As I grab the last free barstool at Jocko's, the guy next to me greets me with a polite "howdy." At the 84-year-old Santa Maria-style steakhouse in Nipomo, the style is easygoing and unpretentious. Though most everyone seems to be drinking light beer while watching the Dodgers and Yankees games on opposing screens, the bartender rustles up a bottle of a local craft brew. Firestone DBA, a cool dark draught with plenty of flavor.
Quite the crowd, I say to the cowboy next to me. Is it always like this? "Always. Even if you've reserved ahead, the hostess is behind." He laughs and takes another swig of his beer as more people crowd into the bar, including a half-dozen girls in gold foil tiaras. It has to be either a princess convention or a birthday.
What's good? I ask out of curiosity, since my neighbor had mentioned he's been coming here since he was a little kid. Jocko's is the hands-down favorite for locals who want some of that famous Santa Maria-style 'cue. Anything from the oak pit grill, he says, not very informatively (almost everything on the menu comes from there). "The place isn't pretty, but the food sure is good."
Must be, because there's a crowd out front too — the guys wearing cowboy boots or work boots, the girls in glittery T-shirts or low-cut tops, whole families looking hungry yet unflappably polite about the wait. The six men in Bermuda shorts and white socks and sandals, I'd be willing to bet, are not locals but wine tourists.
The town, or at least the old downtown of Nipomo, is about two blinks long. There's a church and a quilting shop across the street, an Italian restaurant down the block and that's about it. Just outside of Santa Maria, it's in the heart of the Central Coast's old cattle country.
Jocko's, which in one form or another has been serving up grilled meats since 1926, sports the motto out front "come in and monkey around." Don't mind if I do. And so one beer leads to another. We watch the games and check in with the waiter every 15 minutes or so.
An hour and some odd minutes later, after I've watched the host turn away two tourists who vowed to come back for lunch the next day, and the hallway fill up with new arrivals next to the sign "please wait to be seated," we have a table. (Note: That wait was unusually long. It's usually more like 15 minutes to a half-hour past your reservation time, I'm told, but can sometimes be as long as two hours.)
That cowboy was right about the décor. Jocko's two dining rooms couldn't be called pretty by any stretch of the imagination. Serviceable is more like it — cinderblock with wood trim emblazoned with cattle brands and funny half-curtains at the windows, some vintage photos of the area on the walls, bleary lighting. Despite that, the whole atmosphere is festive and fun, with lots of large tables, including the ladies in tiaras. And when someone is celebrating a birthday, the staff comes out to sing "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" instead of the usual. Fun.
Once you sit down, your food comes out fast. Ordering is simple. Pick your meat. Choose your salad dressing — all made right there — and your potato, i.e., fries or a baked spud (you want baked), and you're done. Prices are all-inclusive for the entire meal. Their specialty, and the second-most expensive cut of beef, is the large Spencer, a hefty, not to mention huge, slab of rib-eye on the bone for $27. Yippee.
But first you get an old-fashioned relish tray with chilled sweet pickles, carrot and celery sticks, some olives, pickled hot peppers and a basket of packaged breadsticks and crackers. Then comes your iceberg salad with a fine ranch or Thousand Island dressing. There's also a good blue cheese dressing (the fixation of my childhood) and a fancy honey-dijon model too. The lettuce is cold, very cold, but a perfect segue to the massive meaty entrees.
Portions are so generous that most tables leave carrying a stack of white styrofoam boxes. When we arrive one night, I see more than one party carefully lowering the telltale boxes into their car's trunk.
That Spencer steak is easily 2 inches thick! Crusty and charred a deep mahogany, inside it's a perfect medium-rare as ordered. The beef is chewy, which is a good thing in a steak. Well-salted, the Spencer is very like a bistecca fiorentina — though without the final garnish of olive oil — and about as deeply satisfying. This isn't prime meat. How could it be at these prices? But it's cooked by expert grill men who know their meat through and through.
Before we sit down one night, I follow the enticing scent of smoke and beef to the two Santa Maria-style barbecues outside under an improvised shelter. Fired with red oak, the grills can be lowered and raised above the fire. They're not cooking over coals, but over live flames, which leap high. You can feel the heat even 6 feet away. And when your meat is done, it's raced to the table.
I like the dense top sirloin too. And even the filet, though I'd never choose it over a New York cut or a rib-eye. This one has some heft to it, cut three fingers thick. The New York is just as tall, and pretty good too, though for my money, I'd go with the Spencer every time. To note: You can also order extra-thick-cut steaks for $10 extra.
One night I watch a dainty woman polish off an entire plate of beef ribs. Salty and blackened at the edges, these giant ribs really give you something to gnaw on, Pork spareribs just get garlic and salt and pepper, no sauce, so you can taste the mild, sweet pork.
On my most recent visit, I had to try the fried chicken recommended by a petite woman sipping a martini. It's all she ever orders, she says. This may be the biggest bargain here, half a chicken, shaggy and dark golden brown, spurting juices.
Compared with the glorious fries cooked in lard at the Hitching Post II, one of the other local steakhouses of note, fries here, cut with the skins on, are a disappointment. They're limp and probably not fried to order. You're better off with the baked potato — with all the fixings, of course. I almost forgot to mention: Per Santa Maria tradition, every entree comes with a bowl of delicious juicy pinquito beans.
As for the wine list, I'd call it perfunctory at best, but that's not a problem, since the corkage is a modest $5. This is the place to bring some bottles picked up on the wine route and enjoy them with your steak.
Dessert is simple, vanilla ice cream with a very decent chocolate sauce.
The kitchen winds down around 10 p.m. weekdays, 11 on the weekend, but they start serving dinner at 4:30. You'll have less of a wait either early or late: The big rush is generally between 6 and 8. But I have to say, I didn't mind standing out front in the night, looking at the darkened church across the street, the pickup trucks speeding by and the stars above.
And the bill? Unbelievably low by L.A. steakhouse standards. Where can two people eat like this for less than $60, or four people for less than $120?There's a reason Jocko's has been packing them in for more than 80 years: good food and a respect for value.
RATING ✭ 1/2
LOCATION 125 N. Thompson Ave., Nipomo (about 8 miles north of Santa Maria on the Central Coast, just off the 101 freeway). (805) 929-3565; http://www.jockosmix.com.
PRICE Complete meals from the oak pit, the sea or the grill, $13 to $31; other dinner items, $9 to $11; sandwiches, $5 to $16; a la carte salads, $3 to $8. Corkage, $5. Extra thick-cut steaks, $10 more.
DETAILS Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Free parking in Jocko's lot.