There is no menu, no cellphone service, no substitutions, 12-volt electricity, and the kind of steak you travel hundreds of miles for.
All photos by the author.
Silver Lake, Oregon might be the actual middle of nowhere. Planted deep in the windswept high desert, it’s a 150-person town so minuscule a splattering bug on the windshield would cause you to miss it. It’s a gas-station-that-doubles-as-the-pizza-place type of town. Yet I've momentarily escaped the city of Portland—the food sanctuary I call home—for dusty Silver Lake, and I've come to eat. In this most unlikely of settings, the Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant sits four bumpy miles off the five-block main street.
“Some people roll up here and they tease, they think someone brought them out here to kill them and bury them in the desert,” Angel Roscoe laughs as we huddle around the gift shop’s wood stove on a blustery afternoon. Outside, the low-lying mid-November sun casts an ethereal glow on the sagebrush hugging the adorably lopsided restaurant owned by Angel, a Silver Lake native, and her husband Jamie. One look around and I admit that Cowboy Dinner Tree, saddled neatly on the border between dense national forest and the vast surrounding desert, certainly seems like an auspicious place to ditch a body, but most visitors actually arrive with the intention of burying their hunger instead.
“You have to try to get here,” Angel says, “In a day and age where everything is so readily available, I think people like the idea of an adventure coming out here.” Adventure is no understatement. Driving out to the three-room restaurant, I steeled myself behind the wheel as I swerved first past a coyote, then a wolf, and then an entire field of wide-eyed antelope ambling worrisomely close to the road.
Entering the space feels like stepping into a Western-themed amusement park. There is no menu, no cellphone service, no substitutions, and 12-volt electricity that barely illuminates the worn, wood-paneled interior littered with relics of cowboys past. The towering juniper tree standing protectively over the restaurant was adopted as a beacon for cattle ranchers driving their grazing herds through the area during the late 1800s. A chuckwagon, christened the “Dinner Tree,” was established on site at the time and beckoned cowboys looking for a bit of warmth and a bite on their cow-hustling routes. The restaurant might have walls, but its roots remain in the chuckwagon.
The cash-only spot has served two mains since its inception in 1992 and it’s not looking to diversify anytime soon. The most notorious offering, a football-sized 30-ounce top sirloin steak, arrives off the custom-rigged grill that can simultaneously sizzle up to 60 of those steaks at any given time. Since taking the reins of the restaurant in 2012, “We’ve cooked about 160,000-220,000 steaks and they’re almost two pounds apiece, so you can do the math on that,” Jamie says (I don’t).
An entire dry-rubbed, roasted chicken is the other option. It arrives with browned skin so papery crisp, it cracks like a chip upon meeting the knife and glazes one’s lips with the sort of sheen all lip glosses should aspire to.
The recipes, Angel tells me, have been passed down from the restaurant’s first owner, Al Prom, whom she describes as “a true, to the core, buckaroo cowboy.” From the bean soup—an all-day, simmered affair of pinto and black beans with a secret spice blend—to the pans of pillowy sweet rolls, written recipes are nowhere to be found and all cooking is done purely by feel, the ingredients measured in palms.
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So why travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles for home cooking? You know how when you go on a hike and all you have to eat is, like, a soggy flour tortilla slapped with raspberry jam but it tastes stupidly ambrosial? Cowboy Dinner Tree’s hinterland home and the rambling it takes to get there mimic that effect, coupled by the fact the food is actually worth coveting. Well, all that and a bit of dumb luck. “If we went to do this again in the middle of nowhere, it wouldn’t work,” says Angel, matter-of-factly. “It only works because it’s the Cowboy Dinner Tree.”