I was trying to think of a good place to go for lunch on a rainy afternoon. I considered the pub at Beckham Grill - I always love sitting by the fire on rainy days - but the last time I was there the Guinness was more disappointing than the current season of 24. (It's a sign of what's happened that last episode I was actually surprised when Jack killed two terrorists in the last minutes.)
Elizabeth and I had a couple errands to run, and found ourselves over on the East side of Pasadena, so we swung by my parents' house. My mom had the day off and we all decided to go to lunch. I contemplated Wood Ranch - a tri tip sandwich sounded good - but then I remembered my last few experiences there were very disappointing. (Not to mention my buddy Phil forgot that I gave it a negative review and showed it to the co-founder of Wood Ranch - "the definition of an awkward moment," as he put it.)
So I suggested North Woods Inn. My mom and I had eaten there a year earlier - only my second trip as an adult - and Elizabeth had never been there. I figured even if she didn't like it she would get a laugh out of the place. It was pouring when we arrived, a massive pool of water covering the courtyard outside the log cabin. But that made swinging open the big door and entering the North-Woods-cabin-themed restaurant more fun.
They weren't seating people back in the dining rooms - there were less than ten customers - so we took a table in the bar area. I tried hard to think about the last time I sat here. Twenty years, perhaps? I remember meals there with my grandmother when I was a kid. My favorite thing was the hot dog, and cracking open the peanuts, which I never ate but loved to throw the shells on the floor (which is not only allowed but encouraged.)
The stained glass windows depicting rugged northern scenes are still there and I remembered my childhood favorite: a lone prospector panning in a river. I could look at these for hours. In the background the sounds of a piano were noticeable. I felt like a character in The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
Unfortunately, newer are the flatscreen TVs hung up all over the bar. I hate this. It's possible people come here to watch sports, although I can't imagine why, with The Boat right next door, a much better and more appropriate venue for watching a game. (Although I suppose I must admit I have never been to the North Woods; I guess it's conceivable that every cabin has four or five flatscreen TVs on the walls.)
While looking at the three menus (the old-school tabletop menu, the bar menu and the appetizer menu; "This is confusing," Elizabeth correctly stated) we decided just to get small plates and share. My mom ordered the two salads: North Woods' famous blue cheese and red cabbage salads. Elizabeth and I ordered the potato skins, chili cheese fries, and "cheese bread sliders." It was this latter item that intrigued/worried me. North Woods' cheese bread is legendary: cheese and garlic and butter in a massive pile on toast. Could this possibly mean they are serving slider patties on cheese bread?
The first thing to hit the table were the chili cheese fries, a large platter of steak fries buried under a mound of chili and cheese. We each ate a few and felt full. Not a good sign with plenty more food to go, but this was heavy food.
Next were the potato skins. We started laughing when the server put these down. I was expecting potato skins like you might get at a bar's happy hour: small pieces of potato with a smidge of toppings. These were eight potato halves, each the size of a large fist, with a mere of cheese topped with chives and crisp bacon. If this had been our only food, maybe the three of us could have finished it. Maybe.
"We're gonna be eating leftovers tonight, right?" I asked.
When I was assured that we would be eating leftovers that night and possibly the next, I ordered myself a small blue cheese salad. (I didn't need more food, but since I knew we were going to be taking a lot with us, I felt like something cool and refreshing.) The waiter, whose first language was not English, brought me a bowl of blue cheese dressing. I was not upset with him; considering how unhealthy our food was, it was quite reasonable of him to assume I wanted a giant bowl of blue cheese salad dressing, possibly even to drink as soup.
"No," I said, "Ensalada."
"Sorry," he said, and walked off laughing before quickly bringing me a salad.
And then came the cheese bread sliders. Not only were they served with homemade potato chips - "Excellent," I said, "I was just thinking this table could use more fried food" - but they oozed out bubbling cheese spread. I believe I gained three pounds simply by looking at them. I put a spoonful of my mom's red cabbage salad on one and took a bite. It was good but ridiculously rich. It made the chili cheese fries seem as light as cotton candy.
It did not take long for us to get full. I asked for a box to take home some food and the waiter brought me two. I filled them both. I don't remember the last time that happened. He asked if we wanted anything else. We most certainly did not.
I'm getting up from the table because I'm not able to finish all the food there is
Right behind me and equally full was the lady that's known as Liz.
Elizabeth and I took all the food with us (my mom did not want any of it) and reheated it at home over the next 36 hours. The chili cheese fries were worthless when reheated: they basically became mashed potatoes with a watery chili sauce. The potato skins were great when reheated in the oven, though.
I needed to do something to the sliders to cut through the heaviness of the cheese bread, so I reheated them in the oven with some pepperoncinis and peppercorn A.1. sauce. This was a much better way to eat them: spicy and a little crunchy.
It was fun being back in the bar at North Woods, but to be honest, I don't see myself ever returning. The food wasn't anything special, and the atmosphere I remembered from my childhood is gone. I don't know if it's because of the flatscreen TVs or the fact that I can't suspend disbelief like I used to (no matter how neat it looks inside, I'm still aware there is not a wild frontier outside the front door, but rather a traffic-choked boulevard). But overall the experience was lacking the enjoyment I expected. From now on my cheese bread and burger cravings will be fulfilled by The Boat next door.