Northern Exposure at Clearman's North Woods Inn
If I asked you to point me to the nearest snow-covered log cabin, I would be able to tell a little bit about you by the answer you gave. A person unfamiliar with our urban terrain would offer up Big Bear or somewhere in the distant mountain ranges, where logic dictates such a thing exists. A seasoned local, on the other hand, would mention the one right off the Valley View exit ramp on Interstate 5 in La Mirada—never mind that the "snow" is just plaster and paint. To northbound commuters, this freeway-adjacent, instantly recognizable structure is the landmark that tells you you've left the embrace of OC and are well on your way into Los Angeles County and beyond. To OC diners, the cabin is home to the closest branch of Clearman's North Woods Inn, a half-century-old institution, the site for commemorating life's milestones, a place where successive generations can celebrate another year lived with a sirloin steak and a baked potato so large it resembles an alien egg that Sigourney Weaver would obliterate with a machine gun.
For the few who have never stepped inside (which, until recently, included this reviewer), let me prepare you for what awaits. The restaurant is as sprawling as Texas is wide. The bar stretches so far and long it disappears into the horizon. Rubenesque nudes lounge in dusty oil paintings, deer-head trophies stare blankly and backlit stained glass features pristine wildlife scenes. Wall-mounted firearms, a required part of the hunting-lodge kitsch, would make Grizzly Adams and Davy Crockett feel at home.
On soaring support beams, signs encourage patrons to "Please throw peanut shells on the floor." This is advice your fellow feasters are more than happy to follow. Discarded shells cover the ground, most of them trampled to dust. You'll see everyone munching on the free peanuts with abandon—from the very young to the barely alive. One night, I saw an overweight, wheelchair-bound woman with oxygen-tubes attached to her nostrils chewing her steak slowly and deliberately. It's a typical sighting—at North Woods Inn, to be aware that the ample-framed outnumber the svelte is to also realize what's on the menu.
This is the kind of food many blame for the death of nutrition. The appetizer list alone is full of culprits. What isn't deep-fried involves cheese, and often, what involves cheese is deep-fried. There are two—yes, two—kinds of cream-cheese-filled jalapeño poppers on offer, one of which has shrimp embedded in it. Neither kind is spicy, but both are poor ways to contribute to your already-maligned LDL levels. The breaded chicken wings are a better choice, zippier and more palatable, even if they're too overloaded with salt.
With nearly everything you order come floods of blue-cheese dressing, a liquid so liberally used you imagine they must have it stored in water towers. How else to explain the unreasonable amounts they pour onto bowls of cut-up iceberg lettuce? You don't toss this salad; you stir it like chowder.
But a funny thing occurs once you start eating. You're immediately hooked! Had the doused dressing been Ranch, it would've been inedible. But despite the excessive deluge, this glop of liquid cheesiness is sort of glorious: tangy, slightly stinging and not at all cloying. Of the two salads the restaurant serves, this precursor to those overpriced wedges all the top steakhouses oversell is even better than the restaurant's famous vinegar-dressed red-cabbage slaw. You don't even have to choose between them. Order dinner, and you'll get both, each in single-serving bowls.
Another beloved item: the cheese bread, butter-soaked slices of toast slathered on one side with an orange-colored cheese substance that bubbles and browns to mottled spots in the oven. North Woods even sells jars of the cheese spread, should you want to replicate the recipe at home. Unfortunately, the potato chips can only be ordered from the bar with a sandwich. Not sold to be taken home to enjoy in front of the TV (unless you just take a doggie bag of leftovers), these swooping potato airfoils don't feel greasy, even when you can see that shortening saturates every pore. Locked away under the waxy, golden glow is a crunch unmatched by any store-bought chips.
Though the chips easily outshine the bar-menu sandwiches they accompany, the corned beef on rye stands on its own. This sandwich, easily the best one here, is served with rice instead of the chips, and it is only available on North Woods' dinner menu. The meat, ultra-lean and so wispy it tears like single-ply tissue paper, seems incongruous amid all that surrounds you—a steakhouse that insists on serving two starches with its meals. Sure, the rice pilaf is nutty and well-cooked, and the baked potato sports a generous dollop of a salmon-colored "whipped cheese butter" piped on by star tip, but since when does anyone ever need to chase rice with potato?
On that note, you don't need the lobster, either, especially when drawn butter makes the jumbo shrimp taste exactly like its cousin and at a price point that's up to $15 less. And, of course, there are the so-called Lumberjack steaks: mostly sirloin, branded with crisscrossed grill marks, tasting as though they were marinated in something salty. Each chomp exhibits an almost-unnatural tenderness, a sinew-free chew easy on dentures with a uniform softness that becomes as comforting as the knowledge the snow-covered cabin you're eating in will always be there, visible from Interstate 5.
This review appeared in print as "I-5 Northern Exposure: The snow-covered log cabin of La Mirada still serves the meals
that have made us obese and happy for a half-century."
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