A Visit to Harris Ranch
By Stuart J. Faber
Good old-fashioned airport restaurants have become an endangered species. In the past, a bunch of us could pile into our airplanes and, within an hour, rendezvous at a neighborhood airport for a fabulous breakfast – or even a great lunch or dinner.
Some of us have fond memories for the now departed Skytrails Restaurant at Van Nuys, Calif. They served some of the best prime rib in town. On most nights, the ramp in front of Skytrails was packed with airplanes from all over southern California.
In my Wisconsin days, we had a choice of more than a dozen outstanding airport restaurants. The Janesville Airport restaurant was famous for its sticky buns. We would park our aircraft and leap to the restaurant and grab a few gooey, dripping buns as they emerged from the oven.
Lake Lawn Airport was another of our favorite stops. Just 30 minutes from Milwaukee, the airport was the site of a huge lakeside lodge. In the wood beamed dining room, we savored one of the best breakfasts in the Midwest.
Today, it is a challenge to find a tower-less airport where you can chock the wheels and saunter over to a great dining spot. I have answered the challenge – and the place is less than an hour from either Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Harris Ranch – An Airport Restaurant and Much More
Harris Ranch has everything the seasoned weekend pilot is looking for – and much, much more. Whether you navigate with the latest glass cockpit or just a compass, you can’t miss the place. Just follow I-5 either from the Los Angeles Basin or the Bay Area and within an hour, you will be descending over 800 acres of cattle, thousands of acres of just about every kind of fruit and vegetable crop imaginable, plus a rambling restaurant and hotel complex, and finally, a diminutive runway.
A Slice of California History – Agriculture and Aviation
Located in Central California, Harris Farms has been under continuous family operation since the 1930s. The ranch and farms have grown into one of the largest family owned agribusinesses in the nation. An integral part of the ranch is the historical airport.
Harris Ranch Airport (K308) is owned and operated privately by the Harris family. The paved, lighted runway, 14-32 is open 24-hours a day. It is 2,820 feet long and at an altitude of 470 feet above sea level. As I stated, it’s adjacent to I-5, but if you lose your bearings, it’s about 16 miles due east of the Visalia VOR. If conditions are IFR, I suggest you try Hanford (KHJO), about 30 miles to the east. Once you land at Harris Ranch, you can’t get lost on the way to the restaurant. It’s about a 5-minute walk. The airport provides 24-hour self-service fuel.
Three Ranches in One
Today, under the leadership of John Harris, the son of the founder, the Harris name is best known for producing the finest quality beef west of the Rockies. Together, Harris Feeding Company and Harris Ranch Beef Company have established a reputation as two of the most innovative beef product firms in the industry.
The cattle operation takes the beef virtually from conception to processing. Up to 120,000 head of cattle inhabit these grounds. Some of the critters are brought in from neighboring ranches. They arrive at Harris Ranch at about 16 to 24 months of age and spend the next four months in a special feeding operation. A diet of Midwestern corn and other special ingredients render these cattle better fed than many humans.
The Harris Farms Horse Division was established in 1966 by John Harris and his father, Jack, cattle ranchers, farmers and horsemen devoted to the raising, training and running of thoroughbred racehorses.
The farming division produces more than 35 commodities including cotton, lettuce, tomatoes, garlic, onions, melons, oranges, lemons, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, onions, garlic and wine grapes. Most of these crops find their way to the tables at Harris’s restaurants.
A Warm and Inviting Hotel
The hotel, which resembles an historic California hacienda, is just steps away from the restaurants and shops. The 153 rooms and suites are tastefully designed and furnished in early American décor. Not only is the tariff very reasonable and the rooms cozy and comfortable, guests don’t have to pay for parking – nor is a local hotel tax added to the bill. Although you will enjoy the sensation of being ensconced in a country villa, all of the modern electronic amenities which we expect are at your fingertips.
The Harris Ranch Inn is also an ideal central meeting point for corporate functions, executive retreats, weddings, tour groups, military groups or family reunions. With access to over 7,500 square feet of fully-equipped, fully-staffed, conference and meeting space, you can organize a small fly-in and spend a few days with your pilot club buddies and never have to leave the grounds or hop in a car.
A Leader in California and American Cuisine
The Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant was established in 1977 and today serves nearly 2,000 guests a day. The restaurant showcases high quality Harris Ranch U.S.D.A. Angus Choice and Prime Beef, plus Harris Farms fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables. The Harris family’s philosophy to provide only the best products, care, and service to customers is evident in every division of the company.
