Dangerously good

According to the good-neighbor people at State Farm Insurance, the intersection of Fair Oaks Boulevard and Howe Avenue is the most dangerous in California. They base the assessment on crashes and injury rates in this automotive Bermuda Triangle.

I’m not much of a risk taker, but I have considered State Farm’s findings and, after a careful assessment of the facts, concluded that Bandera is well worth risking one’s neck at Fair Oaks and Howe.

That’s what my family did the other night at rush hour. We climbed into the Volvo, hoping the car’s reputation for safety would see us through, and headed toward the infamous intersection. Although the ride was not without a few moments of terror (primarily for the kids, at whom I yelled in my heightened state of alertness), we managed to arrive at Bandera unscathed.

Bandera’s dining room is large, but it feels cozy. An exposed black ceiling is offset by a glowing drop-ceiling of rich, warm wood. Shiny maroon banquettes, votive candles and gentle spot lighting create more intimacy. A hardwood fire roars in a stone oven, while meats and poultry glisten on the rotisserie.

The bar is a destination unto itself. Bandera’s house martini includes a double shot of Absolut or Bombay Sapphire and three stuffed jumbo olives from the Santa Barbara Olive Co. This martini ranks with the best I have had anywhere, although its potency could lead to State Farm doubling your annual premium.

Show up on a Thursday, however, and you can’t order a martini or even a beer. It seems Thursday nights were drawing such a strong drinking crowd that the booze receipts were threatening to overshadow the proceeds from food sales. So, in order to not threaten the restaurant’s liquor license, Bandera limits Thursday alcohol sales to wine only, which is fine because the wine list offers 38 California selections (half of which are reasonably priced at $30 or less). Even better—if you bring your own bottle, Bandera charges no corkage fee.

Bandera offers what it calls “American cooking,” and the menu shows influences from Mexico, California and the American South. The menu offers roasted chicken and lamb from the rotisserie, as well as hearty fare like barbecued pork tenderloin; seasoned prime rib roasted on the bone; a steak-and-enchilada platter; blackened fish; and a “macho salad” of roasted chicken, avocado and goat cheese.

My wife and I started with cornbread in the skillet. At $3, it’s a remarkable value worthy of an extra order for home. The cornbread arrived in a hot cast-iron skillet within a few minutes of our order. The slightly sweet cornbread was unusually substantial and moist, with bits of melted cheddar, corn and mild chili. The skillet was the perfect baking medium, imparting a golden, crunchy crust to the bread.

We also loved the Mexico City-style sliced lamb, one of the dishes prepared on the rotisserie. A generous quantity of tender, thinly sliced leg of lamb carried a smoky note from the fire. The delicious mild red chili sauce, punctuated with cumin and perhaps garlic, complemented the meat beautifully.

Standouts on the seasonal vegetable platter included the grilled half-artichoke with rémoulade sauce and the sautéed spinach with caramelized slices of garlic. The braised red cabbage was a nice balance of sweet and sour. Cilantro, red onion, Kalamata olives and goat cheese couldn’t quite overcome the blandness of the cucumber in the cucumber salad (which also was served with the lamb). A bit of vinegar or lime juice might have done the trick. The coldness of the yellow heirloom tomato put a chill on the flavor.

Dessert included heavenly Oreo ice-cream sandwiches, house made and served in a pool of chocolate sauce; and a first-rate banana-cream pie distinguished by roasted nuts and caramel sauce.

Surprisingly, Bandera is a good restaurant for kids. The buzz in the dining room is loud enough to mask reasonable childhood antics, and there won’t be any complaints about the exceptional value and generosity of the kids’ menu. For $5 each, our boys scarfed down one-third-pound cheeseburgers, ground on the premises. They also received house-made potato chips and a hefty serving of the Oreo ice-cream-sandwich dessert.

We found only a few minor flaws aside from the small shortcomings in the vegetable platter. The “classic” Caesar salad, like those served in almost every other dinner house these days, was not particularly classic. There was no hint of lemon, raw garlic or anchovy in the dressing, and it had untraditional cornbread croutons. Still, the plate was chilled, the lettuce crisp and the salad more than satisfactory.

In addition, though the wine list offered a number of quality choices, just three popular varietals (chardonnay, cabernet and merlot) made up about half the options. It would have been nice to see a few more-adventurous selections to match the robust spirit of the meal.

Taken on its own terms—providing house-made, crowd-pleasing food in a distinctive setting—Bandera ranks among the region’s best restaurants. Bandera has six other locations nationwide.

Drive safely.