Food Review: Tahoe's California Grill Brings the West Coast to the West End 

click to enlarge Tri-tip is a cut of beef beloved on the West Coast. Here, it’s given the French dip treatment and served with a glass of San Diego’s Ballast Point Wahoo White.

Scott Elmquist

Tri-tip is a cut of beef beloved on the West Coast. Here, it’s given the French dip treatment and served with a glass of San Diego’s Ballast Point Wahoo White.

Right off the bat, I give Tahoe’s California Grill major points for audacity. At a time when even the lowliest takeout joints boast a local beer selection, imagine the pluck of a restaurant opening with not a single Virginia brew. Surely Hardywood is affronted. Wait — it gets crazier. Despite the suburban location, there’s nary a TV screen over the bar. What fresh cheekiness is this?

Here’s a restaurant where your meal begins with a lesson on meat. Tahoe’s serves tri-tip, a cut of beef long popular on the West Coast, but less so on this side of the Mississippi. Your server will explain not only the source of the cut — the bottom sirloin — but also its role in California cuisine and the lengthy process to get it to your plate.

The triangular cut is marinated, covered with a dry rub, charred, smoked and then slow roasted, ideally to medium rare, before showing up all over the menu. You can even order it family style ($45.99) — that’s a whole tri-tip with sweet potatoes, roasted vegetables and rolls, and a veritable feast for four.

Let me cut right to the chase: It’s a tasty cut of meat, agreeably toothsome, which is no surprise given its lower fat content, although not as consistently medium rare as it could be. Appealingly dripping in caramelized onions, the Tahoe steak sandwich ($7.69) and Daddy Tahoe ($9.49), a larger version, benefit from the accompanying au jus given the extremely dense french roll, which only softens considerably after a dunk in meat juices.

You can order any sandwich wrapped in lettuce, as I did with the Philly ($6.79), which appropriately oozed sautéed onions and melted provolone. Instead of the standard green variety, it boasted sweet red peppers — a nice bit of finesse.

Layered atop the Alpine ($14.14), tri-tip adds staying power to a salad of chopped romaine, avocado, corn, black beans, jicama, grape tomatoes and blue cheese bathed in honey-lime vinaigrette. For a novel take on meat and potatoes, try the Sierra Monster ($7.59), a baked sweet potato stuffed with butter, bacon, cheddar, green onions, barbecue ranch sauce and, yes, tri-tip.

While I wasn’t quite brave enough to try the Heavenly ($10.49), a burger topped with tri-tip, the juicy South Lake Tahoe ($9.99) proves solid burger chops with a Southwestern take, layering chipotle sauce, jalapeños, pepper jack and pickle, along with the usual suspects. All sandwiches come with sweet potato chips for crunch, but I’m a sucker for crinkle-cut fries ($2.19/$3.19), and you can’t go wrong with a warm bowl of pinquitos ($3.69/$7.39), a small, pink bean variety and the classic California accompaniment to tri-tip barbecue.

To be clear, there are other things on the menu besides tri-tip. Chicken tenders ($6.29) are the real deal, irregularly shaped, battered and featuring good-sized hunks of white meat for dipping in a ramekin of barbecue ranch sauce. Bacon, green onions and chipotle sauce enliven a quesadilla ($5.89), to which you can add — you guessed it — tri-tip.

In my experience, chicken sandwiches often produce a ho-hum reaction, but the Cal-Nev ($8.69) veers away from boring with its flavorfully marinated chicken breast, cooked perfectly and adorned with bacon, avocado, melted Swiss and barbecue ranch. It’s not breaking any new ground, but you won’t feel like you’re being virtuous for nothing, either.

Back to the temerity of Tahoe’s beverage list. Richmond is bound to be surprised that every beer and wine hails from the Golden State with zero representation from the Commonwealth. Beer cognoscenti will recognize breweries such as Ballast Point, Green Flash and Lost Coast (draft $5-$6, can/bottles $5-$8.50), while wine fans can dip into offerings from Sonoma and Santa Barbara ($6-$9), including the Tobin James Dream Weaver sparkling.

Designed to evoke Lake Tahoe with an emphasis on dark wood and stone, the dining room’s décor reinforces its theme with seasonal pictures of Tahoe on the wall and a patio outside. During the course of three visits, I’ve yet to see anyone sit at the bar, but that might be because of its backless barstools, one of those style miscalculations no bar sitter truly enjoys.

Service tends toward efficient, friendly and determinedly informative — stop your server if you’ve heard the one about tri-tip already — although combined with the bland feel of the room, it can feel a little like a chain restaurant at times. The good news: It’s not. If you find yourself hungry deep in the West End, Tahoe’s is just the place to dig in, Cali-style. S

Tahoe’s California Grill
Mondays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
3601 Cox Road
935-3035
tahoescagrill.com

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