Back in the Grill Again

Photo by Matt OttoWatched intently by a papier-mâché steer standing atop the roof of Pinnacle Peak, the faithful trudge in from various points around Orange County and wait patiently outside for the 5 p.m. opening. Once the marshals—as the restaurant calls its hostesses—unlock the ornate wooden doors, the famished stampede in and order dinner from doggie bags that double as menus. For the next six hours, Pinnacle Peak becomes something like a Barstow honky tonk.

Located in Garden Grove, Pinnacle Peak has the look and feel of a John Ford/Walt Disney production. The wooden ceilings are low; the light from faux kerosene lamps shines dimly off purposefully yellowed wallpaper. Snipped from patrons who dared to dress fancy, thousands of ties hang from the rafters, commentary on the rivalry between cowboys and businessmen that Ford captured better in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Portraits of withered Indian chiefs occupy a corner near Pinnacle Peak's entrance along with a map of 19th-century cattle trails. Middle-aged waitresses dressed in Western garb and displaying the charm of Buck Owens' backup singers call everyone "hon" without irony. Pinnacle Peak is the type of place for those whose only desire in life is to eat a vanilla ice cream dessert named "Custer's Last Stand."

The multibillion-dollar cattle concern Agro International owns this beef barn and other Pinnacle Peaks across the southwestern United States. But there's a real sense of tradition in this Garden Grove location that even corporate marketing cannot duplicate. First-timers might enjoy the novelty, but longtimers—and there are many waitresses and customers here who greet one another by first name—have returned almost weekly for the past 33 years because of Pinnacle Peak's masses of beef, pork and chicken, garnished only with barbecue sauce and a breathtaking amount of char.

As the menu/bag and a giant outdoor sign suggest, Pinnacle Peak's "famous cowboy steak" is a favorite—an oblong sirloin cooked on an open grill as hot and active as Kilauea. Preparing the steak involves a sort of Mephistophelian magic: a grizzled cook tosses mesquite logs into the pit, sparks it up with a match, coaxes flames a yard into the air and slaps meat onto the grill. Braving heat that would intimidate a Russian steel worker, the cook constantly brushes the slab with buckets of barbecue sauce until the meat assumes a dark red tone. Once his task is complete, the char-master announces in a sotto baritone over the PA system something cryptic like "Outlaw 60," signifying that another steak is ready.

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The result is the most succulent piece of charred beef outside of the 19th century—lean, tender and smoky as lava. Another layer of barbecue sauce envelops the steak as thick as Henry Rollins' neck, featuring surprising citrus and garlic notes better suited to gourmet cuisine.

Pinnacle's few other entrées are similarly intense. Barbecue chicken consists of half a bird—a breast, a wing and a mallet-sized drumstick, to be exact—awash in barbecue sauce. The rack o' ribs, firm but tender pork, is perfect. And something called the trail boss steak could have saved the Donner party.

Not everything at Pinnacle Peak shines. The baked potato's skin is too rubbery and the sour cream is as bland as Joe Lieberman (but, hey, more lifelike). The starter caesar salad is better left untouched—mama, don't let your babies eat salad at a steak house. The cowboy beans taste of can.

But those are quibbles. Melted butter seeps into each kernel of the corn on the cob. The complimentary sourdough bread is New Testament plentiful. And Pinnacle Peak serves sarsaparilla—where else outside of some decrepit ghost town are you going to find that?

Pinnacle Peak, located at 9100 Trask Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 892-7311, is open 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $16-$36, excluding drinks. Beer, wine. All major credit cards accepted.

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