Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
Just beyond the wild, northern border of the OC lies Clearman's North Woods Inn, a wonderful remnant of a bygone era where everything tasted like Lawry's Seasoned Salt and smelled like Worcestershire sauce. Founded during the 1950's/60's Americana culinary boom, it's a welcome trip back to a simpler era. Back then, everything cool was coming out of Menlo Park and my parents' kitchen was awash in a sea of avocado-colored appliances, including a massive first-generation microwave. As children we called the joint "Snow Top" and I still get excited as a 6 year old kid every time I see the place. No joke.
The North Woods Inn is home to lumberjack-sized portions of food, piggybacked with their duo of salads. The double salad thing is a one-two punch of very basic iceberg with bleu-cheese/ranch style dressing as the left jab, followed up by a crunchy mound of mildly pickled red cabbage in vinaigrette as the big, right cross. Mix the two and you are in roughage heaven.
The sandwiches are great, gigantic portions of meat piled high on rye or their specially baked roll, served with rice pilaf and salad. It's a meal in itself, perfect with an ice-cold schooner of Sierra Nevada (or stiff cocktail). If you dare tackle their entrees, be prepared. The North Woods Inn serves a plate that is substantial even by my standards. I'm a big hamburger steak guy and they do it right with lots of grilled onions and a perfect char. All their large plates are served with a monster baked potato (topped with either garlic butter or mushroom gravy) and more pilaf. Carb heaven. Their steaks and seafood are amazing in their simplicity, stunning in their size. I tackled, and was almost conquered by, their 25-ounce porterhouse one time but emerged victorious. I was vanquished, however, by one of their large surf and turf combo dinners where I managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and slinked back to my car a lesser man.
The cheese bread is absolutely spot on, a perfect blend of whipped margarine, cheese and spices, unchanged since day one. If you want to take some of the retro-magic home with you, you can buy the spread there. It is also available at a few retail outlets like Stater Brothers. (I'm a big fan of Stater's—brown vests, clerks in ties and great meat counters. The one at Chapman Avenue and Prospect Street in Orange is a particularly spectacular example.) I recently grabbed a tub of Clearman's there for the first time in many, many years.
I'm not a big proponent of margarine. I consider it the Frankenstein of spreads, but it does have its occasional uses. Clearman's is a perfect example. Here it is the canvas upon which a rich mural of cheddar and Romano cheeses, vinegar, anchovies, garlic and tamarind are painted. The margarine base is a perfect vehicle here since it has a higher scorch temperature than butter which, although delicious, has all those pesky solids that can burn. I scored a loaf of Boudin sourdough from Disney's California Adventure on a photo shoot last week (thanks Chef Juan!) and even played a little "old-meets-new," using it to build a turkey burger with Clearman's slathered bread as the base.
Well, it seems this stuff goes good on just about anything, from baked potatoes to veggies and back again to coat everything in between. It's not just the flavor that catches you, it's the smell: sweet and sour and garlic all at once, the molasses in the mix coming out when it's properly broiled to golden, crisp perfection.
Rediscovering this convenient trip back in time was a real treat and I didn't know all I had to do was poke my nose in the dairy case at Stater's. You can bet I'll have a tub of it on hand at Casa de Mau from now on.
Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!