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Food & dining

food | travel

In the California desert, a barbecue outpost

At Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, the nachos Von Rabbit is a specialty.

Photos by Karen Given for The Boston Globe

At Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, the nachos Von Rabbit is a specialty.

PIONEERTOWN, Calif. — It’s the kind of place where beers and Shirley Temples are served in mason jars — and this isn’t a recent style thing. Diners looking out the open-air windows might spy a woman riding by on horseback just as the bluegrass band is finishing its final set. At the entrance, a blue-and-white sign warns hippies to use the side door, but hipsters are more than welcome. There’s a hundred of them eating pulled pork, salmon, and bean-and-corn salad at a wedding out back.

Four miles off the main highway, in a Mojave Desert town that consists of little more than a short stretch of dirt road, Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is a landmark in Southern California. Serving up Santa Maria barbecue and a steady stream of big-name musical acts, Pappy & Harriet’s regularly draws visitors from Los Angeles, more than 120 miles to the west, and beyond. “It’s a destination,” says co-owner Linda Krantz. Other than a few bikers and “people who are on an adventure,” she says, nobody finds this place by accident.

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Pappy & Harriet’s has a history as colorful as the concert posters that line its rough-hewn wood walls. Pioneertown was built as a Hollywood set, founded in the 1940s by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and a few other cowboy-types who wanted to create a town where they could film movies.

In fact, it was the movie industry that first brought Krantz, born and raised in New York, to Pioneertown. For six weeks she lived and worked among the tumbleweeds and cactus. The experience changed her. “I’d never seen the desert,” she says. “I was really amazed by it.” By that time, Pappy & Harriet’s, which had started out in the 1970s as an “outlaw biker burrito bar,” according to its website, had been reimagined as a more family-friendly destination. Claude “Pappy” Allen, his wife, Harriet, and their granddaughter Kristine provided the nightly entertainment. Harriet did all the cooking.

Santa Maria-style tri-tip steak is another house specialty.

Karen Given

Santa Maria-style tri-tip steak is another house specialty.

Nearly a decade after Pappy’s death in 1994, with the restaurant under new ownership, Harriet was still doing all the cooking. When Krantz and her business partner, Robyn Celia, bought the place in 2003, Harriet agreed to teach them how she did it. She sent the new owners to buy meat at the local supermarket and to Palm Springs, nearly an hour away, to buy fresh tortillas.

It didn’t take long for Krantz and Celia to realize they needed to make the kitchen run more efficiently. “It was a disaster when we took over,” Krantz says. “We actually ended up having to fire Harriet.”

Krantz and Celia didn’t want to be seen as New Yorkers riding into town to change a beloved local treasure. So other than adding a few vegetables to the menu, the food is much the same as it’s always been: Santa Maria-style barbecue, cooked outside on an open flame. Even the chili is cooked on the grill out back. Krantz admits she’d enjoy serving something “new and exciting and fresh and different,” but the restaurant will always “stay true to where it’s been.”

Traditional Santa Maria barbecue is cooked with red oak, but Pappy & Harriet’s uses mesquite, native to the hills around Pioneertown, and occasionally oak. Diners looking to breathe in the desert air can watch their food being grilled at the pit. Tri-tip steak, the house specialty, is billed as “thin sliced,” but one thick and juicy serving is enough to feed a crowd.

Concert posters, license plates, and quirky signs cover the walls.

Karen Given

Concert posters, license plates, and quirky signs cover the walls.

Sides are just as inviting, including Harriet’s own pinto beans and mac and cheese so cheesy that kids will turn up their noses and adults won’t be able to resist. As for those vegetables, “We’re a little stuck in the broccoli world, but that’s OK,” Krantz says. Most people don’t come for the greens anyway.

On the appetizer menu, eagle-eyed indie music fans will notice “nachos Von Rabbit,” a dish inspired by rocker Jesika Von Rabbit, who lives in nearby Joshua Tree. “They’re crazy,” Krantz says. Made from homemade tortilla chips, topped with cheddar, Jack, crumbled blue cheese, pico de gallo, and a “hoopla of sour cream,” the dish, she admits, is a “very strange combination.” But, it’s a combination that works, and the nachos are a local favorite.

Young or old, hippie or hipster, visitors generally have at least one thing in common: They’re ready to embrace the laid-back vibe of the Mojave Desert. Because, “whether you’re pretentious or not,” Krantz says, “you still might get a splinter in your butt.”

Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, Calif., 760-365-5956, www.pappyandharriets.com.

Karen Given can be reached at kgiven@hotmail.com.

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