Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse sells more than 100,000 pounds of quality beef per year, all of it hand-cut by a guy in the back who goes by "Joe the Butcher."
The average American eats 60 pounds of beef annually. If you're a meat eater and enjoy a steak that is big and juicy and tender – and if you'd like to eat it in a place where you don't have to get dressed up or take out a second mortgage – I highly recommend you devour some of those 60 pounds in the homey confines of this Winters institution.
Count me as a big fan of Joe's butchering and Buckhorn's grilling. The steaks we had were perfectly cooked, tender and delicious, with a char that pulls together all of the meat's flavors and showcases what this joint is all about. Much of the beef is aged 42 days, which deepens the natural flavor and makes the meat even more tender.
The sides are appealing, the wine list gave us good options from local wineries, and we loved the gargantuan piece of chocolate cake.
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Buckhorn succeeds by focusing on food and service, and by staying true to its roots, its values and a certain style that makes us feel good about spending our time and money there.
All of the newly hired servers must attend "Cow School," then pass a test before they are let loose to wait tables. Their education focuses on understanding what makes Buckhorn's meat so delicious, and to us, so primal. This "school" apparently does not deal in what makes many other upscale steakhouses so tedious – excessive hype.
Buckhorn is much admired and has been for years. The restaurant, which is 30 miles from downtown Sacramento, can accommodate various styles of dining, from fine to casual, from grazer to glutinous carnivore. Despite its meat-centric appeal, I'm told the kitchen will accommodate vegetarians and, if possible, satisfy requests to prepare meatless dishes not listed on the menu.
Buckhorn is certainly a destination for a special occasion, but it's also comfortable if you just step in off the street wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. During our visits, we saw all kinds of folks – older couples, families, young folks and groups of big dudes who ate as if they had just been rescued from a deserted island.
We visited to see if the Buckhorn quality had been maintained through the years or if the restaurant has rested on its laurels. Make no bones about it – we also hit up Buckhorn because we were famished, and when you're that hungry, it's a wonderful thing to be able to order a 24-ounce rib eye that blankets the plate and is so tender you could slice it with a Popsicle stick.
Buckhorn is drastically different than the steakhouses that try to convince you they are doing something far more sophisticated than putting big pieces of beef under or over heat. You pay dearly for such pretentiousness, right down to an $8 potato worth 50 cents.
I approached Buckhorn with high expectations and several questions. Among them: "What's the deal with all those animal heads?"
The first thing the uninitiated visitor will notice about Buckhorn is that the place is almost always busy, it smells terrific, there is a friendly energy to the room, and, yikes, there are all kinds of dead animals mounted on the walls.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), none of those species – elk and deer among them – is found on the menu.
The taxidermy-gone-wild look is actually part of the restaurant's legacy. The animal heads were there long before John Pickerel bought Buckhorn 31 years ago. Instead of revamping, Pickerel rolled with it. Even today, if a hunter brings in a big-game trophy mount, I'm told, Buckhorn will try to find a spot on the wall among the four dozen other glassy-eyed, waxy-nosed beasts.
On our first visit, I labored over what to order for dinner. That's a good sign. Everything sounded incredible: the 14-ounce burger ($11.99), which is what you'd want right before going into hibernation; the 12-ounce "baseball sirloin" ($28.99) as thick and ample as a baseball, but not nearly as chewy; the 8-ounce "Taylor sirloin" ($25.99) wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon; the famed char-roasted sirloin ($23.99), which is tri-tip that has been seared and then smoked over fruitwood; or the amazing prime rib "Vick's cut" ($36.99), which practically overwhelms the senses with its tenderness and big flavor.
So I explored the spectrum: I went with big, then massive, then really big and velvety-tender. Finally, we went for the screaming-good deal on Sunday – two choices of meat (we had chicken and ribs) and choice of two sides (fire-roasted artichoke and mac 'n' cheese) that left us asking, "Is it actually fair to eat this much and pay so little?"
On our first visit, I was looking for a signature steak that would define the kind of place Buckhorn is, so I chose that baseball sirloin, which is served with a port wine sauce that accentuates the flavor of the meat without masking it. It came with grilled asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes. This was a steak dinner practically cartoonish in its proportions – an oversized, ultrathick serving. Sirloin is not as tender as filet mignon, so don't expect this steak to melt in your mouth. There is a pleasing quality to this cut, and it was certainly a thrill to the senses.
That night, we also had the prime rib dinner, which is a significantly different dynamic than the sirloin. The extra-large option – Vick's cut – is a decadent treat, and the tenderness is astounding for medium-rare, with a mix of fat and flesh that requires little to no chewing. If you're looking to spoil yourself, this could be the best choice.
I made sure I arrived to our next visit with a huge appetite because I wanted to confront the 24-ounce rib eye with honest intentions. This is another amazing feast for the eyes as it arrives at the table. We also had the $13.99 special because we wanted to see if this steakhouse could be enjoyed just as much on a budget. This deal convinced us.
The most impressive deal, however, is for a group of four or five folks. For $49.99, you get a full rack of ribs, a pound of char-roasted sirloin, roasted half-chicken, smoked sausage, baked beans, broccoli salad, french fries and corn bread muffins. That's a feast – and a bargain.
Indeed, Buckhorn's reputation remains as solid as ever. It's a no-nonsense place that doesn't try to impress you with anything other than good food, friendly service and old- fashioned values that seem more appealing than ever.
Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse
2 Main St., Winters
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday- Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday, 4:30-10 p.m. Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday
Full bar? Yes
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Overall: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
Here's a steakhouse that delivers on a simple promise: great food, good service and no hype or pretentiousness. It's fun. It's homespun. And the menu here will never go out of style.
Food: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
The steaks, of course, are the main event. Many have been aged up to 60 days. They're tender and full of flavor, and cooked with skill and consistency. The side dishes are done the same way.
Service: 3 stars (good)
One of our servers was excellent and one was decent. All the servers must attend "Cow School" and pass a test before they wait tables. They know their steaks. One server also knew her wine and could make solid recommendations. The other needed a refresher course.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
The dining room decorating scheme works whether you take it for what it is or see it as strange and campy. Doesn't matter. This big, old-fashioned place doesn't pretend to be something it's not. If you're not into stuffed animals mounted all over the walls, keep your eyes on your plate. That's where the action is anyway.
Value: 3 stars (good)
The menu is well designed. You can make your Buckhorn experience a once-a-year extravaganza by going with a giant slab of prime rib for $36.99, you can opt for middle ground with a char-roasted sirloin for $23.99, or go for the superb bargain deal for $49.99 that feeds up to five hungry people.
Noteworthy: If you're going to make the drive to Winters, be sure to make a reservation. The town itself is a pleasant place to visit. If you're looking for a combination trip, try visiting one of the local wineries or take in a live music show at the famed Palms Playhouse across the street and a few doors down.