By Frank Sabatini Jr.
When thinking back to the places I used to dine right after moving to San Diego in the late ’80s, the Black Angus Steakhouse in Mission Gorge sits at the top of my list. It was the all-American alternative to Szechuan Mandarin a half-mile away and Filippi’s Pizza Grotto in Little Italy.
Friends and I viewed the experience as rather upscale at the time.
Salads were tossed tableside. Steak sauces as luxurious as Bearnaise were served in silver gravy boats. And if your stomach allowed after devouring a hunky cut of prime rib, a tall-standing slice of fudge cake made for the richest of meal endings.
Much has changed since then, although I was thrilled to find that a lot hasn’t as well.
The company’s famous molasses bread served with honey-kissed margarine remains complimentary — an appetite killer if you overindulge before your first course arrives. The fried zucchini accompanied by house-made cucumber dip is still the best anywhere. Yet the biggest surprise is that the steaks include a choice of two side dishes, just as they always have. The pretentiousness of a-la-carte everything has no place here.
Another steadfast element is the Western-cowboy atmosphere. But loud and rowdy it isn’t.
While the corral-style lobby with its wooden hitching posts and prairie-theme artwork sits adjacent to the bustling bar area, guests are greeted by glorious quietude when entering the dining area.
Over-sized, circular booths with high backs are set along wide aisles. They offer a rare sense of privacy. In addition, carpeting and upholstery abound, which makes for excellent soundproofing. Indeed, this is a return to comfortable dining.
After ripping through a plate of the panko-breaded fried zucchini, cut into tongue-shaped slices, plus a stupendous grilled artichoke that needed none of the dipping sauces served alongside, we proceeded to salads — a creamy Caesar draped with shavings of Parmesan cheese, and an iceberg wedge dripping with bacon-speckled blue cheese dressing.
Though the salads are no longer a tableside sideshow, they’re served on chilled plates and with chilled forks. It’s a fancy touch dating back to 1964, when the first Black Angus opened in Seattle.
My spouse, who dined here with me when we were a young unmarried couple, broke with the tradition of ordering prime rib (available in four weights) and opted instead for a 12-ounce center-cut New York strip. Cooked medium as requested, it offered exceptional marbling and flavor. Priced at $26.99, including steamed broccoli and au gratin potatoes as the two side choices, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the same meal for under $40 at modern-day steakhouses.
My go-to steak at the Black Angus was always top sirloin, not the Cadillac of cuts, but one that offers a gentle chew and robust flavor when cooked over flames. Eating it here again in the lap of our cozy booth sent me straight back to the days of Elvis Costello and “The Golden Girls” — right through the steamy baked potato, the crispy coleslaw, and that last bite of fudge cake, served nowadays with a mini pitcher of hot fudge.
Over the course of my long hiatus, the restaurant began trimming whole loins of beef in-house. (The steaks are still flame-grilled and carry an unmatched charred essence.) It also enhanced its drink list, which now carries house-made sangrias, strawberry-lemon drops and grilled pineapple margaritas.
Recent additions to the food menu include the aforementioned au gratin potatoes, plus free-range Australian lamb chops with chimichurri sauce, “steak house bowls,” and panna cotta for dessert.
In its heyday, the Black Angus operated more than 100 locations throughout the Western states. It now has 44 outposts, including this location, which has been around since the late ’70s. Although if there is any truth to the rumors, the company might soon make a comeback with new openings.
Based on this recent nostalgic meal, which exceeded our expectations, it’s one of the few restaurant chains I’ll shamelessly support.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.