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Crazy 'Bout a Pontiac

[whitespace] Pontiac Grill Diner's Choice: Pontiac Grill's Catherine Daniels caters to old-fashioned culinary yearnings with her '50s-inspired diner.



A jukebox loaded with vintage tunes and vinyl booths put Pontiac Grill in the downtown driver's seat

By Christina Waters

WITH NAT KING COLE torquing the 1950s into sensual ear candy, we slid into those plump red-and-white vinyl booths at Pontiac Grill last week and proceeded to get vintage. Jack's the perfect guy to take here--he's an East Coast diner aficionado who adores burgers. Frosted glass lights hanging down over each chrome-edged table, and that jukebox fully loaded with the best of American Bandstand--all this and some fine dining, too, make Pontiac one of my favorite culinary makes and models.

Hmm, that roast pork loin special complete with mashed potatoes, gravy and a fiery mango salsa ($10.95) sure looked good to me, I thought, as we followed our ponytailed, blue jeans-wearing waitress toward the back. Jack was having a minor burger attack that evening and busily started combing the long listing of burger offerings.

Pontiac Grill offers serious salads, as well as fresh fish specials and loads of other Americana. It was to be a barbecue burger ($5.25) for Jack, and the roast pork loin for me. Sure, a Caesar salad would have been nice to begin with, but the diner experience sometimes requires sticking to basics.

A Lighthouse Amber ($2.50) and a glass of Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 ($3.75) were our only concessions to designer consciousness. We stuck to our dinner orders and tried to save room for one of Pontiac Grill's high-impact desserts. "My Sharona" filled our side of the back room with a throbbing beat just as our huge dinner plates arrived steaming with freshly cooked, seriously unpretentious fare.

Jack's barbecue burger was oozing a vibrant chili sauce as he bit into the thick beefy patty, tomato and lettuce. Offering me a bite, he just grinned. Chewy, soft but substantial, the bun did justice to the rich sauce and moist burger. But it was the side dish of black bean salad that really put our tastebuds into overdrive.

"They don't hold back on the barbecue sauce," Jack observed. "The burger is there, but essentially it's a surface for the sauce." Terrific sauce. But just as he made that point, I was hitting an astral plane of flavordom with the chutneylike black bean relish/salad. Filled with corn, onions and black beans all slathered into a sweet/hot/spicy sauce, it was a powerhouse of complex flavors. Without much encouragement, I'd happily dub it a destination dish.

Meanwhile, Elvis was launching his solid-gold falsetto into the tenderest of aching lines in "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Too bad the King is gone, I mourned over my excellent mashed potatoes and deliciously creamy gravy. The grilled pork loin wasn't bad either, sliced thin and topped with a spicy cilantro and mango salsa. Ignoring the bland potato leek soup and the steamed veggies that came with the dish, I carried a torch for Elvis with every bite of the wonderful pork and mashed potatoes--a dish that a country boy from Memphis would have loved.

Jack certainly loved it, and we helped each other finish up most of our dinners before ordering one of the house strawberry rhubarb pies to split. Served hot with two scoops of vanilla ice cream on top, this was pie worth fighting for. With a crisp crust--the kind that Betty Crocker could have made in some made-by-Disney yesterday--and a luscious fruity interior, it was honest, straight-ahead and 100-percent all-American delicious.

"You can't touch this with some French dessert with an unpronounceable name," Jack pointed out in a sudden outburst of culinary patriotism.

Fats Domino was teasing "Tell Me That You Love Me" as we got up to leave. Pontiac Grill deserves landmark status as much for its outstanding stockpile of vintage tunes as for its authentic chocolate milkshakes, classic burgers and cozy, nontrendy atmosphere. It's a required date-night destination.


Pontiac Grill
Address: 429 Front St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 427-2290
Price: Inexpensive
Hours: Daily 11am-11pm (Fri-Sat till midnight).
Ambiance: *** Outtasight retro decor puts us right back into the '50s
Service: *** Smart and sassy, these young staffers have saucy attitude and a helpful, smiling disposition
Cuisine: ** 1/2 Diner food gets updated with a bit of pomo-California spin; desserts have that authentic gooey deliciousness
Overall: Yes, absolutely, Pontiac Grill deserves to take us for a ride every weekend until the 12th of Never--and that's a long, long time.

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From the June 9-16, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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