Saturday, June 14, 2014

Carving Up the Sacred Cow: Jocko's in Nipomo

(Editor's Note: Jocko's was contacted on four separate occasions as to correct pricing, seasonings and recipes - they elected to not respond)
To say that Jocko’s restaurant in Nipomo is iconic is an understatement. The place has been grilling up meat over oak since the late 1920s and has become something of a pilgrimage for carnivores. So as a restaurant reviewer for eight years now it was inevitable I should find out for myself why throngs of people seem utterly devoted to this out of the way spot.

The place is utterly lacking in any kind of décor, but that’s part of its charm, according to some. Painted cinder block walls hold up a low wood roof over what amounts to cheap banquet chairs, worn carpet and faded pictures on the walls. It looks like a dive restaurant, and partly that’s OK, not everything needs to be spit polished and accented with design tips from Pier One. But don’t put on your Sunday best to come here.
Dinners get crowded and as early as 4:30 p.m. lines start forming on weekends and you’re in for a wait, even if you make reservations. Lunches are less crowded, but it’s important to know that the oak grill, what the place is actually known for, is not fired up during the day, just evenings.
Dinners are a slow parade of foods beginning with packaged soda crackers and salsa which is pleasant enough, a bit watery though with a minimal heat. Then there is the crudités plate with pickles, black olives, and peppers. Next your salad arrives, nothing more than basic iceberg lettuce with a few carrot shavings and a sliced beet on top for good measure, or perhaps because they had them sitting around, it’s hard to tell. All salad dressings are made on site including their ranch which is average in terms of flavor, as is their blue cheese dressing which is more thin and watery. The honey mustard dressing has a slight heat to it but is more sweet than tart. It’s important to understand that dinners will always take time due in part to the crowds and in part to the grilling. Our meal took 45 minutes from the time the order was turned in to when it arrived, so be prepared to wait…and wait. Dinners include baked beans (minimal brown spice and a slight molasses richness but lean towards soft), tedious garlic bread lacking much actual garlic, and some form of potato - baked, French Fries, mashed - or rice. We opted for the baker with butter, sour cream and chives - a standard baked potato, nothing more -, and the unremarkable white rice. The Small Spencer Steak ($22) is frankly quite large and is one of their signature cuts. The Spencer is minimally seasoned and definitely has a rich smokiness from the oak. The meat is reasonably tender, but that’s as far as it goes, meaning there’s little that’s memorable about it other than the ubiquitous oak smoke which covers anything that has touched the grill. The Sweetbreads ($17) are lightly breaded and tender certainly with the smoke infiltrating the meats, but are more devoid of any specific flavor. Dinners include dessert, which is no more than a scoop of ice cream, Rainbow sherbet, spumoni, or vanilla, and a cup of coffee. With the abundance of food most people walk away with a container of something and that is the success of Jocko’s – way too much food. We wish it was way too much terrific food, but that’s not the case.
Lunches include beans and salad just like dinner, but it’s much less crowded and in the light of day the place looks older and more tired. The Grilled Chicken Sandwich ($9) is a large, moist half breast with tomato, sliced red onion, and iceberg lettuce on grilled sourdough bread and is as fundamental a sandwich as you can get. The seasoning on the chicken is fine, but since it’s not oak grilled it lacks the nuances that dinner items possess. There is also the Ruben ($8.50) made with corned beef, cheese and sauerkraut on grilled sourdough. The flavors here are muted and unimpressive, the whole being fairly elementary. Yes the corned beef is appropriately tender and the sauerkraut slightly crisp and sweet, but that’s all. Overall that seems to be the point at Jocko’s – average is exactly what they aim for – and they succeed. Yes you’ll get bang for your buck, yes, you’ll be full. The service is a notch below average however, friendly but unfocused, scattered, uneven and rushed. Ultimately the seasonings and flavors of the meats and the entire experience doesn’t live up to the hype. Along the Central Coast, from Santa Barbara to Monterey there are a number of very good steak houses, but Jocko’s isn’t one of them. Frankly most of us can grill a better steak at home and ultimately, that’s where I’d prefer to be over the tedium of Jocko’s.