640 Tenth Avenue, East Village
A recent issue of Vogue showcased a shot of Nicole Kidman in period costume, gazing aristocratically into the distance from atop a white dappled horse. The mare, ready for her close-up, looked right into the camera with a wise, friendly grin. I fell hard for that horse. (Better to fall for her than off her.) Similarly, I was charmed by Cowboy Star, a new restaurant so sweet and winsome I wanted to scratch its mane, rub noses with it, and feed it apples from my hand. More important, the food’s mostly so good, I feel no need to apologize for this dumb metaphor.
There are plenty of upper-middle-price “theme park” restaurants in San Diego (you know their names), but only rarely does the food equal their ambiance. Perhaps the difference here is that Cowboy Star’s veteran chef/co-owner is Victor Jimenez. You might have eaten his cooking at Gulf Coast eight years ago, at Thee Bungalow (when Ed Moore still owned it), at Gringo’s (where he reshaped the menu to reflect Mexico’s regional cuisines), or at JRDN, where he was opening chef. Then he vanished — nobody seemed to know where he went. The rumor was that he’d gone to India, destination of all Western runaways seeking enlightenment. In fact, he was merely lying low, right here in town, tending to his health and making plans for his new restaurant.
Cowboy Star, in which he’s partnered with veteran food-biz duo Jon and Angie Weber, is a shrine to the joy of wild carnivorousness and to the era of shameless old-time meat-eating enshrined in Western movies of the ’40s and ’50s. (Think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where the steaks were bigger than the plates: “That’s my steak, Valance. Pick it up,” rumbles John Wayne to Lee Marvin, and you know that the bully who deliberately tripped the waiter is a dead man walking.)
Outside is a small patio with iron chairs shaped like saddles and ashtrays affixed to the iron railing. Peek through the windows into the bar, you’ll see cowhide armchairs in front and a wall of Stetsons to one side. To the other side of the entrance is a small butcher shop selling USDA prime beef, organic beef, bison steaks, venison sausage, free-range chicken, and more. None of it’s cheap, but where else can you get these goodies so far south of Whole Foods and Jonathan’s? When Victor and Jon looked around at the pricey new E-Ville condos, they saw a zillion balconies, each garnished with a Weber grill. Obviously, this neighborhood has a need that a serious butcher might fill.
The dining rooms are walled in red brick, with Western-motif decorations. Lynne, Sue, Yvette, and I (the dance-hall gals — naah, the schoolmarms) were led past a large open kitchen (where Victor was right up front, expediting) into another red-brick dining room, accompanied on our walk by Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Next was a Bob Wills western swing number, followed by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Ralph Stanley. A soundtrack like this (put together by Victor, Jon, and Amber) deserves a good mane-scratch, a handful of sugar cubes, and a hug. Later, just when we got some noisy neighbors, the music switched for several numbers to loud, frantic film-noir jitterbug. (That hophead drummer with the tic in his eye — he’s the murderer!) Eventually, it rolled back to Bob Wills’s fat-boy food song, “Roly Poly,” music to my ears.
The amuse was a two-ounce shot of spectacular chilled asparagus soup topped with crème fraîche, with a dark, exotic hint of toasted cumin. It left us all vowing to buy some asparagus and try to re-create it at home.
Since it was “Restaurant Week,” our foursome arrived with a plan: two $40 discount meals, two from the regular menu — all shared around, of course. Looking over both menus, we discovered that if you’re willing to skip the steaks, it’s not so hard to cobble up a $40 two-course dinner here of other good stuff. But if you do want steakhouse fare, at least the meal comes with sides, and you don’t have to dress up like a Master of the Universe. If Cowboy Star is a steakhouse of sorts, it’s sort of the People’s Steakhouse. (Well, no, it’s not Black Angus or Claim Jumper. It’s more the Middle Class Foodie–People’s Steakhouse.)
There’s also plenty of wild game on the menu. The dashed hopes I once held for the Tractor Room, with its all-alike game stews, were finally fulfilled at Cowboy Star, where each creature gets its own royal treatment. A starter of wild boar carpaccio featured ultra-thin slices of pink, tender pig meat drizzled with a honey jalapeño mustard sauce, alongside pickled yellow wax beans and micro greens that included chervil, contributing its fresh, anise-y notes. We loved it madly.
Buttermilk-fried sweetbreads were another winner. Long tall Sue, who’s from Scotland, loves offal. (Of course: her national dish is haggis — lamb organs and oatmeal stewed in a lamb’s stomach. Totally offal!) She was thrilled by the dish, and us Yanks were happy too — tender, earthy bits of meat in a dark, deep bourbon sauce, with a bright slaw of apple and Savoy cabbage and good crisp fries on the side to keep the Lynnester happy.
