A guy and his lunch pal walk into a bar …
The start of an old joke, slightly modified, but this one has a different punchline. That’s because the bar in question was Poor Red’s in the tiny town of El Dorado. The place is a refuge, one with history reflected in the glass bricks, stamped-tin ceiling and antique wall murals depicting the quest for gold that so dominated these here parts in the dim and distant. Past the bar are two dining rooms – one original, one new – and a new patio, evidence that things are a-changin’.
The roadhouse (and former Wells Fargo way station) dates from the 1850s and has been a destination for dining and drinking since 1945, when a guy nicknamed Poor Red won it in a dice game. Ownership changed over the decades, until the struggling business lost its country-fried panache and closed in 2014 amid a storm of legal and criminal issues.
Enter co-owner Mike Hountalas, who owns the Purple Place Bar & Grill in El Dorado Hills and is part owner of the Cliff House in San Francisco. He partnered with Sacramento businessmen Jeff and Mike Genovese to resurrect and upgrade the joint, while keeping the same vibe (or close to it) that has long attracted territorial regulars and adventurous tourists. It’s still a draw for bikers with patches sewn onto their denim jackets, their Harley Davidsons lined up out front on weekends like horses at a watering trough.
All that – and the search for nostalgia – contributed to the tsunami of out-the-door crowds the first weeks after the 2.0 version debuted April 19. Now the scene has settled, and the fare is far more than the afterthought it once was under previous ownerships. In those years, a boozy two-hour wait for a table was more of the point than actually sitting down to eat.
“Our growing pains are over,” said manager Steve Anderly on the phone the other day. “Our kitchen is getting to where it needs to be, (to the point that) we’re starting to serve appetizers on the patio.”
We sat at a table in the old dining room, where the outdated wood paneling mercifully had been torn off to reveal handsome stone walls. Ladies from the Red Hat Society, a global social organization, sat nearby.
Two sunburned guys sauntered in and pulled up chairs, looking like mutton-chopped and suspendered sourdoughs who had left their partner guarding their claim while they rode into town for supplies and a bite. Another guy entered, this one wearing shiny cowboy boots, tailored jeans, long-sleeve shirt, bolo tie and Stetson, apparently all hat and no cattle.
The room soon filled with diners and their deafening efforts to be heard. “We’re working with an architect to dampen the echo,” Anderly said. “It has always been loud in Poor Red’s, but it doesn’t need to be as loud as it is now.”
The Paleo-centric menu features chicken, pork and beef in various iterations, plus two salads and six “starters.”
A chilled wedge of romaine lettuce (not the traditional iceberg) was practically smothered in blue-cheese dressing and bits, cherry tomato halves, slices of picked onion and crispy bacon crumbles. The multiple flavors and textures – including the taste of buttermilk in the excellent house-made dressing – prompted my lunch pal to say, “You couldn’t ask for much more in a wedge.” I agreed.
The juicy 18-ounce hand-cut rib-eye steak was a marvel of rich flavor, some of it picked up from the mesquite-and oak coals fueling the grill. Though its only seasonings were salt and pepper, it tasted as though it had been tenderized in wine-based marinade. After she took a few bites, the lunch pal said, “They’re not afraid of flavor and salt here. A lot of restaurants cop out on that.” The steak was a come-back dish, as in, “We’ll come back for that.”
On the same plate were garlicky and al-dente fresh green beans– a nice surprise – and frozen skin-on french fries that had more character than most.
Though we prefer pulled pork best when it shows up in carnitas, the pulled-pork sliders were fine – the oven-roasted meat moist and tender, the buns just the right size. The molasses-heavy ’cue sauce is based on Poor Red’s original recipe, but tweaked, and so domineering it overwhelms.
It’s easy to drop frozen onion rings into hot oil and call it a side dish, but it’s time-consuming work to cut fresh onions into rings and hand-dip them in house-made beer batter (in this case, Newcastle brown ale) before frying.
The rings were huge, hot and crunchy, but we were disappointed at first. They were gorgeous, but where was the flavor? Then we let them cool from steaming hot to warm, and tried them again. Eureka! Rich taste had materialized.
Ironically, the two items we liked the least are Poor Red’s signatures – spareribs and the Golden Cadillac cocktail. The former are spice-rubbed, oven-roasted and finished on the wood-burning grill. We found them overcooked and mealy.
The house drink is a froth of Galliano herbed liqueur, white creme de cacao and cream. Yeah, Poor Red’s has sold a million Golden Cadillacs, presumably to fans of Galliano’s cloying taste.
Later, a guy and his lunch pal walk out of a bar, mapping a return.
Where: 6221 Pleasant Valley Road, El Dorado
Hours: Open daily. Lunch is 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Dinner is 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, and 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Bar opens 10 a.m. and closes midnight weekdays, 1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
How much: $-$$$
Information: 530-622-2901, www.poorreds.com