By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1995 Gourmet Magazine
Every year in early September, hordes of pilgrims travel to Pendleton in the vast wheat fields and cattle ranges of northeast Oregon for the annual four-day Roundup, which has been one of America’s wildests and woolliest rodeos since 1910. This reckless convention of cowboys and Indians attracts the best riders and ropers on earth, and the small town lets down its hair for the occasion: Schools shut their doors, pageantry fills the streets, and Native Americans from tribes all over the West encamp in a teepee village.
What a thrilling place to eat…the cowboy way. From range and ranch, stream and garden, the finest food in this part of the country is made to satisfy big appetites, as it has been since the days of the Oregon Trail. Some of the spots where people go to eat and drink are as colorful as the law allows (actually, more so), especially at Roundup time.
One establishment, known as the LET ‘ER BUCK Room, is open to the public only during Roundup and is so notoriously colorful that we are a little embarrassed to describe it. Under the south grandstands at the Roundup grounds, Let ‘Er Buck is a windowless bar where, if you are over twenty-one, you can walk in and buy a token for $2.50, and then exchange the token for a drink. Cups are plastic and the room has no tables or chairs, though it is outfitted with rodeo memorabilia: beaded vests made by early Nez Perce participants, pictures of bucking horses, a fine old pair of chaps. You can be sure of seeing a churning sea of high crowned cowboy hats with a deliriously happy face under everyone. Here are professional cowpunchers, and dudes who want to look like them; grizzled rodeo veterans and baby-faced rookies; gentleman ranchers, world champions, and losers in bandages; camp followers of the rodeo circuit, native Pendletonians, and wide-eyed tourists all whooping it up with once-a-year abandon. Much of the time, the Let ‘Er Buck Room is so jammed that, even if you manage to get to the bar and order a drink, you may not find room in front of your face to lift it to your lips.
Most of the food along the Roundup grounds is just good fair fodder: hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages and assorted barbecues, nachos and popcorn, cotton candy and lemonade, beer by the cup or bucket. A few steps east of where bodies spill from the Let ‘Er Buck Room, you will find the best food on the grounds at a gem of a fast-food stand: MARIO’S BASQUE BAR-B-Q. Mario Zubiria doesn’t have a restaurant, but he is well known around Pendleton as a caterer; and the robust food he makes is a culinary reflection of the spice Basques contributed to buckaroo culture west of the Rockies. Over a big mobile cooker that rides on whitewall tires, Zubiria and his men charcoal-grill lamb chunks and chops and foot-long chorizo sausages, sending mouth-watering smoke signals wafting above the arena. The lamb chunks are chewy and tangy, served in a cardboard boat with charcoal-grilled onions, green bell peppers, and mushrooms. The hefty chorizo sausage—ground in Boise, Idaho—has an alarming red hue and is peppery but not very hot. Its crisp skin encloses luscious, coarsely ground, well garlicked pork, and, although it is available on a stick for easy eating, we like Mario’s alternative—wrapped inside a loaf of French bread and smothered with grilled onions.
Pendleton’s Main Street is blocked to motorized traffic during Roundup to make room for a bazaar of saddle carvers and spur makers, boot vendors, clog dancers, trick ropers, a mounted cowboy band, and the Indian beauty pageant. Here, just behind the Williams Sheep Farm Sausage Wagon, we found CIMMIYOTTI’S, which has been Pendleton’s favorite steak house since 1959. Dark and clubby, with red flocked wallpaper and a long mirrored bar underneath crystal chandeliers in the front dining room, it is a civilized restaurant, but in no way snooty. It is deluxe in ways reminiscent of many years ago, when beefsteak was the undisputed king of the American dinner menu and Italian food with zesty red sauce was a little bit exotic. The affluent ambiance is shot through with heaps of local color, including pictures on the wall of famous chiefs of local tribes, rodeo champions, and one stern looking mounted judge. Cimmiyotti’s menu is bound in thick leather, hand tooled by a nearby saddlemaker.
This is cattle country, where beef is what really matters at mealtime; and Cimmiyotti’s serves lovely steaks, listed on the menu under a heading that reads, “From The FeedLot.” There are big New York strips and ladies’ tenderloins, filets mignons, chopped steaks and hamburgers, and teriyaki steaks. The specialty of the house is rib eye. This ribeye is a beef-lover’s cut—not overly tenderized and not ostentatiously thick. It is a cow-country steak with character and some chaw to it, as opposed to the plush, fork-tender steaks served in expensive big city steak houses. It has a nice char flavor, but not so much as to overwhelm the essential savor of the meat, which runs with juice when you slice off a hunk. Naturally, potato is served with steak; ordered baked, it comes to the table accompanied by a three-bowl silver server holding chives, sour cream, and an immense globe of butter.
In these parts, beef is popular for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner. In town at the CIRCLE S BARBECUE we enjoyed a very fine chicken-fried steak early on the last morning of the rodeo. Fried as crisp as a ten-dollar veal cutlet, the slim round of beef was enclosed in a sheath of well-seasoned crust; we asked for gravy on the side so as not to spoil its crunch, dipping forkfuls into the bowl of thick white sauce as we ate. All around us, crowds of rodeo fans, arena workers, and contestants were feasting on big platters of pancakes, biscuits and gravy, German sausages and hash browns; many were drinking a concoction known as red beer, a combination of beer and tomato juice. It’s the best for hangovers, our waitress explained. “The guy that invented red beer wanted another drink but knew he ought to have tomato juice.” She said she preferred to make hers with V-8. After four days in Pendleton, we developed a liking for the odd, salmon-colored beverage, which was new to us but is apparently popular in many communities throughout the West. It tastes rather healthful.
The best food at the Roundup isn’t actually in the town of Pendleton and it isn’t served in a restaurant, but if you are headed that way you need to know about meals at the BAR M RANCH. In fact, the Bar M is reason enough to visit north-eastern Oregon, even if you have no intention of going to the rodeo. Open April through September, it is a guest ranch about a half hour east of town in the Blue Mountains, where wild flowers blanket the slopes and the clean air is perfumed by Ponderosa pines. In order to eat at the Bar M, you have to stay at the Bar M, which can be a lot like a visit to paradise. Three times a day, the bell above the main lodge at the Bar M rings to signal mealtime. In a big dining room at long, unclothed communal tables, guests pass the serving platters and practice their boarding-house reach while various members of the Baker family (who have run the ranch since the 1930s) regale them with stories of bobcats and bears they have seen along the trails. There is nothing luxurious dished out on the El Rancho pattern china, unless, like us, you consider barbecued salmon or fresh-caught trout a luxury. Home cooking is the rule: hot biscuits or cinnamon rolls to accompany morning bacon and eggs, freshly shucked corn on the cob at supper, and bowls of red raspberry jam made from the Bakers’ berry bushes just outside. One night during Roundup, Mrs. Baker explained that the sliced tomatoes we were eating were actually bought in town at the market. They were thick, succulent, radiant with the flavor of sunshine; but she felt it necessary to apologize, she said, because they weren’t from her garden.
Late in the evening at the Bar M, we strolled by moonlight along the path to our cabin by the lake. We gazed up at a sky full of stars, listening to owls hoot and pine tops whisper in the breeze. It sure was different from the pandemonium of the Pendleton Roundup. But for us, the allure of the area has a lot to do with that peculiar combination of ingredients: let ‘er buck devilment and the divine serenity of a clear mountain night.
Bar M Guest Ranch (permanently closed)
Circle S Barbecue (permanently closed)
210 S.E. 5th
Let ‘Er Buck Room (permanently closed)
Mario’s Basque Bar-B-Q (permanently closed)