Which Came First? . . .


Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Agra has the Taj Mahal . . . and New Cuyama has the ostrich burger. The Cuyama Buckhorn Restaurant may serve the only ostrich burgers in the United States. People flock from miles around.

Ostrich, as you may have heard, may be the red meat of the future, with half the calories and a seventh of the fat of beef, about half as expensive to raise per pound, and with a flavor that is supposed to resemble a good fillet. One restaurant in Dallas serves ostrich pizza, smoked ostrich salad and ostrich fillets in a sun-dried cherry vinaigrette; a restaurant in Sacramento pan-sears the ostrich and serves it in a red-wine/shallot reduction. Ostrich farming is the new craze in agriculture, and prime ostrich breeding stock can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. But to most of us, the taste of ostrich is pretty theoretical.

To get to New Cuyama, you pound into the unexpectedly spring-green Sierra Madre range, twist past brimming blue reservoirs and rivers not yet dried into mud, through countless cattle ranches, down winding, thoroughly entertaining country-road corkscrews, into the wide, starkly beautiful Cuyama Valley, sugar-beet capital of the state. Halfway between Santa Maria and Bakersfield, New Cuyama is really not on the way to anything except possibly a perverse shortcut between Hollywood and San Luis Obispo, which makes it a perfect destination for a Saturday mountain drive. If the 33 from Ventura weren’t closed by a massive mudslide, you could drive past trees and steep orange groves instead of endless cows.


The Cuyama Buckhorn is a big, good-looking roadhouse, radiant and friendly in the dark, with an attached motel, a big neon sign and a slogan: “EAT, DRINK, SNOOZE.” A beautiful back-room bar, very Twin Peaksian, with a soft blue-lantern glow, is positively encrusted with animal heads, except above the bar, where battered cowboy hats hang instead. A display case at the entrance to the restaurant holds a massive ostrich egg; a message board plugs the $9.95 ostrich-burger dinner.

At sunset, it is pleasant to sit at a table near the big picture window, as the distant mountains purple in the dimming light, so vivid and wrinkled that they look almost like a mountain range painted in the background of some cougar diorama at the Natural History Museum.

The Buckhorn is pretty much your standard Western diner, with fried shrimp platters and oak-pit steaks and eggs anyway you like them, home-baked pies and (soggy) chicken-fried steak. With dinners come iceberg-lettuce salads, very crisp and very cold, with French or blue-cheese dressing. There’s even a bison burger here, a giant, strong-tasting thing that is blackened around the edges, meat that is not afraid to taste like meat.

But still, we have not driven all this way to dine on buffalo, a meat that is, after all, available in the deli case at Bristol Farms. We have come for ostrich.

When the ostrich burger finally comes, surrounded by fries, it looks just like . . . a burger, except smaller really, a thin disk of meat almost concealed by a really big, mayo-smeared bun. When you dress it with the onion, pickle and lettuce, a rare ostrich burger is indistinguishable from one made from beef, save a certain, not unpleasant gristliness. If you don’t ask for it rare, it will come out gray and stiff, a little bit chewy, with the slightly liverish under-taste of a McDonald’s hamburger patty and precious little juice-- i . e ., more burger than ostrich.

To be honest, the only point in eating an ostrich burger may be to be able to say that you’ve eaten an ostrich burger; that you’ve faced down a sandwich made from a bird that can run 40 miles per hour and rip a man open with its giant toenail. Ostrich burgers may not be much of a tourist attraction, but how many times can you visit the Louvre?

Cuyama Buckhorn Restaurant

4923 Primero, New Cuyama, (805) 766-2591. Open daily 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday to 9 p.m. Full bar. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $8 to $25.