Norco is of course a portmanteau of North Corona, but how it became (and remains) an equestrian community where horse trails are the norm and the smell of fresh manure is as familiar to the local senses as your fresh ground roast coffee is to you holds a particular kind of fascination. As it stands, Norco would seem a little lock of a bygone era, where the tumbleweeds still tumble across the street, ten-gallons swim by like shark fins in the aisles of feed stores and silver-plated buckles are the size of Fiat rims. You know, a little valve of Americana, right here in the heart of commerce. But for the residents of Norco, it’s not a gimmick at all—it’s a way of life. The streets and sidewalks (err, trails) cater more to horses than to automobiles.
Such a community would be incomplete without a saloon to wet the line with a frosty “gold” one and grab a bite. The Saddle Sore Saloon is the center of Norco’s universe, a place that you can hitch your horse up (literally) and drink a few ice-cold PBR’s, listen to ol’ Charley Pride kiss his angel good morning, and generally slip through the cracks of time. There are bug zappers inside the entrance, hissing their neon bzzzts. There are long wooden booths like the kinds you’d see in Gunsmoke. There are discarded peanut shells and sawdust shavings underfoot, those strange insulations that have a similar effect that a crackling fireplace does on your sense of contentment. There are three pool tables, a jukebox of barn-burners and tear-jerkers, an outdated pinball machine, a stage for live acts like the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash (May 24), and a sign that says it all of the Wild West attitude: “Be good or be gone.”
Right, so when we visited we made damn sure to be on our best behavior. And I’ll be honest: seeing a few of the codger faces sitting along the bar drinking away the afternoon in their slow paces and without the harried appearance of pressure made me want a beer and less concern. As a man of the people (you), I ignored the lure of the afternoon barstool, and instead opted for a clear soft drink. Occasioning as we were on a Thursday afternoon, my friend and I took a booth in the long darkish hall and asked our waitress what’s special. She said the Round Up is a house favorite (top sirloin sandwich with green chiles), but recommended the Voodoo Burger and the Flat Iron Steak. We ordered the latter two dishes on her expert advice and a basket of peanuts ($.50). We then proceeded in creating a heap of peanut shells under foot with a slight tinge of cityboy guilt, asking the obvious questions: Wonder if Paul Bunyon worried about shelling on the floor? What would Paul Bunyon do?
The Voodoo Burger ($6.25) is a perfect mess. It’s a proud half-inch thick beef patty, served with a fried egg, yolk seeping over the meat, pepperjack cheese and bacon. Cholesterol be damned; if you’re at the Saddle Sore and you’ve got the spurt in you (just like a latter-day Tom Joad), then you don’t give two hoots about thems reppercushuns. The potato chips that come the burger with it are deep cuts and homemade style, fried right there in the back burble.
Meanwhile, the Flat Iron Steak ($11.95 for 8oz; $14.94 for 12oz) is a juicy cut, served up pink as we ordered it (medium), the juices pooling slightly under the knife as it sliced through. The steak was just the kind of affair you’d expect at the Saddle Sore Saloon, a slab of good meat that doesn’t need to be gussied up with green garnishes or drizzled with cocoa-colored sauce. It just needs an appetite and a set of able chompers.
The food isn’t spectacular from some culinary artistic perch, but it’s a down-home goodness that fits the setting, and that should be your expectation. But the Saddle Sore is more about ambiance and letting it all hang out. If you can order a frosty gold one (read: PBR) and feed a buck into the juker for a little George Jones, then you’ve probably entered the full spurt of this joint.
But here’s some advice for you first-timers, as well as you old timers: A) Avoid “why the long face” jokes at all costs and B) be careful of TUI (Trotting Under the Influence). Because you aren’t technically drinking and driving when you leave on horseback, beware that you can still get public drunkenness citations, which, if prosecuted, could warrant community service. And in a town like Norco, your options are A) cleaning up horse patties or B) working the chicken coops.
The Saddle Sore Saloon, 343 6th Street, Old Town Norco, (951) 272-1021. Open daily; Meal for two average $20-$30. AE, D, MC, V