Potatoes and meat

Once upon a time, you knew what would happen when you went out to dinner. There would be a couple of specials. There would be steaks, chicken and maybe fish, simply cooked. Soup or salad would be included in the price. There would be a baked potato on the side. The exact same vegetable would adorn every plate.

Then restaurants changed. The salmon started coming with mango salsa instead of a potato, and the soup and salad became optional extras. The server stopped rattling off, “Blue cheese-thou

sand-Island-ranch-Italian-or-oil-and-vinegar?” and started telling you about the age of the balsamic that was to dress that night’s micro-greens and roasted beets.

If you yearn for the old-school, though, it’s still around (and not just in restaurants that time forgot, although their loyal clienteles didn’t). Langhorne’s, for instance, has a meat-oriented menu that makes the place seem like it could have been around for decades—if it weren’t for the painfully new scent of the upholstery and paint, and the location in a strip mall near Interstate 80 that was probably scrubby fields 30 years ago.

This newness and the restaurant’s corner location in the strip mall leads to an awkward layout and a slightly chilly, antiseptic atmosphere that is far removed from the clubby, lived-in feel of restaurants of yesteryear. Perhaps the chilliness was because of the blasting air conditioner (our visit fell on the first cool evening of fall), but the bare, small and widely spaced tables added to the effect. Also, the restaurant is divided in two, with a pair of doors and a TV-adorned bar to the left and the dining room to the right.

This division seems to reflect a larger identity crisis at the restaurant, which straddles the line between upscale and super-casual. All the appetizers, for instance, are sports-bar favorites: Buffalo wings, stuffed potato skins, onion rings and fries. There are also inexpensive, meaty sandwiches. The dinner menu aims a bit higher, with steak dinners running about $20. The wine list also has a slightly surprising level of ambition. It’s heavy on reds and local producers. Asking about an unfamiliar wine earned me a visit from the manager and a taste of the wine in question before I bought a glass—a nice touch.

A sampler platter includes all the appetizers. We had the choice of hot or mild on the Buffalo wings; the mild were downright meek—sweet and syrupy. The potato skins, crunchy little boats filled with sour cream and bacon, reminded me strongly of my high-school years, when stuffed skins had a brief vogue.

The fries also make use of baked potatoes, in what I suspect to be an active program of rehabilitation and release into the community for the many, many leftover baked potatoes the kitchen generates. The fried wedges of skin-on potatoes were crisp outside and nicely mealy within, but they had a hint of the slightly stale taste that day-old baked potatoes tend to have.

That said, the baked potato that came with the meal was quite delicious: a big russet with crisp skin and a fluffy interior. My mother asked for hers with the sour cream and other toppings on the side, and it was the best baked potato I have ever tasted in a restaurant. (I consider the moist-fleshed, wet-skinned, foil-wrapped specimens you usually see to be a disgrace.)

Unfortunately, I ordered mashed potatoes with my New York steak and garlic shrimp combo. They were all right, but they were rich enough that there was no need for the pool of extra butter on top. An excess of butter also plagued the sweet shrimp. The limp zucchini had a powerful, slightly acrid dose of what tasted like white pepper and garlic powder. The small steak (just the right size, actually) had a good flavor and texture but was cooked a bit past the rare I ordered.

The most inventive thing available was the day’s soup, described as “apple, tomato, and bacon.” It turned out to be a very thick, brick-red purée. The tomato and bacon were in evidence, but the apple was undetectable (probably a good thing). Sour cream on top improved matters, but it was odd nonetheless.

My husband tried the tri-tip sandwich au jus. Without the dip, it was dry, and the soft roll turned mushy in the juice, but it had a pleasant smoky flavor. We also ordered a special—country-style pork ribs—which was a big piece of meat with an unctuous texture and sweet flavor. It was very fatty and undercooked in spots.

We were pretty full when it came time for dessert, but we gamely attempted a brownie sundae with caramel sauce. The enormous brownie unfortunately tasted as if it were made from a mix.

Langhorne’s has some of the feel of an old-style family place—a rarity for a suburban mid-priced restaurant amid the current proliferation of chain restaurants. However, the food is uneven, which is a problem when it’s cooked this simply: There’s nowhere to hide. If you’re dying for a great baked potato and a taste of what restaurants were like back in the day, stop in. Otherwise, it’s easy enough to make a great baked potato without driving to Rocklin.