became the new managers, which means the Grivovs have come full-circle. They opened the first Romul’s in The Dalles, which they closed some years ago.
The steaks are still on the menu at the Hi-Way, but as Mimi put it, the menu is now “pasta forward.” A kids’ menu has been added, too. Lily is making all the desserts, with a deep list including tiramisu, and on the night we were there, a surprisingly feather-light pumpkin cheese cake with a ramekin of caramel sauce on the side.
As recently as mid-October, the wine list was still under construction. But no matter: martinis were on our minds, and with six gins to choose from, including the enchanting purple Empress gin from Canada, and a bartender who knows her way around a shaker and some ice, we were set.
Ambiance: Retro steakhouse with Sinatra – just Sinatra – on the radio. Wear that spaghetti strap dress if you like, but jeans and boots were under every table.
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 4 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Bonus: Just like at Romul’s, you’ll be offered a complimentary splash of sparkling wine at the end of your meal.
Bottom line: Dinner for two: two martinis, a 16-ounce ribeye and a 12-ounce prime rib with salad, potatoes, vegetable and warm bread, pumpkin cheesecake, $111.
– Kathy Watson
Local Backyard Steaks
Our final stop on the Gorge steak tour is Kathy and Stu’s house where a couple ribeyes from Bowdish Ranches in Centerville and two New York strips from Little 77 Ranch in Lyle sit, salted and blood red, on the counter. Kathy salt-brined the steaks an hour before we arrived, a process that draws moisture to the meat’s surface, and salt to its interior.
The plan was to grill the steaks over a hot bed of campfire coals in their backyard, but rain and the fall time change robbed us of the magic hour. So instead, Kathy fired up their small propane pizza oven and loaded a rib-eye and NY strip in via cast iron skillet. At 700 degrees, the little oven seemed ready to vaporize the steaks. It was so hot Kathy burned through her oven mitt. A couple minutes on each side, then out of the inferno.
“Any longer and we’d carbonize those things,” Stu quips.
The steaks, removed to the wood cutting board, have a look of mottled crispiness, edges and subtle ridges darkened almost black from contact with the skillet. While they rest, Stu re-ups my Jack Daniel’s Manhattan, and we load our plates with the sides: a Caesar salad with homemade dressing (anchovy paste the key ingredient) on wide-cut chicory greens with an earthy, slightly bitter taste, like lettuce with attitude, grilled porcini mushrooms, foraged locally by Gorge mushroom master Colin Franger, and golden brown Hassleback potatoes.
But enough about the veggies. Kathy pulls her knife through the dark purplish-reddish meat and the strips fall to the side. This is a rare steak, more rare than I’d order in a restaurant. But there’s no blood; the salt and the fast sear did their work. Knowing the meat is sourced from well-regarded ranches, cooked by one of the Gorge’s best chefs, in her house, we embrace the rare. Both the rib-eye and strip are delicious, creamy but with just enough texture to give us something to chew on.
Our mission to explore the blue collar steak world of the Gorge ends here. Now would be a good time to toast the rancher, the grasses, the butcher, the cooks, and the owners (who are sometimes the cooks) keeping our no-frills steakhouse bars – and backyard bbqs – alive.
– David Hanson