February 17, 2013 – When I’m in California The Cats is our go to restaurant.
It has everything. History. Romance. Drama. Glamour. Overcoming adversity. And great, irresistible, smoky barbeque.
First, the history. Just south of Los Gatos, two large white cats, Leo and Leona, guard the gate that leads up to what’s known locally as Poet’s Canyon. The lawyer, writer, painter and political activist Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood and his wife, the poet and suffragist Sara Bard Field, wanted to create an enclave where they could work with minimal intrusion from the world. They commissioned the sculptor Robert Paine to create the cats in 1922. (As a side note, Wood, a graduate of West Point, was present at the surrender of Nez Perce Chief Joseph and was the guy who heard and immortalized the great Native American leader’s words, “I will fight no more forever.”)
Wood had a healthy disrespect for the machinations of Washington, D.C. He was especially contemptuous of Prohibition, the passage of which he clearly thought unwise. To show his contempt, Wood planted a vineyard. An elegant gesture of genteel civil disobedience.
The restaurant itself resides in a 19th century building a few hundred feet from the gates leading into Poet’s Canyon. It was originally a stop offering food and refreshment to travelers on the old stagecoach line that once ran through the Santa Cruz Mountains. It housed a speakeasy during Prohibition, surely to Colonel Wood’s delight. Over the following decades it housed a series of businesses before once again becoming a restaurant and tavern in 1967. The previous owners closed the business in 2006 and for two years the building sat empty.
In 2008 Mark Edwards and David Peterson bought the building with the intent of reopening the restaurant. And this is where the “overcoming adversity” part comes in.
Edwards and Peterson were stunned when they were confronted by bureaucrats from three departments of state government, Planning, Building and Health. They were told flat out that they would never be allowed to reopen the restaurant. But these are two determined guys with indomitable attitudes. They struggled for three years to get the necessary government permits and in the meantime invested heavily in modernizing the building and furnishing it with an eclectic assortment of unique items that together create an atmosphere that’s just plain fun. (My favorite is the small, old fashioned hand-cranked drill hanging over the bar. Haven’t seen one of those since I was a small boy rummaging through my grandfather’s tool box.) At long last Edwards and Peterson celebrated the grand opening of The Cats on New Year’s Eve, 2011.
So here’s the best part. The great food. They didn’t waste those three years. They studied barbeque under legendary Pit Master Paul Kirk, the Barbeque Guru of Kansas City. They became certified Pit Masters and convinced Kirk to come to The Cats to personally train their staff. They worked hard to create a great barbeque product and every time I visit The Cats I am sincerely grateful for their efforts.
When we walk in the door Ashley, our favorite waitress, knows we’ll want the fried mushrooms and cowboy chips before we even consider entrees. The mushrooms are lightly breaded and delightfully juicy when you bite into them. The cowboy chips are full length, inch thick wedges of perfectly fried potato, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. Both these starter dishes are so good we sometimes don’t get any farther down the menu.
My wife is generally loyal to California chardonnay but I like to explore the imaginative cocktail list. My favorites are the Cat House Margarita, made with Cazadores Blanco, a very smooth tequila, and The Cat’s own sweet & sour concoction, and the Sara Bard’s Sapphire Cucumber Fizz, which is made with Bombay Sapphire gin bolstered by a bit of agave nectar, a few cucumber slices and basil leaves, lime juice and club soda. The latter cocktail reminds me of a Pimm’s Cup, one of my favorites.
Now we get to the best part of all. Barbeque. The Cats produces a slow-cooked product that could be unique in its smokiness. Their ribs are dry rubbed (they use Paul Kirk’s rub) and so good we hardly ever put sauce on them. Same story with their chicken, which comes to table juicy and smoky and alluring. I’m especially fond of their pulled pork sandwich, piled high with both pork and cole slaw. They also serve a ribeye steak that is very close to the best I’ve ever tasted.
Wait a minute. Did I say the barbeque was the best part of all? Well, yeah, it’s great barbeque. But there might be one dish at The Cats that really is the best of all. Burnt end baked beans. Spiked with chunks of slow-cooked barbeque these beans just tantalize your palate with their smoky sweetness. So good you could dream about them. Far from just a side dish, the burnt end baked beans are a wonderful equal partner to excellent barbeque.
The history. The drama, romance and glamour. Great smoky barbeque. Burnt end baked beans. The Cats. You gotta love the place.