A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

I would not normally drive 2 hours into the quagmire of Orange County for dinner. In fact, I’d opt for a dental procedure over a SoCal commute, crawling along Interstate in the crapshoot that is rush hour. No, normally this would be out of the question but The Nixon Steakhouse does not fit the definition of normal.

The Nixon Steakhouse sprung from the fertile soil of a long time neighborhood restaurant in the quaint “downtown” grid of Whittier, CA. Mature shade trees and a crescent of green hills serve to give the area a surreal “Truman” like feel. The restaurant concept was designed to draw the upscale locals who would otherwise drive into Pasadena or Newport Beach for something out of the ordinary. What’s unusual about another steakhouse, you ask. Chef Katauji Tanabe’s creation is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Yes, there are all the expected mainstays of Black Angus beef, a thick cut pork chop, even a towering old school double cheeseburger. But not far into the menu eyebrows begin to raise on the faces of the “Ruth’s Chris” crowd. There is the requisite crab cake but Tanabe’s version is a lightly breaded ball seated in a puddle of cardamom cream and topped by smoked trout roe and an escabeche of cueritos (pickled pig skin.) A bite of ginger removes any semblance the dish had to a steakhouse crab cake.

I endured a 5-hour round trip knowing that Chef Tanabe would be there, a hard to predict event given the time he spends hopping from his restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas, Chicago and California. But, if I am honest, it was one menu item, in particular, that drove me to drive—a confit half pig head, served flounder style, eyelessly gazing up at its enamored patron. Understandably, a half cranium is a quantity better suited for 4-6 people but I had ventured so far that it had to be done.

I started with “Abuela’s Corn Bread” with truffle honey butter. Whole corn kernels were embedded in a dense, custard-like skillet cake with just the right balance of salty sweetness.

Abuela’s Cornbread

As I tried to pace myself through the bread, Chef Tanabe emerged from the kitchen and joined me at the table, just in time for the first departure from a steakhouse classic, bone marrow. In this case, the molten marrow was topped by crab meat mingling with a dried shrimp-based XO sauce—an umami bomb! I ignored the toasts and savored every bite, literally down to the bone.

Bone marrow with crab and XO Sauce.

One of the day’s specials was irresistible—a hamachi collar with huitlacoche glaze, salsa macha (made with Marcona almonds no less!), sweet and sour pickled chiles, and fresh watermelon radish. Tanabe’s composition was flawless, succulent, tangy, sweet, spicy and loaded with sticky, satisfying collagen. His innovative vehicles of acidity, especially through pickling, enlivened each dish throughout the meal.

Hamachi collar.

My server, Liz, kindly delivered some shavings from the leg of Iberico ham in the center of the dining room. It is one of several treats prepared table side including salad and a carajillo cart.

Back to the pig’s head… out it came with crisp golden skin on a bed of cilantro and dill- yes dill! After a quick photo opp, a return trip to the kitchen, and a pass under the broiler, the semi-skull returned to my table bare, its sweet white meat and skin transformed into a delectable mixture of soft, chewy, and crackling bites. When wrapped in paper thin, blue corn tortillas and dressed with piquant salsa verde and pickled vegetables, the result was stupefying. I mumbled ineloquent grunts and partial phrases like, “oh, the dill….” without finishing my thought. I think he got the gist.

Confit pig’s head.

The menu displays a demure block of text encouraging the diner to inquire about the “Umami Dime Bag.” Let me save you the suspense… it is a tiny satchel of spices for dusting over your mound of heady shredded pork. Use it. Trust me.

The Umami Dime Bag.

It isn’t every day that I get to dine with the Chef and especially not during a meal that so thoroughly exceeds my expectations. We discussed the dishes in great detail and I hung on every word, gathering shards of experience and immense knowledge. We intermittently talked about family and business, opportunities and challenges between bouts of geeking out over fish sauce, bacalao, our favorite tongue recipes, and mutual admiration of smelt.

House hot sauce sports Chef Tanabe’s signature pouty face.

When Chef Tanabe returned to the kitchen, he sent one last indulgence my way. Liz shook an ice cold carajillo, a boozy espresso cocktail, in a copper shaker and then torched two marshmallows to garnish the drink. I had no trouble staying alert on the drive back to San Diego.

Carajillo with marshmallows toasted table side.

So, in my final assessment, The Nixon Steakhouse is decidedly traffic-worthy… from anywhere within the continental US. And, for all of you who routinely convene for trade shows in the food wasteland that is Anaheim, you are welcome.