Spurs ‘n’ Spuds
Grab some ribs and cozy up to the fire at the Running Iron.
Thursday, January 8, 2004
I’m pretty sure that the J-Gate shifter in my car was created with Laureles Grade in mind. The direction of the drive makes a difference—reason enough to head over the mountain from Highway 68 onto Carmel Valley Road for dinner. The Running Iron, in Carmel Valley Village, served as enticement to close the deal.
This particularly wintry Sunday, I popped a Steve Miller Band CD into the player, settled into my seat, and tilted my head up toward the sunroof for streams of cold air. My guy (who, it occurred to me, looked that day conspicuously like Donnie Brasco—at least as played by Johnny Depp) took the wheel, pushing through the curves with breakout rebel abandon. What a rush.
The grand finale, as it turned out, wasn’t the trip at all. This venture was definitely about the destination.
It had just begun to rain when we passed through the Running Iron’s outdoor patio door and into the dining room. As I hurried in out of the downpour, a server called out from across the room, “Jim, do you want a refill?” The diner pulled his pilsner glass in a little closer for inspection, then shook his head.
“Anywhere you want to sit,” the server said, smiling. She followed us to the beautifully rustic wooden table of our choice, directly under a spur-laden boot hanging from the ceiling and abutting an array of Oshkosh overalls decorating the wall, then doled out menus. The dark and woodsy atmosphere made my damp duds and raven Uggs feel right at home.
The first choice was drinks. I couldn’t decide between a cocktail with one of many top-shelf selections or a glass of wine from a local vineyard. I finally settled on a glass of Scheid Merlot ($8). Donnie chose a Sierra Nevada ($4).
The menu is comprehensive, to say the least. Appetizers range from potato skins, nachos and shrimp cocktails to sautéed mushrooms, stuffed olives and artichoke hearts. Main dish selections are mind-bogglingly voluminous: homemade soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, steaks, ribs, fish, pasta, south-of-the-border choices galore. Our patient server must have stopped by our table three or four times before Donnie finally decided on a plate of teriyaki wings ($7.75) to start.
By the time the wings arrived, my chill had been dissipated by the wine. We dug into the wings as couples and families poured in. Though the intrepid traveler often makes it that far into the valley, the place felt more like a local hotspot.
Thick, sweet teriyaki doused my fingers, and it didn’t feel out of place to sneak a fingertip into my mouth for a last lick. Good as they were, grilled tender and plump, I stopped after one to save room for dinner.
I took advantage of Donnie’s feast on the wings, enjoying my glass of wine and talking up a storm about whatever I didn’t want his input on, save for the occasional uh-huh and huh-uh between bites. I just love those kinds of conversations.
Our server was careful not to mix courses, but remained attentive to our drinks and dishes throughout. When sufficient lag time had elapsed after the appetizer, the grand dame arrived: my barbecue beef ribs ($14.95). Donnie’s grilled chicken ($12.95) looked pretty enough on the table as well, with a hint of hickory sauce dressing it up, but the handful of ribs in front of me stole the show.
Beautifully messy sauce was slathered about, and I knew there’d be no finger-licking after the escapade with those monstrosities. I’d have to put my whole hand in my mouth to accomplish much. Not pretty. I reached for the knife and fork instead.
By the time silver touched beef, the meat was off the bone. The knife, as it turns out, was just for decoration. A hint of sweet in the smoke and wood barbecue sauce was so familiarly inviting, it was as if I’d flame-broiled it in my own backyard. I couldn’t have come close to finishing that feast if it had been my weekend’s only meal.
Donnie was kind enough to slice me off a piece of his chicken. It had been given its due attention in the kitchen, still full of plenty of moisture, with just enough tangy sauce to give it a kick of flavor.
There was plenty left for lunch the next day, and the rib remnants were perfect little pooch munchies, so our server packed us a to-go box, then left us to linger awhile over steaming coffees.
It was Donnie’s turn to talk, and he did so for a good while, with a Niners game playing in the background. I nodded and did my uh-huhs, sitting a little closer now and savoring the warmth of the family dining room and charming rusticity. It’s not the kind of place that’s easy to leave. Instead, the experience made me feel more like hanging out on a faux bear rug in front of a fireplace, right there in that room with a cup of coffee.
But they were fresh out of faux bear, and the sexy curves of Laureles Grade were just a couple of miles away. So Donnie and I called it a night, climbed into the comfy ride, replaced Steve Miller with some mellow old jazz, and cruised back over the Grade and toward the sea.
Running Iron Restaurant and Saloon
24 E. Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley 659-4633
Mon-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri until 9:30pm; Sat 10am-9:30pm; Sun 9am-9pm.