Greetings from Trabuco Canyon, California
N 33° 39.6312′ W 117° 35.3937′ Elev. 1079 ft.
In 1982, the Southern California Restaurant Writers named the Trabuco Oaks Steak House “A Legend In Its Own Time.” What a coincidence, I thought. Just a few years prior to that I named myself “A Legend In My Own Mind.” Kismet?
The cosmic connections between myself and this legendary steak house, however, don’t end there — we both hate neckties. Indeed, it’s my considered opinion that most of the people who wear ties regularly should probably be strung up by them.
The folks at the “Oaks” are infinitely kinder about ties than I. They warn visitors that they wear one at your own risk and, if they do, they will “loosen your tie at the door.” That’s merely a polite way of saying “cut it off.” It’s policy.
Originally established in 1968 as a snack bar, the Oaks has the feel of an old ranch house. Along with a collection of photographs and assorted tsotchkes, thousands upon thousands of decapitated ties hang from every wall and rafter, trophies not-so-surgically removed from every poor fool who has ever wandered in wearing one.
Amongst the many idiosyncrasies of its decor is a live tree growing up out of the floor and through the roof in one of the dark, cave-like dining rooms. I mention this only because I think we all know how hard it is to find a restaurant with flora bisecting its structure these days.
(It is so dark inside that it was impossible for me to get decent pictures. You can find much better ones here.)
Curiously, they also had an old, pull-handle cigarette machine, something I hadn’t seen for 30 years or more. Being bargain priced at $4 per pack it was no surprise that it was empty.
Legend has it that the Oaks was a favorite of the infamous subject of Frank Zappa’s “Son of Orange County”. Like so many others, I’m disappointed that the proprietors weren’t a little sloppier when they cut off Richard Milhouse Nixon’s tie; while they were at it they could have done the world a favor and had a slip of the scissors with his dining companion and pal Bebe “I’m not a crook either” Rebozo as well.
The restaurant is located just over 3 miles northwest of Rancho Santa Margarita, in Trabuco Canyon. Although it’s such a short distance from the neighborhoods of cookie-cutter McMansions of suburban Orange County it may as well be one hundred miles and as many years away. It’s pretty astounding in this day and age that there are still places where urban sprawl and rural horse ranches exist in such close proximity and be completely separated in time and space.
I shouldn’t be surprised. There are many, many places like this in the greater Los Angeles area. Still, it never ceases to amaze me. To find such hidden gems you must either be a local or truly adventurous.
(An episode of California’s Gold by my favorite TV personality, the late, great and singularly inimitable Huell Howser, gives you a sense of what the area is like. It can be found here, by golly.)
I ended up at the Oaks thanks to my good friend and musician extraordinaire Mike Hamilton. He wanted to play tourist/tour guide for a day and just had to take me there. Having grown up in the general vicinity, he said “You’ve got to see this place.” I’m glad I did. Now I can say I’ve “Been there, done that.”
The Oaks is kind of a pricey place. But they did have some reasonably priced stuff. For example, Monday through Thursday they offer 10 oz. and 16 oz. prime ribs dinners for $22 and $26, respectively. Most dinners are served with garlic bread, house salad with homemade Italian dressing, choice of French fries or baked potato, and western beans.
Sure, the prime rib specials are not a ridiculous deal like Virgin River Casino offers. But how many severed neckties are you going to see at the Virgin?
Because the Oaks is a famed steak house I ordered the … Italian Spaghetti?! It’s described in the menu as “Angel hair pasta nest with our 31 year old recipe including premium tomatoes, Italian sausage, and a time-tested combination of fresh herbs and spices. Served with garlic toast and house salad” ($14). Naturally, I couldn’t help myself. It just sounded really good at the time. And they’ve had 31 years to perfect the sauce! How could I go wrong?
As it turned out “going wrong” turned out to be extraordinarily easy.
Although the pasta was perfectly cooked, the sauce was incredibly bland. It was sadly bereft of anything that might add some pizzazz, like, say, a really good “Italian sausage and a time-tested combination of herbs and spices.”
The salad was a small plate of iceberg lettuce not-too drenched in the house-made Italian dressing, which was likewise pretty bland. The dressing seemed to be more of an oil-and-vinegar affair comprised of more oil than vinegar. Even the addition of a generous amount of pepper couldn’t zest it up. Thankfully, the garlic bread was really, really good.
Because Mike is a vegetarian he ordered the “Set-Up”, which consisted of salad, garlic toast, fries or baked potato, and western beans ($10); he got the baked spud. Of the two of us I think he had the better meal. Moreover, because he was still hungry, the waiter brought him another salad gratis.
If nothing else, the service is great at this quirky, old-school hideaway. Should I ever go to Trabuco Oaks Steak House again, however, I think the wise thing would be to order something they’re famous for. Maybe a steak. But when have I ever been wise?
And so we roll.
Trabuco Oaks Steak House, 20782 Trabuco Oaks Dr, Trabuco Canyon, California