Man Vs. Meat
Dakota Jake's mountain of meat defeats the honed appetite of a man eating alone.
Thursday, October 4, 2001
Dakota Jake''s looks like a roadhouse that at one time stood alone out on North Main in Salinas and has since been surrounded by strip malls. It sits there in the middle of a shopping center parking lot. Inside, it looks like a corporate-chain restaurant, like an Armadillo Willy''s or an Outback. Like an upscale Denny''s.
I didn''t care. My girlfriend was out of town and I couldn''t scare up a dinner partner so I was going solo--nobody to please but me. I was hungry and couldn''t care less about ambiance.
I had starved myself all day. A bagel with my late-morning coffee and that was it. I wanted to be good and ready to fully enjoy a big meal, which I had been told I would find at Dakota Jake''s. I began thinking about barbecue at around three, but I gritted my teeth and waited until seven.
I walked in the door that leads to the bar and stood there for a minute--when I eat alone in a restaurant with a bar, I often like to sit in the bar. There was a ballgame on, and I do like to watch baseball when I''m eating. But nobody in there was dining, and there was some loud conversation among the handful of patrons. I walked into the dining room, got a booth by a window, and ordered a Wild Turkey and a Sam Adams.
The waitress must have sensed my ravenous condition. She asked me if I already knew what I wanted. I said, "Yes: steak, chicken, ribs, brisket, potatoes, macaroni salad, beans. Beer and whiskey." She laughed politely; I bet she gets that all the time. I asked her advice: should I get the chicken, brisket and ribs combo platter? Or should I (yawn) just get a steak? No-brainer. I went for the big dish.
I also ordered the salad bar. I will admit that I have not ordered a salad bar, or even gone to a restaurant with a salad bar, in quite some time. Dakota Jake''s salad bar looks exactly the same as any other: bowls of stuff under a sneeze-guard. I got a dollop of everything, just to taste.
The potato salad was just plain perfect. Ditto the macaroni salad, and the fancy pasta salad tasted like it had some hint of roasted red pepper dressing. Nice. The carrot salad was delicious. The lettuce was perfectly crisp--I''d bet money the chef at Dakota Jake''s knows the three or four lettuce farmers in the Salinas Valley whose fields have not become subdivisions. The ranch dressing had bits of herbs and vegetables in it.
I took a bite of everything, just out of professional duty, and then another bite of each to be certain that my senses were not being skewed by my appetite. I cleaned my plate. I went back for one more dollop of the classic macaroni salad. I love a good macaroni salad.
The ice in my bourbon was almost melted by the time I remembered it was sitting there on my table; that is something that rarely happens to me. And never, never because I am distracted by a salad bar.
I had a minute or two to sip my whiskey before my meal arrived. The waitress looked like she was straining from exertion as she approached my table. When I saw the platter, I almost fainted. It was a pile of meat to feed a party. Half a chicken. Two slabs of brisket that each looked like a steak. A half-rack of spare-ribs. And a big baked potato. When she set the plate in front of me, an oaky steam enveloped my head and I was overcome with a greedy desire.
I started in on the chicken. My plan was to sample a little of this and a little of that before my hunger waned. Things didn''t work out that way.
I took a bite of the thigh, which was moist and powerfully flavored, and another, and proceeded to eat chicken until I was sucking on barbecue-sauce-and-oak-flavored bones. I was glad I was alone. I looked up--nobody seemed to have noticed my display of gluttony. I sliced off a piece of the brisket. It was chewy, and as I chewed, the sweet, spicy flavor of the sauce gave way to the complex, woody taste of the smoke and finally the pungent Angus beef itself. This was serious, I realized, and so I polished off my beer, wiped my mouth, and ordered another.
I''m glad I saved the ribs for last. Ordinarily I prefer pork ribs to beef, but these were the second-best spare ribs I''ve ever eaten. (My mom makes the best spare ribs in the world.) They were crusty, with smoke-and-barbecue flavored butter. I again devolved into a primitive, bone-sucking, beer-swilling man, eating alone. I''m pretty sure I was moaning as I gnawed the second big rib clean. The baked potato and barbecue beans were very good, too.
I had three meals on the leftovers: a spare-rib sandwich, chicken and fire-roasted tomatoes over penne pasta, and, just an hour ago, a brisket and Jarlsberg cheese sandwich, all tasting of smoke and spice, all eaten alone, quite contentedly.