When people think about Central California it usually brings to mind Pismo Beach and Hearst Castle. When I think of Central CA, I think of one thing — Santa Maria barbeque! Particularly tri-tip cooked over red oak on a special barbeque with a crank to lift and lower the grill in order to control the heat and the char.
The American Farmhouse Tavern & Dining Hall in Manhattan Beach has its Santa Maria grill (which they refer to as a turnspit) outdoors for now, pending permits. Two years at the previous location in Goat Hill garnered the little restaurant such a large following that Chef and owner Orlando Novoa had to turn customers away. To serve the demand, this past July the restaurant moved to a location that seats 200 just a few blocks away.
The restaurant’s down-home farm theme is a little incongruous with the steak and lobster menu until you stop and think about Central California — garlic, strawberries, artichokes — its is farm country. These are not ironic egg baskets these are real cluck-cluck chicken farm egg baskets. The old timey pictures on the wall are straight from the family album and the quilts on the wall were handmade by wife Kristen Novoa’s mother.
Orlando Novoa takes advantage of the farmland and sources most of his produce from family farms in the Central Coastal area. The sources are confidential, but does that steak perhaps hail from Harris Ranch? With Novoa’s pedigree including The Hitching Post and Jocko’s, naturally the menu is steak-heavy.
Your meal comes complete with an old-school wedge of lettuce as well as a dessert selection of ice cream or sorbet, making you wonder what year this is. But that’s the way it’s been done in steakhouses for 50 years and The American Farmhouse Tavern is continuing the tradition.
According to the restaurant, the tradition goes back even further, “California Vaquero legacy cookery began in the mid-19th century. Each spring, ranchers would brand new calves, then reward their hard-riding crews with barbecues that infused old Spanish recipes with corn, peppers, tomatoes, and other foods of the New World.” Chef Novoa adds, “The menu stays authentic to a certain period-specific ruggedness of the regional tradition.”
You may be thinking, “Meandering through the history of the vaqueros is really fascinating, but how is the food? This is a food post, right?” So OK, let’s talk food. I hit the restaurant at their invitation and sampled three meals — dinner, Happy Hour snacks and Saturday brunch.
The all-inclusive meal starts with a “vegetable-strewn Farmhouse Stew, smoky Cattleman’s beans and Santa Maria-style salsa, a tangy trio intended to be blended.” It is very easy to tell this is the kind of meal that started out from necessity and lean times, but developed into a delicacy, much like soul food. The flavors are multi-layered and complex. Vegans will go crazy for it, and the restaurant will make an entree-sized portion on request.
A butter lettuce-wedge salad arrives with unsurprisingly farm-fresh produce, especially a delicious little beet. We went for Thousand Island and Bleu Cheese, how could you not?
And how could you not try the tri-tip in a Santa Maria-style restaurant? The meat was authentic and delicious, definitely something to return for again. The tri-tip was sandwiched between grilled garlic bread, although I have never detected garlic on the grilled bread, either in Central California or at this restaurant. The rib-eye is huge and tender, with just a little fat.
The ice cream is kind of a letdown; in a country restaurant I want pie! I was later informed that they will be serving pie eventually. I’m not sure whether or not that is a result of my lying on the floor and kicking my feet while holding my breath or not. For the adults at the table, you can choose an after-dinner liquer instead of the ice cream. I suggest one person order vanilla ice cream and the other a raspberry sorbet, making a 50/50 bar dessert to share, or one of you order Frangelico to pour over vanilla ice cream.
At 10pm the family restaurant closes down, and the bar area kicks into high gear with live bands and a late-night happy hour on weekends. The hot wings were hot, but I guess you would expect that. Still, they were pretty damn hot. Sweet potato fries are always a favorite. The jelly dip was a little trippy, but they were happy to bring us mayonnaise and bleu cheese, our dips of choice. I didn;t try the cocktails since I was driving, but the Mint Cucumber Gimlet might have me coming back with a designated driver.
Since a farmhouse/steakhouse/bar wasn’t quite enough, there is The Parlor, a private room, furnished with its own red felt pool table for private parties.
The next morning I returned with family for brunch. But that’s another song.