Braised lamb ribs were bathed in another dark, flavorful sauce, this one sweeter, based on whiskey and currants. Lynne and Yvette were somewhat put off by the fat on the ribs, but Scottish Sue and I loved them, along with their blimp of a potato dumpling. When the meat was gone, we swiped up all the sauce with the table bread. (The breads, from local Sadie Rose Bakery, are a fine choice, including baguette rolls, rosemary-thyme bread, and multigrain rolls.) But a roasted cauliflower soup with toasted caraway and truffle oil was a letdown, overthickened and leaving an identifiable aftertaste of flour from the roux.
An entrée of sarsaparilla quail was a hit, made with an old-time Southern soft drink that none of us had ever tasted. (It’s related to root beer but made from a vine in the family called smilax, not from the sassafras tree that furnished the original root beer.) The quail had a magnetically rich gravy textured by ground hazelnuts, punctuated by figs and smoked cipollini onions. “It’s rather a small portion,” Sue complained. “It’s a small bird, after all,” said the Lynnester.
The steak on the Restaurant Week menu was a petite filet, grass-fed in Oregon. Normally, I’m unenthusiastic about filet, which is tender but wimpy-flavored, but the grass feed gave the cut more personality — a certain mineral undertone — than corn-fed cattle. It was beautifully rare, topped with herbed butter, and came with sauce béarnaise on the side, with Broccolini and potatoes. A béarnaise is always welcome. At home, I’ve often made a nonstandard, delicious but rather ugly pink version with the decanted dregs of the red dinner Bordeaux — but for a normal white-wine version, this was fine.
Inspecting the meats in the restaurant’s retail meat case, I’d fixated on a beautiful grass-fed bison rib-eye and happily found it on the menu in a huge 14-ounce portion. Sue, who grew up eating the plentiful game her dad shot, instantly “got it” — the bison proved almost as tender as cow steak but still had a touch of wildness in its flavor. (It’s also a really healthy red meat — all “good” cholesterol, like seafood, just about no bad stuff.) When I tasted it, I let out that gentle, trebly Bob Wills signature sound: “Yee-haw!” Best bison I’ve eaten since my first taste of it in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and way more tender. (Too bad they can’t grill it over a wood-fueled campfire here!)
If you’re a serious beef-eater, the most expensive choice ($43), and possibly well worth it, is a 20-ounce Meyer grass–fed strip steak that has been dry-aged 35 days. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know what I’m talking about. Just in case you don’t because you missed last week’s review of Ruth’s Chris: Dry-aging deeply improves beef’s flavor, not just its tenderness. But because it requires a lot of space and makes the meat shrink, dry-aging has become an extreme rarity. And 35 days is two weeks longer than most aging of any kind! Since the strip is an especially flavorful cut to start with, this really could be the tastiest piece of beef in San Diego. Wish I’d tried it. Got to find me a sugar daddy to take me back so I can do so someday.
For our final entrée, we wanted guinea hen, the delicious, ill-mannered bird that never stops whoopin’ and hollerin’. (A perfect bird for a country-western music theme, no?) The kitchen was all out that night — perhaps they hadn’t ordered much for Restaurant Week, since quail was on the discount menu. We substituted rosemary-grilled lamb loin in Syrah sauce with celeriac purée. The purée was oversalted, the lamb a bit tough, but the sauce was mopworthy. (What else is bread for?) If I had to do it again, I’d probably order the braised rabbit leg, so unusual on local menus. Farm-raised rabbit doesn’t taste gamy or wild, by the way. It actually tastes like chicken but is even leaner. That’s why I didn’t order it.
The wine list is mainly Californian. Everything I really wanted was pretty steep, but in the under-$40 class, the Beringer Cab was good enough. Our waiter, Jason, gave it full honors, decanting it to let it open up. (At first taste from the bottle, it was quite clenched.) Jason wasn’t just waiter-smart: Hints of smart-smart kept leaking out in his comments during the meal — until, wise-guy that I am, I finally asked, “So what’s your grad-school major?” Economics, he said.
