Pandemic fatigue set in long ago for most of us, and all those routine events like a Friday night high school football game, happy hour, church services without masks and singing freely, seeing movies in a theater and live concerts will never be taken for granted again.
Sometimes you need a brief taste of what you’re missing to soothe your soul, and I’m here to tell you that the “Stockyard” in the back parking lot of KC Steakhouse will have amazing recuperative powers if you’re one of those people.
We’ve been on a patio tour of local restaurants in recent weeks with unfortunately more to come (until Kern County can resume indoor dining), but I can’t think of a place that has a more inviting ambiance that what KC has.
It’s a lot of little things. Sure, there’s an enclosed tent, with blowers and heaters (their presence made me fear that this thing could be up through the winter). But they have live entertainment, two men in the corner making real music. When I brought it up to the hostess she said, “We’ve had Jimmie here for 26 years, so we had to bring him back.” (We called owner Cassie Bittle and we learned his last name is Gaines.)
It gets better. There are small lights ringing the space, some photos up near them and they even have potted large palo verde trees on the outside to provide some greenery. Lots of shade from Jack Daniels patio umbrellas.
Tables are appropriately spaced, but it was nice to see parties of six and eight friends seated together. The staff swabs down tables like people preparing a surgical room after the customers leave, everyone has masks and all in all it felt like we were back in the real world for a couple of hours. What a pleasant place to visit.
A couple of warnings: Don’t even think about trying to go here without reservations. Not possible. We called a couple of days in advance and even then, time slots were limited. Witnessed a young man ask politely how long the wait for a table would be. The hostess said we’re booked solid for the weekend. Seems like I’m not the only person who wants a slice of normalcy in the midst of this madness.
Also, there is a 20 percent surcharge for the wait staff on the bill, so those who like to tip less might not like that. I remember when Cafe Med had some resistance while doing that years ago.
Regular readers of this column know I’ve been impressed by KC dating back to its 2017 renaissance when it began offering aged beef, introduced an amazing lobster mac and cheese and brought other innovations to what had been a red leather/Rat Pack restaurant. It’s the same as it ever was based on our visit, even with these challenging conditions.
I was sorely tempted to order the lobster mac and cheese appetizer ($18), which we’ve really loved at happy hours here in the past, and a woman near us ordered the dinner version ($28) that my companion mentally clocked in at 3,000 calories. (We are not nutritionists, so don’t listen to us.)
Instead we started with the fresh garlic and butter grilled shrimp ($16) appetizer, and for entrees my companion selected the pasta Bolognese ($26) and I chose the 12-ounce ribeye ($28).
Everything was great, for different reasons for sure. We’ve raved about the shrimp served at Manuel’s, and KC can give them a run for the money here with the freshness, the nuttiness, the subtle presence of the rosemary on the skewer and the utility of keeping the garlic butter on the side as a dipping sauce. Those five jumbo tiger prawns were savored like it was our last meal.
My companion chose the pasta because they use Santa Carota dry aged beef finely ground in the tomato sauce, the linguini was al dente, and there was fresh grated Parmesan strands on top. From first to last bite, it was satisfying. The beef added a huskiness, an earthiness to the sauce that was quite memorable.
My steak seemed large for that weight, had been fire-grilled, and I neglected to jazz it up with sauteed mushrooms or caramelized onions. Simple was fine, with sauteed zucchini, carrots and cauliflower on the side and the baked potato as additional comfort food, a cuisine category that has extra duty during these trying times.
The wine list is as extensive as we remember it, and the wines by the glass are intelligently put together, too. Bittle said in a phone call that there are only 12 tables outside, compared with 26 in the regular dining room. “What really hurts is not having the bar,” she said, “where we could sit people for appetizers while they were waiting for a table.”
KC Steakhouse can still be recommended for a fine dining experience. This outdoor thing is so good it may never go away.