It's rugged country for sure. But it's also a place where you can drive for many miles undisturbed in your thoughts as you reflect on the hearty souls who decided to take up ranching in this land of sagebrush, mountain lions and ferocious winds. The desolate landscape is surprisingly refreshing, and I enjoy its uncomplicated terrain in the same way I appreciate the simple, authentic food at the Cowboy Dinner Tree.
No Morton's of Chicago is this. For $23.50 you get either a steak or chicken dinner. Sound mundane? Just wait. The steak is an aged top sirloin that is portioned into a true Cowboy Cut of 26 to 30 ounces. Twelve to 24 hours before it is served, the steak gets a special dry rub. What has now become your dinner steak is cooked over an outdoor barbeque to medium rare once you're seated.
If you ordered chicken, no need to panic about getting the short end of the bargain. The chicken is a whole chicken that has been dry rubbed with the same special potion, smoked that morning for 3 to 4 hours, and is finished to perfection on the outdoor grill.
But I started at the end, not the beginning. The meal starts out with a large jar of pink lemonade and a rather plain mound of chopped lettuce that gets much more interesting when dressed with the homemade ranch or honey-mustard dressing. Next are the buttery, flaky - need I add delicious - homemade yeast rolls. Each portion of baked-together rolls is a full pan flipped out on the plate. Your soup arrives with the rolls. Mine was beef vegetable, and quite satisfactory. I'm told it's usually some kind of bean soup, since we all know how cowboys like their beans.
Then, just when you're beginning to think your appetite is vanishing, here comes the pièce de résistance-the steak or chicken. Even though you've seen the menu, calculated the possible size in your mind and thought you could handle it, you'll be amazed by how dang large this steak is. (Once again, if you ordered the chicken, it's okay, that's big too.)
And trying desperately to share the plate but mostly hugging the rim is a spectacular, authentic foil-baked potato. Smothered with butter and sour cream, it momentarily takes your mind off the steak (right, or chicken). After savoring a few bits of your splendid meat of choice, you must quickly remember that the menu mentioned dessert. Knowing the leftovers will feed you for the next couple of days; you should ask for a doggie bag and enquire as to the evening's dessert.
The dessert changes seasonally, so I can only tell you about mine. It was fluffy, sweet shortcake topped with fresh-frozen berries and drizzled with heavy cream. No disappointment there. The bill is presented near the finish of your dinner, with another of the several inquiries you will have had about your satisfaction with your meal. Present owners, Don and Connie Ramage, carry on a long standing tradition of friendly, cowboy hospitality.
Several places of interest are on the way or near Silver Lake. I recommend you make a day, or half-day, of it. Stop off to visit geological wonders like Hole-in-the-Ground and Crack-in-the-Ground, or visit the famous Fort Rock State Natural Area. The nearby Fort Rock Valley Historical Homestead Museum is also very interesting. For a full weekend tour, have dinner on your way to or from the Wildlife Area or hot springs at Summer Lake.
Bring your sense of adventure - as well as a ferocious appetite - and you won't leave disappointed.
Cowboy Dinner Tree
4 miles south on East Bay Road in Silver Lake. 541-576-2426. Winter Hours: 4pm to 8:30 pm, Fri. - Sun. Reservations required.