“First,” says the lady driver, “watch this traffic. It can be lethal out here.”
I see what she means. Cars and trucks hurtle into this valley like the last plunge of the Giant Dipper at Belmont Park. How dangerous? A vase of flowers sits right beside the bus stop. Must be for someone who tried to cross and didn’t make it.
Sigh. Talking of not making it, can’t help thinking of Anthony Bourdain. Every dishwasher, chef, line cook I’ve asked says “Tony” was the real deal. Not stuck up on ultra-tony dining, and so right about what it’s like on the line, and how street food is the only authentic food if you just open your mind before you open your mouth, whether it’s New York City dogs or Ho Chi Minh City, uh, dog.
Meantime, we’re in the country! About a mile and a half south of Valley Center. This side of Valley Center Drive, it’s mostly fields and trees. Across the road. you’ve got clusters of places like Powerland Equipment, with John Deere tractors in green rows. The 388 bus driver dropped me off here when I asked her for the best place to eat in these parts. “Right across the road, hon,” she says. “They’re famous for having all-u-can-eat BBQ ribs. But like I say, careful crossing.”
I am. Super careful. It’s a relief to climb up the steps on the other side, and onto the balcony. “Fat Ivor’s Rib Rack,” says the sign. Lots of outside seating, but nobody here. I can understand. Afternoon sun’s shooting rays at it like a heating lamp on a tray of chickens.
And inside, you can see this is where it’s at. Western art fills every space on the cream walls above the brown skirting boards. Multiple poses of The Duke, natch, on everything from posters to plates. Bald eagles, horses, chuck wagons, a Budweiser tribute to the Marines (“Here’s to the Heroes”), and a photo titled “Priorities,” with a boy wearing a red and white striped shirt, looking at the names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Also, “Coors Cowboys,” Gordon Snidow paintings you know you’ve seen a million times but could never place. Like, “Cowboy at Sunset,” or “Ain’t no city beer,” or “Colorado Coolade.”
I head for the bar. Dang, but I could do with a can of Colorado Coolade. Except, work tonight.
“Just find a table, sir. Someone will be with you,” says the bar lady.
Fine. I sit down at one of the varnished wood tables. Gal comes by. “Still doing all-u-can-eat BBQ?” I ask.
“Yup,” she says, “but here’s the menu anyway.”
Wow. There’s a lot. First off, you’re not going to get away with less than ten bucks. BBQ beef sandwich is $9.75. ’Course, that includes two sides. Like steak fries, French fries, ranch beans, rice, coleslaw, soup or salad. Pork sandwich is $9.95, and oh okay: 1/3lb hamburger (same choice of two sides) is only $7.95. Top burger’s the half-pound bacon burger at $9.50. Taco salad with ground beef or chicken breast goes for $9.95. They have a whole rack of specials, different every day. They come with one side. Like the prime rib sandwich on Thursdays ($10.95), or maybe the best deal of all, fish and chips on Friday, with slaw, for $7.50. Most of these items happen just between 11am and 4 pm. They include “Fat Ivor’s extra lunch special — all sandwiches, $8.75 each. Roast beef, veggie, turkey, tuna, ham. Or you can get just a half sandwich with soup or salad or slaw plus an iced tea or soda for $9.75.
Dinners? Think $13 (roasted chicken) to $33 (filet mignon with shrimp).
But what I’m looking for is that all-u-can-eat rib deal. And here it is: “All day. Everyday, BBQ Beef Ribs. All you can eat here, $15.95.”
Ah. I see that little word, “here.” They want to make sure you don’t keep coming back then haul off 20 pounds of ribs to 20 of your closest buddies waiting outside.
I have to order that. Mainly to see how much I can actually nosh down.
Gal brings three ginormous beef ribs, along with a bowl of beans, plate of slaw and a nice pile of thick-cut steak fries. Luscious meat. Not tough. Sweet. Little bit spicy. I’d say lots of molasses and sugar. Kansas City-style? This is when coleslaw has an important role in relieving you from the richness for a moment. Steak fries too. Okay, beans as well.
Lawdie, but it is delicious. I’m chomping and reading a little history on the wall at the same time. “Ivor ‘Tommy’ Thomas served 20 years in the Marine Corps and retired in 1971. With Georgine at his side, they moved to Valley Center…. He always lived by the motto, ‘Not as mean, not as lean, but still a Marine.’”
From the moment he opened this place in 1981, it says, Tommy offered all-you-can-eat oak-smoked beef ribs for $5.99.
“The restaurant was never empty again.”
Tommy died in 2002. A couple of months later the place burned down. But Georgine went right ahead and rebuilt Fat Ivor’s on the exact same footprint. And it sure feels like it’s still the social heartbeat of this community.
Can I fit in my free resupply of ribs? I cannot. But I give my face a final mess-up, gnawing the bones up close and personal. Which somehow gets me thinking back to Mr. Bourdain. Wish I’d known him. Because one thing I bet: Tony would’ve fit right in here.
The Place: Fat Ivor’s Rib Rack, 27959 Valley Center Road, Valley Center, 760-749-0600
Hours: 11am - 9pm Seven days
Prices: BBQ beef sandwich, $9.75 (with two sides); pork sandwich, $9.95; 1/3lb hamburger (same choice of sides), $7.95; half-pound bacon burger, $9.50; taco salad (with ground beef or chicken breast), $9.95; prime rib sandwich (Thursdays), $10.95; fish and chips, slaw (Friday), $7.50; lunch special sandwiches, e.g. roast beef, veggie, tuna, $8.75; half sandwich with soup, salad, or slaw, $9.75 (includes iced tea or soda); broasted chicken dinner, $12.95; 8oz filet mignon with shrimp, $32.95; all you can eat BBQ Beef Ribs, $15.95
Nearest Stop: outside restaurant