By Angie Myer
Photos by Ginger Giordano
Riddle of the Day: What do you get when you cross an elegant fine dining experience with a welcoming family-run restaurant?
Answer: The Gambling Cowboy Chophouse and Saloon…and a delectable and affordable meal!
The Ehmcke Family—Rene, Nitza, and Bill, the Gambling Cowboy himself—just celebrated its one-year anniversary of ownership, after taking over the old Penfold Cattle Company in May of 2009. Opening a chophouse during a recession certainly takes a gambler’s heart, but it also takes a savvy mind—in business and in the kitchen. And that is something this family has demonstrated, much to the appreciation of its loyal patrons.
After winning big with the purchase of this beautiful and reputable Temecula restaurant, the trio already held a great hand. They kept the old steakhouse favorites and gently expanded the menu to include more seafood and pasta. And they were determined to make the prices affordable and the portions generous. Rene has infused her “spicy cowgirl” flare to some signature dishes, including the highly popular Front Street Tacos with Prime Rib. Yes, Prime Rib Tacos. Patrons will also appreciate the ever-expanding selection of local Temecula Valley wines.
In addition, the Ehmckes extended the hours to include a creative and affordable daily lunch, a lengthy happy hour with an awesome saloon menu, and a Saturday & Sunday brunch with bottomless mimosas. You can find live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday night is now packing them in with $1 an ounce Prime Rib.
All of these decisions—and of course the exquisite food and prime Old Town location—have helped the Ehmckes’ gamble pay off. With Rene running the kitchen and Nitza and Bill meeting and greeting the guests, it’s a winning combination.
We enjoyed the Gambling Cowboy for an early summer lunch. Walking into the 3rd floor of the Penfold Plaza building off Front Street, I am reminded that this is indeed one of Temecula’s most beautiful restaurants. The tall wood ceilings and rich walnut bar welcome guests and take us back to steakhouses of old. But the soaring floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a huge veranda lighten up the room and bring great Old Town views. The stunning etched glass mural is also a subtle scene stealer. Nitza’s designer touches warmed and softened the setting for a comfortable, homey feel. If you’re looking for an A+ ambiance, this is it.
But how about the food? Oh, the food! Here is where Rene’s 20 years in the restaurant industry and kitchen have paid off. She has added her own spunky spin to many steakhouse favorites, including the absolutely divine Brie Sachets. Now, this is no regular ol’ baked brie. It’s a trio of double cream French brie cheese elegantly wrapped in phyllo dough, served over a savory Raspberry-Chipotle Chutney with fresh berries. It was light and crispy, gooey, sweet, and spicy—a brilliant combination of flavors and textures. This is a dish that will keep me coming back for more.
As for the star of the show? All the meat is USDA Prime, aged 28-35 days, and offered in a wonderful variety of cuts and prices. We went all in with their signature steak, The Gambler. It is 24 ounces of bone-in Certified Angus Beef Rib Eye brushed with a Maitre’d Butter. And it was cooked flawlessly: crispy charbroiled on the outside and perfectly pink on the inside. Tender, juicy and melts in your mouth “like butta.” Our wonderful server, Bethany, had recommended Thorton’s Cabernet-Merlot, an impeccable choice for both the meat and brie.
Thankfully, all meals are served with sides of veggies and potatoes at no extra charge. No mushy broccoli or dry baked potato here, the signature vegetable is a sweet and succulent fresh roasted corn. We also enjoyed the signature Cowboy Potatoes, crispy slices cooked with onions, garlic and parsley. These started as their breakfast potato but morphed into one of the dinner options because they are just that good.
Looking for something lighter for summer? On the new summer menu, Rene will include a lighter and spicier Cioppino, still overflowing with fresh seafood, but mixing it up with corn and chorizo in a white wine broth. We were lucky enough to preview the new and über-fresh Heirloom Tomato Basil Butter Halibut over Spring Risotto. The Northern halibut was beautifully seasoned. (How can you go wrong with basil butter?) And the cool, juicy, sweet tomatoes skillfully complemented the rich creamy risotto.
And, yes, somehow save room for dessert. The Gambling Cowboy puts the crème in Crème Brulee. I savored every bite of the sugary glass top and the indulgent cream, including the harmonious garnish of fresh berries and mint. Truly the best crème brulee I’ve had. And for those who love chocolate, you may have to visit just for the 6-layer ultra-rich dark chocolate fudge cake à la mode. (That one speaks for itself.)
You don’t have to be a high-roller to enjoy what The Gambling Cowboy Chophouse and Saloon have to offer. The Ehmcke Family’s restaurant is one of those rare establishments where the food and ambiance are superior enough for a special occasion, but the friendliness and prices allow you to visit several times a week. As Rene notes, “Here you can have the fine dining experience without spending the fine dining dollars.” And in today’s economy, that’s a smart bet.
The Gambling Cowboy Chophouse and Saloon
42072 Fifth Street * 951-699-2895 * http://thegamblingcowboy.com
Lunch: Tuesday-Sunday 11am -3 pm
Dinner: Tuesday – Thursday & Sunday, 4pm – 9 pm
Friday-Saturday, 4pm – 10pm
Brunch: Saturday & Sunday, 9am – 3pm
Happy Hour: Tuesday – Thursday, 3pm – close
Friday – Sunday, 3pm – 6pm