The operations of the restaurants are like no other I have ever seen. To begin with, the kitchens and all food handling areas are as spotless as a surgical chamber. Whatever ends up on the customer’s plate was fashioned by experienced hands and sprung from an original natural source. For what seemed like an hour, I watched one guy squeeze orange after orange for fresh juice.
The meat, of course, is processed in the Harris facility. Final cutting into the ultimate pieces from steaks to pot roast to corned beef hash takes place in the kitchen. Special flour is purchased and milled on the premises. Every bakery item, from crusty breads to succulent pies, emanates from the Harris kitchen. Vegetables, of course, come from just down the road and grace your plate within hours of harvest.
With few exceptions, Harris grows everything it serves. I confess that I saw no spawning salmon, oyster beds or lobster traps. But I can assure you – if you select any of those items, they will be as fresh as if this restaurant was on the seashore.
Harris Ranch Restaurant, the main dining room, is decorated in an attractive western motif. Virtually everything on the menu is made from scratch. I followed Chef Anthony Hagans around for a few days. He sprints back and forth from the bakery to the butcher shop to the final serving line and makes sure that everything is perfect. Most of the menu items are his original creations. One of the most enthusiastic, talented and dedicated chefs I have ever met, his skill and personality are revealed in every bite of cuisine.
For appetizers, take your pick of anything from oysters on the half shell (not grown on the ranch, but flown in daily), chile relleno stuffed with Jack cheese and deep fried with a magnificent pico de gallo and lime sour cream, giant crab cakes or artichoke halves.
The prime rib salad consists of romaine lettuce grown on the premises topped with slabs of prime rib which are grilled outdoors and brought in to top the salad the last minute. The spinach salad is served with peppercorn dressing, crumbled bacon, chopped egg, mushrooms and parmesan cheese.
For soups, I suggest the chuck wagon soup with ground sirloin and farm fresh veggies or the fajita soup. If you crave yet another intermediate course, try the chicken flatbread pizza with mozzarella cheese and sun dried tomatoes.
Of course, Harris Ranch is renowned for steaks. But I urge you to stay an extra day so that you can try some of the old fashion comfort dishes such as the beef stew, liver and onions, a specialty hamburger, the pot roast or chicken fried steak. I also recommend the seared halibut or salmon, hearty meatloaf or fabulous osso bucco short ribs. Most items are available for lunch – plus they create some of the best sandwiches I have ever tasted.
Harris Ranch meat is hand selected from the highest quality USDA choice, Angus or prime beef-all natural and grain fed. All steak entrees are accompanied by vegetables and a choice of ranch beans, garlic mashed red skinned potatoes, a baked potato or yams - plus soup or salad. Among the choices are filet mignon, 24-ounce porterhouse or bone-in ribeye, 20-ounce T-bone or 14 ounce New York strip. I opted for the superbly marbled ribeye, which, in my view, delivers the quintessence of flavor and texture. In my Search for the ultimate steak, I found my selection to be one of the most tender, juicy and flavorful I have ever encountered. I could cut it with my fork. If you like your beef roasted, I recommend a 20-ounce cowboy cut of dry-aged prime rib.
Desserts? All homemade, of course-from the bakery that makes all the bread and rolls. Even the ice cream is homemade.
Breakfast is served all day. You can get everything from ham and eggs to the best corned-beef hash you will ever taste. French toast and flapjacks are light as a feather. Biscuits and gravy are unbeatable.
If you prefer a more intimate dining atmosphere with an equestrian feel, visit The Jockey Club at Night. The menu is virtually the same. All the restaurants have award-winning wine lists.
You can also saddle up to the bar at The Horseshoe Lounge, a favorite gathering spot which features lighter selections, plus many entrees from the main dining room. Catch up on the latest news and sports and enjoy live entertainment in the evenings during the weekend. You might even see one of the Harris Farm thoroughbreds racing at the track.
Harris Ranch not only offers a variety of restaurants, it sells many of the popular food items in its country store. If you are weary of supermarket meat, by all means, stop by Harris Ranch and the journeymen butchers will cut you a slab of beef to order. During my last trip, the butcher cut a four-rib hunk of prime rib roast to my specifications, which I feared would place the weight and balance of my airplane beyond the envelope.
What I love about Harris Ranch is that it offers many luxuries that a big city destination provides, but without the big-city disadvantages. Can you drive through a tomato field or almond orchard in a big city? Can you tour a huge beef ranch or visit a champion horse ranch? No, but all of these attractions are footsteps away at Harris Ranch, plus you can shop for anything from western clothing to sides of beef, then pile yourself and all of your purchases in your airplane (parked just down the road), and head for home. You will be back, and so will I.
For more information, contact Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant, 24505 West Dorris Avenue, Coalinga, CA 93210, 800/942-2333 or www.harrisranch.com.