Detour Before Dark: Carnivore Indominus at The Buckhorn Steakhouse

By Scott Thomas Anderson — originally published in the Roseville Press Tribune

The DeVillbiss Hotel in Winters, built in 1889, has been the site of The Buckhorn Steakhouse for 34 years. Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson

Under dark-eyed, floating elks’ heads, a vintage portrait of The DeVilbiss Hotel still hangs against the saloon’s faded bricks: It’s a bleached mirage of Italianate masonry rising over a hamlet — it’s a black-and-white imprint of life on endless tracks of orchards. This photograph is what roped in the imagination of a butcher 34 years ago, inspiring him to mend The DeVillbiss’s barroom and create a red meat rendezvous point that captures the purest form of western eating.

Today, John Pickerel’s accomplishment is drawing carnivores from around the region to the aged buildings of Winters, where coffee houses, wine bars and microbreweries have all cropped up around a cornerstone cookery filled with dark, dripping beef juice.

Dusk comes through the windows on a deer and goat’s head inside the saloon of The Buckhorn Steakhouse in Winters. Photograph by Mike Cosio.

It’s 7 p.m. as a summer sunset beats on the stone arches of the Buckhorn Steakhouse, the former site of The DeVillbiss Hotel. A few historic facades down the street, Gavyn Leonard plays a piano in an outdoor garden surrounded by trees, ivy and century-old brickwork. The notes plinking from her fingertips drift out toward the Buckhorn’s doors, where the evening light is competing with glass candles on the ranch-style Victorian chandeliers. Inside, men in trucker caps and white Stetsons are scattered from one side of the bar to the other. When meat-cutter John Pickerel started bringing life back to this landmark from 1889, he was determined to pay tribute to Winters’ early roughneck spirit. Elk, antelope and ram heads are decked across its walls. A cougar’s coat is flattened above the silver beer taps. The snarled face of a warthog stares over waiters bustling in and out of the kitchen.

Native New Yorker Bernard Rizzo sits at the bar enjoying the fire roasted artichoke and dip. He’s a fan of this appetizer, which comes split in half, grilled and served with a tarragon aioli. The dip has a briny center with a tight herb pinch to it, gently accented by rock pepper on the artichoke leaves. Rizzo and his wife are regulars at The Buckhorn Steakhouse.

“We probably come here a couple times a month,” Rizzo says with snappy notes of Brooklyn in his voice. “Basically, you can’t go wrong with anything at this place.”

While the New York ex-pat is content to go light on the eating tonight, many walking in have their stomachs set on something more formidable. One of the top items here is the rib-eye steak, 24 ounces of certified Angus beef served ruby-centered, supple and gloriously marbled in succulent, fat-frying juices. For hardcore paleo indulgers, the Buckhorn will dare to do “rare” to perfection, while adding a thick slathering of garlic mashed potatoes on the side of the rib-eye for a smoky, salt-licked bonus.

A filet mignon dish sent out by the Buckhorn’s master broiler Rodrigo Fernandez. Photograph by Mike Cosio.

Another famed offering at the restaurant is Vic’s Cut of the Mentink-style prime rib: This 13-ounce slab comes out tremendously soft, served with Au Jus from drippings and a creamy horseradish that can spark a brilliantly addictive fire in the nasal passages. The prime rib’s manic moisture is coupled with sautéed red and orange peppers, which punctuates the beef with sweet, sweaty juices exploding with each bite.

These rib-eye and prime rib dishes are the work of The Buckhorn’s chief broiler Rodrigo Fernandez. On this night, Fernandez’s take on baseball sirloins, filet mignons and pan-seared elk are also going out to the dining room. And when it comes to washing down such hardy trays, the Buckhorn’s signature red wine on barrel tap is a go-to option. The steakhouse works with the Turkovich Family Winery in Winters to produce a bold, robust blend directly from Yolo vines. Known as the Buckhorn Red, it’s been a good fit.

“Wines are what people like to drink most with their steaks,” notes manager Linda Rodriguez. “The Buckhorn Red is the big one. Rodney Strong Cabernet is another wine that customers love with their meat. As far as bar drinks, the way we make a Moscow Mule is what people are talking about.”

Waiter David Borges rolls a tomahawk steak from the Buckhorn’s bar into its dining room. The tomahawk is a 44 ounce rib eye for two, cut at a customer’s tableside. Photograph by Mike Cosio.

And whether digging into beef brochette or rack of lamb, the Turkovich family has also armed waiters here with its Tempranillo wine for pairing, a flourish of light blueberry liquorish tastes over a cool front and array of open, airy vanilla notes. It’s what some might call “the vine of life” colliding with the highest craft of the slaughter house.

Because it’s Saturday night, there is also a monster lurking in The Buckhorn’s kitchen. Pickerel has deemed it “The Tomahawk” — a fat, 44-ounce rib-eye with a bone like an ax handle brought out on rollers to be carved tableside. It’s all brawn and dribbling danger. It’s an offering to the most basic biting instincts of the Cro-Magnon. And when it comes to honoring the wants of bare knuckle steak fans, Pickerel wouldn’t have it any other way.The Buckhorn Red is a wine blend on barrel tap, made in Winters, that is special to the steakhouse.

The Buckhorn Red is a wine blend on barrel tap, made in Winters, that is special to the steakhouse. Photograph by Mike Cosio.

IN COVERSATION

At a glance, John Pickerel doesn’t look much different than any man eating at The Buckhorn Steakhouse in Winters: Clad in worn wranglers, a country shirt, with antique guns framed over his head, Pickerel sits quietly inside the bar he restored decades ago. The meat-cutting mastermind behind the Buckhorn Steakhouse recently invited me to take a seat next to him to discuss the influence of California’s chop house tradition.

Scott: How did you come up with creating a space like this?

John: If you take a look at that old photograph of Main Street, Winters, in the late 1800s you’ll see a barber’s pole along the roadway (points to a wooden pole behind him in the bar). That’s the same pole. Look, it was all inspired by what I saw in that image. I’ve tried to stick with the old stuff, including the saloon feel that’s been here since at least 1937. A lot people are driving a ways to get here and they expect to see some history.

Scott: Was it hard in the beginning to go from being a meat-cutter to realizing a vision like The Buckhorn?

John: Like so many first-time restaurateurs, I begged, borrowed and mortgaged to get the doors open; but I stuck to my guns that we really wanted to be a steakhouse — a place with top quality steaks that are aged up to 60 days, and still cut with a band saw.

Scott: Is there a secret to bringing out amazing steaks?

This chandelier made of deer antlers hangs in the dining room of The Buckhorn Steakhouse. Photograph by Mike Cosio.

John: I wouldn’t say it’s a secret, because it’s simple: People love steaks that are tender, flavorful and juicy. We specialize in big cuts, and more importantly, we’ve worked to be consistent. This place has only had three different meat-cutters in the last 34 years, after I was the original. Our main broiler has been here 20 years now. If you ever been around the restaurant business, you know how rare that is.

Scott: The Buckhorn has fans across the region, but it looks like you get a lot of business from ranches and farms in Winters?

John: The same farmers that we see sitting across the street having breakfast in the morning we end up seeing here at night. In my view, if you’re not impressing the regulars, you’re failing.

The DeVillbiss Hotel in Winters, built in 1889, has been the site of The Buckhorn Steakhouse for 34 years. Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson.
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