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HOW TO SURVIVE ON U.S. ROUTE 395

<i> Free-lance writer J. K. Hartshorn's last Calendar article was about restaurants in Mexicali</i>

Water. Politics. And down-home cooking?

Those first two elements, anyway, have long ruled the destiny of California’s Owens Valley, a 120-mile-long pocket of the eastern Sierra Nevada. As the city of Los Angeles bloomed and prospered, it turned northward in its search for a water supply and, in the 1920s, purchased land in the Owens Valley for its precious water rights. What was later popularized as California’s “Little Civil War” was fought over these waters, as irate valley ranchers dynamited the aqueduct they believed was draining away their land’s lifeblood.

In the intervening 60 years, things have calmed down, and peace seems to reign in the valley at last. We were here traveling its length in the company of the aqueduct’s chief engineer, however, not in search of peace but looking for peas . . . or fried chicken, biscuits, gravy--whatever down-home culinary secrets this valley might hold.

The Owens Valley’s main north-south artery, U.S. 395, is traveled by thousands on their way to Mammoth and June Mountain; it could be subtitled “the skier’s route to good eating.” Once past the fast-food mecca of Mojave, however, it’s mostly diners and truck stops all the way to the slopes. And in this land of stark contrasts and desolate beauty, the dining is, in a word, basic. If you’re looking for anything approaching nouvelle, better hold out until Bishop.

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Otherwise, your first stop should be in Olancha, about 190 miles from Los Angeles in the southernmost end of the valley. It’s not easy to miss--Olancha is little more than a bend in the road and a stand of cottonwoods--but even at 6:30 on a Saturday morning the Ranch House was surrounded by a fleet of trucks. This is a warm, homey place to stop for breakfast. The down-home atmosphere runs to hard wooden booths and taxidermy, with mounted deer heads, stuffed fish and a big black bear rearing over the cashier. Wear your most faded pair of jeans, and men should remember to keep their hats (Stetson, preferably, or a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of some herbicide) on throughout the meal to avoid drawing stares from the other customers.

The house specialty is Indian fry bread, served for breakfast with butter and honey or for lunch in a deluxe sandwich topped with beans, beef and cheese. This flat, chewy bread, a foot in diameter, turned out to be remarkably ungreasy. Or try the ragged-edged, fluffy flapjacks (the short stack enough for all but the hugest of appetites). Lew Val, our Owens Valley guide, recommended an omelet made of chili beans, cheese and ortega chiles; it was one of the fattest and best Spanish omelets we’d ever tasted. The biscuits were big and fluffy, too.

Ranch House Cafe, west side U.S. 395, Olancha, (619) 764-2363 . Open 24 hours Sun . -Fri . , close at 10 p.m. Saturdays. No credit cards. Full breakfast for two, $5-$10.

Another breakfast and lunch spot that came with high recommendations, Nancy’s Kitchen in the town of Independence, is closed on Saturdays, and the owners of Aberdeen, another popular restaurant in the little town by the same name were off on a two-month vacation, so we pulled off in Big Pine at Whitlock’s Burgers & Fries Laundromat. Here the suds are not on the beer but in the Maytags that line one wall. In a tiny hamlet like Big Pine, with a population of 1,500, it probably helps to diversify.

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The food here is hearty and good and certainly a welcome change from mass-produced burgers. Prices are quite reasonable--$1.60 for a deluxe hamburger or a burrito chock full of chili beans and juicy chunks of beef. The pastrami sandwich, served on a soft roll, didn’t stint on meat.

Don’t come looking for linen tablecloths or fine china--food here is served on paper plates.

Whitlock’s Burgers & Fries Laundromat, 400 S. Main, Big Pine, (619) 938-2933. Open daily from 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Cashier may laugh if you try to pay by credit card. Lunch for two, about $5.

The dinner menu at Margie’s Merry-Go-Round in Lone Pine will warm the cockles of any meat-and-potatoes lover’s heart: a lineup of lamb and pork chops, beef, beef and more beef (cattle ranching is second only to tourism here). All are prepared very simply--charbroiled, not duded up with sissy sauces, mind you. Dinner includes a very basic iceberg lettuce salad (people obviously come here for meat and don’t want to mess with useless filler like salad or vegetables), and a dish of ice cream or sherbet. One exception is the chicken, which comes bathed in a tangy but not sweet barbecue sauce.

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The mostly red wine list features moderately priced vintages from the likes of Gallo, Sebastiani and Beringer.

The Merry-Go-Round, so named for the dining room’s circular shape, is small and intimate; reservations are recommended on weekends.

Margie’s Merry-Go-Round, 212 S. Main St., Lone Pine , (619) 876-4115. Dinner only, 5:30-9 p.m. Visa and Mastercard. Dinner for two, food only, $19-$31.

It was in Bishop, at the north end of the valley, that we had our most sophisticated meal. The Firehouse Grill is a big restaurant pleasingly decorated in the currently popular “country” style--lace curtains, lots of wood paneling, charming wall paper. Accountants and lawyers from the city should feel right at home. A very welcome fire blazed in the huge iron stove as we waited for a table.

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Vegetables--at last! After two virtually vegetable-free days, we fell fervently upon the al dente green beans. Sea bass, the fish of that day, was another welcome change; it was simply prepared, flaky and delicious. Salads are generous and more imaginative than others we sampled.

The grill is also gaining a reputation as a steak house, and if you’re there on a Friday or Saturday night you mighttry the prime rib. Firehhouse Grill also boasts an extensive list of California wines.

Firehouse Grill, 2206 N. Sierra Highway, Bishop; (619) 873-4888. Open daily 4:30-10 p.m. Visa and Mastercard. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$26.


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