Both Restaurant Week dessert choices were excellent. (The restaurant has a full-time pastry chef, Stephanie Tesnow.) Cowboy chocolate cake was an update of Chocolate Decadence with berries on the side and a mini-pouf of cardamom ice cream on top. I’d have liked lots more of the latter — cardamom has been my favorite flavor ever since I ran away to India and achieved enlightenment about ice cream. The other choice (unfortunately going off-menu soon, as the fruit’s season is nearly over) was a fabulous Meyer lemon pot au crème, the rich but light custard punctuated by paper-thin slices of candied lemon. Just got to say it again: “Yee-haw!” And double that, because you don’t have to be an MBA on a corporate tab or a lawyer in a pinstriped suit to feel at home while you dig into your beautiful meat. Cowboy Star’s for all the carnivores who just wanna have fun.
ABOUT THE CHEF
“I grew up watching my grandmother cook,” says Victor Jimenez. “We come from Mexican farmworkers, so the women in my family always had to cook for a lot of people. My grandmother started everything from scratch — roasting the coffee beans, grinding the corn. She had a wood-burning oven. It always mesmerized me when she was in the kitchen preparing food with the other ladies. I always tried to stay around the kitchen — my appreciation of good food started there.
“I started working under the supervision of Jim Hill [later the chef at Humphrey’s], who passed away a few years ago. He was one of my first mentors at a little place in La Jolla, in 1985, ’86. I was still attending high school, and I started as a pot-washer, working Friday and Saturday night after school. When summertime came I started to pick up more shifts. Being bilingual, the line cooks started to teach me, and I started to learn all the products, all the different meats and fish, and I became a chef tournant for them, their helper bringing everything to the line. Chef Hill really tried to take me under his wing and help me to develop more passion for the industry.
“Right after that, I had the opportunity to work for chef Bernard Guillas when he was at the Grant Grill. Chef Bernard has been the great mentor in my career, my great inspiration.”
Despite these awesome on-the-job teachers, Victor did eventually go to cooking school — but first came regular school. “Being from a Hispanic family, I had to finish my college education, so I graduated from San Diego State with a degree in economics. I was already involved in the restaurant industry, but this was more to fulfill that academic degree for my family than personally for me.
“Later on, I went to work for David and Lesley Cohn for over seven years, at Dakota and then Blue Point — a great learning experience. And right after that, there was a change in my life. Me being a chef, and my ex-wife graduated from the police academy...talk about a fork in the road! So we broke up, and I took some time off and went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris.”
When he came back, he was chef at Gulf Coast for a few years, but at the end of opening day, his best friend and co-chef went home and committed suicide, so he doesn’t like to remember that period. “After that, I got lucky to work for Ed Moore, when he was opening the Third Corner. I helped him revamp his Thee Bungalow menu for a year and a half. Then an old friend of mine introduced me to Brad Miller, and we had this chemistry and he had this great energy. He gave me the opportunity to redirect Gringo’s and then to open JRDN for him.”
After more than five years working for Miller, Jimenez quit JRDN to take some time off to recover his health after all the years of nonstop work. “I needed to remove myself from everything and everybody and get healthy, because I was going through a lot of stuff in my life. I went into the basement and hibernated for a good amount of time. Then my friend Jon [Weber] got me out of the basement and got me involved in his dream of making this restaurant.” I asked him whether he’d worked at Ruth’s Chris in the interim, since their website shows his name as chef at the Harbor Drive branch, and one of the managers there told me it was the same Victor Jimenez who just opened Cowboy Star. Victor says they once tried to recruit him, but he never actually worked there. (Will the real Victor Jimenez please stand up?)
“I’m really happy and excited about what we’ve got,” Jimenez says, “and the transformation of this area here. When I was thinking about this place, I thought over the theme of cowboy stars. I think of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Gene Autry. I was playing with the idea of the cowboy stars of the screen, fantasies of being a star, and it just gave me an outlet to start creating in that aspect. Perhaps those guys were really full vegetarians! But they all came across as steak guys.”
640 Tenth Avenue (north of Market), 619-450-5880, thecowboystar.com.
HOURS: Lunch weekdays 10:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; dinner Tuesday–Thursday 5:00–10:00 p.m.; Friday–Saturday till 10:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch noon–3:00 p.m. Butcher shop open Tuesday–Friday noon–7:00 p.m.; Sunday noon–3:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $8–$18; entrées, $19–$30; steaks, $29–$43.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Carnivorous California green cuisine, emphasizing high-quality beef (USDA prime or grass-fed and natural) and wild game, wild or free-range fowl, and wild-caught seafood. Mainly California wines, wide range of prices and styles. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Wild boar carpaccio; buttermilk-fried sweetbreads; sarsaparilla quail; bison rib-eye; grass-fed petite filet; dry-aged strip-steak; Meyer lemon pot au crème.
NEED TO KNOW: Paid parking lot across the street (may be full during Petco games). Sound lively, can be loud when full. No vegetarian entrées.