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Comfort and Joy

Ubaldo Osorio
Robert Scheer

Coming Out of His Shell: Ubaldo Osorio, the reigning head chef of Portola House for six years, displays the restaurant's famous broiled lobster.

One Santa Cruz legend that's geared itself for the long run, Portola House still serves up traditional steakhouse classics with a smile

By Christina Waters

FOR THE PAST 20 YEARS, we've been able to cruise along Portola Avenue between Capitola and Santa Cruz and feel comforted just knowing that the hospitality of Portola House would provide not only a port in a storm, i.e. a textbook Tanqueray and tonic, but a well-cooked steak in the bargain. As steakhouse-cum-watering holes go, this spot hasn't been around this long for nothing.

The Portola House bar is small and serious. I don't mean serious as in downbeat. Au contraire. I mean, just not given to yuppie theme silliness. Here you've got your choice of watching either the gregarious clientele, a strategically placed television or a mesmerizing, cuboid aquarium suspended in front the mirrored back bar. I wonder how many people have stared intently at the tropical fish--at a certain point in the evening--wondering why they didn't kick for the extra point.

The bar and adjoining lounge area, very cozy and romantic, are among the few smokeless-free areas left in the area. So folks tired of being ghettoized to parking lots and patios can come on in, have a civilized cocktail and smoke away.

There are other secret weapons at Portola House, the kind of details that wise management refuses to change and that keep the allegiance of long-standing patrons. The booths are enormous, private and deeply padded. You slide into one of these sleek black upholstered cocoons--like Miss Kelly and I did last week--and you almost want to move in. There are probably quite a few other things you might want to do in this booth that cannot be described in a wholesome publication.

The menu retains its famous emphasis on two-fisted foods--steaks and chops--but is smart enough to address current gastronomic tendencies by boasting a daily chalkboard of fresh seafood specials. Sure you can enjoy the unspeakable thrill that is fried food, but Portola House also grills and broils with the best of them.

You know how you hate it when you're traveling, let's say in some non-English-speaking country, and you overhear Americans loudly wailing, "But why don't you have bran muffins and cappuccino?" If you've ever cringed at the horror of unreasonable, inappropriate dining demands, then you've probably already learned to go with the flow.

Miss Kelly and I have learned this--we were looking forward to steak and fried calamari. And even though we'd checked our spa cuisine attitude at the door, we needn't have, since that evening there was a choice of both fresh broiled salmon and fresh local halibut on the specials menu. Hmmm--Portola House definitely is more than just your basic steak house.

A diehard red wine head, I quickly bypassed the offer of the house label--Inglenook--and instead gratefully ordered a glass of Kenwood Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 ($4.50), which turned out to be a gorgeous, full-blown red rose of a wine, equally equipped to partner both steak and salmon. So having placed our order with our friendly waitress, we succumbed to the soft sweet Italian bread--even though we had to unwrap each pat of foil-dressed butter (grrrrr)--and began sharing our latest get-rich-quick schemes.

After picking at a few of the massive, doughy, batter-fried slabs of swollen squid ($4.75) that had been provided along with tartar and cocktail sauces, we moved on to the generous salads (or soups, your call) provided with Portola House dinners.

The salads combined various crisp lettuces, cherry tomatoes, wonderfully crunchy croutons and lots of tiny bay shrimp slathered up with the dressing of our choice. My Italian vinaigrette was fine, but Miss Kelly's creamy ranch dressing was positively sinful. We mostly ate her salad.

We both found the moist, almost creamy-sweet slab of salmon filet ($13.95) to be irresistible. It arrived cooked medium rare, as I'd requested, topped with only a lemon wedge--a pristine presentation that let the high quality seafood work its magic without a lot of fuss. My accompanying baked potato satisfied every pent-up baked potato craving I'd been storing over the past year.

Meanwhile, however, on Miss Kelly's plate, a bit less magic was happening. Her charcoal broiled New York steak ($17.95)--why aren't there any rib eye cuts on this menu, one wonders?--was done correctly, but encrusted with a quarter inch of charcoal veneer on each side. Inside, alas, no flavor was to be found. None. And the accompanying "duchess" potatoes amounted to a gooey, buttery stuffed potato with a generic cheese undertone.

We rounded out the Portola House experience--wondering if we could get the entire enormous booth as a carry-out item--with a slice of sweetly satisfying French chocolate pie, a slice of milk chocolate silkiness, topped with whipped cream ($4).

Portola House

Address: 3326 Portola Drive, Santa Cruz
Phone: 476-2733
Hours: Dinner nightly from 5:30pm
Cuisine: Steak and seafood
Chef: Ubaldo Osorio
Ambiance: Low light coziness
Service: Friendly and swift
Price: Moderate
Overall: ** Tried and true, if unspectacular

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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