Missoula's Heart And Soul: The Oxford

Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

I am a Westerner.

I'm not proud of all of it, nor am I awash in self-loathing because of it, but I am Western in the same sense that my well-heeled and erudite friends from Williamsburg and Philadelphia are Eastern. I seek tall peaks, rushing creeks, the solitude of nature's cathedral. And my ancestors sailed into the Golden Gate, through San Francisco Bay and onto Sonoma in 1849, to help settle the then dilapidated pueblo. So my Western roots run deep.

However, one glaring blank card in my cultural Rolodex has, until recently, been my lack of experiencing the big skies and wide valleys of Montana. I guess it’s been pure laziness really, maybe because I’ve always been so enthralled by our own Golden State I’ve never felt the need. But that situation was recently rectified with an epic road trip with wifey that ended in Missoula.

I get in a post-River Runs Through It world, Montana might seem a bit of a cliché. At least, I’ve always held just a hint of that feeling somewhere in my being. All my movie industry buddies have homes there they occupy when they are not working a show and the influx of Californians (including the Weekly's own Commie Girl) rivals even Portland or Bend where, if you even mention you are from LA, good luck finding a job. But once I drove the state, really breathing it in, I realized that whatever preconceptions I had were wholly flawed.

That place is beautiful.

Like I said, we ended our trip in Missoula. I had to fly home to cater a wedding and wifey was gonna keep driving my rig so she could spend another week on the road visiting college buddies. We had one night in town so we Yelped and Googled and texted and called. One place that kept popping up was The Oxford. A couple of my more (ahem) “refined” friends advised me not to go, that there were better, more polished shops in town. But the Oxford has been a lynchpin since 1883 for a reason so, after a couple quick pops at some other joints we headed over for a bite to eat.

There are some eateries that just feel like home the moment you saddle up to the bar for a bite or beverage. Fisherman's Grotto in San Francisco and Ike's in Minneapolis are two examples that come to mind. It's almost like these places are jigsaw puzzles and you are the last piece to make them complete-and possibly more so the other way around. That was the feeling when I walked into The Ox ,as it is affectionately known.

It’s open 24/7, the rugged atmosphere embraces you as you walk in, and the spiritual presence of the cowboys, teamsters, miners, drunks, ladies of the night, and other patrons over 100-plus years is a tangible force in the room. Apparently, the locals are so loyal, legend has it that they left their drinks on the bar when they hauled it down the street to its current location in the 1950s. In the corner are a few low-wager slots and other gambling machines that do take away from some of the charm, but the dozens of glass-encased rifles help lure one's eye away from the budget Vegas factor. Easily viewed from the bay windows in the front of the house is an epically seedy poker game (reminiscent of Clovis, CA's epic 500 Club 20 years ago), one that goes on all night with what appear to be traveling poker fiends swapping cards, chips and tall tales with some eagle-eyed local sharks. And I bet there is someone there willing to take your money at the pool table in the corner too.

As for the fare, it’s hearty and basic, much akin to The Pantry, Dick Reardon's iconic LA diner. It reminds me of what it must have been like to eat in a 1920s dining car on the Texas Eagle or Empire Builder when sandwiches were a nickel, a glass of oj was 3 cents, and the cocktails flowed rhythmically with the clacking of wheel-sets on rails. Their current specialty is chicken fried steak (of which they serve a multitude of plates). Before that it was cow brains and eggs, apparently an open range staple before the advent of mad cow disease. Wifey had a burger, I had a ground sirloin patty (grilled perfectly) and our traveling companion Craig had a 16-oz ribeye that was epic and a mere 14 bucks. Most of the dinner sandwiches and plates are under $8 – a welcome change from the $25+ a plate shops here in OC. Three meals, three beers and two shots of whiskey later, we were outa’ there for 40 bucks

Plain and simple, The Ox is my kind of joint. In a world where restaurants need to “be” something or have a “concept,” maybe The Ox's real magic is that it just “is”. Like Humphrey Bogart said, “A hot dog at the ballpark is better than steak at The Ritz” and I couldn't agree more. The Ox both embraces and extols this virtue and preaches to my own version of Bogie's culinary zinger: “Good company is the best ingredient and pretense makes a lousy garnish”.

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