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RestaurantsSanta Cruz
September 6-13, 2006

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Portola House

Luck be a lady tonight: Sinatra still swings while the steaks sizzle at the Portola House.

Staking Out the Steakhouse

Portola House has that timeless ambience urban hipsters can never hope to imitate

By Selene Latigo

Generally, trends seem to come full circle, mostly in fashion and music, but also with food. Celebrity chefs worldwide are opening steakhouses today, a throwback to the supper clubs and lounges of a different era. We have an original here in town that has survived the years with few changes, maintaining an ambience that is now sought after by the hippest of hip in urban meccas. The Portola House is authentic down to every detail, the flickering candles, cavernous red-lit bar, private booths and, of course, the meat and potatoes menu.

To this day, I swoon over Frank Sinatra. His voice makes me want to get all dolled up and drink a martini, wishing I was born in the joyfully ignorant Hollywood era when smoking seemed sexy and a lunchtime cocktail was the norm. We ventured out to the Portola House on Tuesday, knowing we could get a little bit closer to the era of glamour within its wood-paneled walls and vinyl swivel chairs.

We started with drinks, of course, which arrived in small, sturdy martini glasses, far from any trendy modern-day variations that you might give as wedding gifts. Off the house drink list, a Grey Goose martini ($6) for Dave and for me a Havana Side Car ($6), featuring Mount Gay rum, Cointreau, lemon, lime and a sparkling sugar rim. Another squirt of lemon lessened the sweet burn and transformed this drink into a weekday relief. Our deep, romantic booth was so dim that our friendly server asked Dave if he was over 21, failing to see the silver speckles glinting in his hair. We also received a basket of warm, chewy, extra-sour and crusty bread that we slathered with salty butter and devoured as we took our time deciding on dinner.

I didn't have to twist any arms with the suggestion of a steak dinner since Dave is pretty much always in the mood for one. He ordered the New York 12-ounce cut ($26), a huge one-inch slab with dark cross-hatched grill marks, cooked exactly medium rare as desired. All entrees come with a choice of soup or salad, and potato or rice. His salad choice, an overly chilled combination of iceberg and romaine lettuce, was topped with red cabbage, a cherry tomato, buttery crisp croutons and baby shrimp. The house vinaigrette, honey poppy-seed, was quite sweet and benefited from an extra splash of red wine vinegar. Although not the best piece of meat for the high price, he enjoyed the simplicity as well as the accompanying twice-baked potato, bursting in its skin with flecks of chives and paprika. The second baking created a thin crust over the creamy smooth interior.

Another temptation for Dave wherever he goes is clam chowder, so he decided to order a cup ($4) just to see how it measured up. The soup was rich with big soft chunks of potato, celery and onion, subtly flavored and delicate with a thickness that did not seem attributable to an all-too-common gluey flour base.

Since it wasn't quite 7pm, I was able to partake in the Early Catch Dinner special ($10.95), a great value for the amount of food and options when compared to the prices of the other main dishes. I was torn between the fish, the eggplant Parmesan and the pork chop, but ended up going with the Pacific snapper. I also received a choice of soup or salad and opted for the latter, without little pink, recently thawed shrimp. The side of blue cheese dressing was a premeditated plan on my behalf, so that I could dip my classic diner-style golden fries. The large snapper fillet was cooked well, maintaining its moist texture, but it had a certain bounciness I tend to equate with freezer-treated seafood. A little cup of drawn butter was nestled on my plate, reminiscent of lobster feasts and dripping decadence.

We skipped dessert, a typical selection of New York cheesecake and ice cream, feeling full from the generous portions off a timeless menu. This meal could have happened in any year ... well, after the invention of the freezer but prior to our current environmental consciousness of grass-fed beef and sustainably fished seafood. But the Portola House doesn't lead you on with false claims or strive to be anything other that what it is--a classic tradition of standards that flow with the test of time.

The Portola House

Address: 3326 Portola Dr, Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.476.2733

Hours: Nightly from 5:30pm

Price: $7-$30

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