The crudely lettered sign will tell you everything you need to know:
“Vegetarians 20 Miles,” it reads, with an arrow pointing roughly in the direction of Bend.
Big Al's Fire House Grill is an outpost for carnivores, especially those of the red-meat persuasion. Occupying a corner lot off state Highway 126 in rural Powell Butte — eight miles east of Redmond, 11 miles west of Prineville and 23 miles northeast of downtown Bend — it is a tiny trailer with picnic tables and a retired fire truck parked outside.
Most days, at noon, owner Al Edwards fires up the engine's siren to announce the midday mealtime.
The loquacious Edwards, a retired fire captain in Alaska and safari guide in Australia, is one of the attractions of this rural eatery. He's a natural storyteller with a gift of gab and a wealth of material to draw upon, from his high school days in Eugene to his months with a traveling circus in New Zealand.
But even “Big Al” is outshined by the simple yet superb meat he serves. I have not had a better burger in Central Oregon, nor a better tri-tip sandwich, than those prepared at the Fire House Grill. Ribs, a hot dog and a Greek gyro were also excellent. Even the coleslaw had me begging for a recipe.
Al fresco dining
Now, that's not to say that I'd make the drive from Bend or Redmond to Powell Butte on a cold, drizzly day, unless I was en route to Prineville and prepared to eat in my car.
The only available seating, after all, is at a pair of large picnic tables, and one of their benches belongs to a large stuffed moose.
An awning extending out from the trailer provides cover for patrons ordering food, next to a blackboard updated with the day's menu. There's free coffee here; soda is $1, and a collection of four dozen hot sauces invites diners to test their tolerance level.
But Big Al's is definitely at its best when the sun is shining. That's why Edwards is planning to install an outdoor barbecue pit and add grilled salmon to the menu.
In the meantime, he's doing just fine with the meats and chicken. Beef brisket, pulled pork and ribs are slow-cooked for 12 hours or longer, and his sauces are house-made blends that enhance all of the natural flavors.
Burgers and BBQ
On one recent blue-sky-afternoon visit to Big Al's, my dining companion and I had a burger and ribs, the latter a combination lunch order with sweet potato fries and coleslaw.
Four tender, meaty ribs came in my friend's meal, covered with a layer of zingy (but not overly spicy) barbecue sauce.
The pork wasn't falling off the bones, but it easily separated from the ribs when a fork or teeth were applied. Fire Axe Fries, made with fresh-cut sweet potatoes and a dusting of rosemary salt, were delicious in a tangy chipotle dipping sauce.
And the coleslaw, made without mayonnaise, was wonderful. White and red cabbage, shredded carrot and a generous sprinkle of thyme were blended with a perfect balance of vinegar and sugar. I learned that the secret ingredient, however, was Knox brand gelatin in place of mayo. “It's actually healthy!” Edwards said.
He might not have said the same about my burger, known as the Company 51 Bacon Stacker. My doctor may have wanted to give me a new cholesterol test after this one, but I enjoyed every bite.
Two thick slabs of juicy ground beef were served on a bakery-fresh kaiser bun with a handful of bacon slices, caramelized onions, shredded lettuce, tomato and pickles. A slice of cheddar was melted over the meat, which was dressed with the house-made barbecue sauce and two sandwich spreads: one with ketchup and chipotle, the other mustard-based.
Service, on this occasion provided by two young men working the kitchen, was very good. When we requested a knife and an extra plate, they raced from behind the scenes to meet our needs.
In no hurry
On a subsequent visit, I ordered takeout for three — a hot dog, a gyro and a tri-tip sandwich. In contrast to the weather on my earlier stop, this day was cold and windy, so much so that the outdoor diner's sole outhouse had been knocked upon its side by a gust.
It was a slow day and Edwards was alone at the grill, so he cooked and bagged each order one at a time. He wasn't in any hurry, but neither was I. He shared chapters of his life story with a captive audience of one as the meat came off the grill and onto the bread.
Once home, I unwrapped the offerings and shared them with my friend and her son.
The Hose in a Blanket was a hot dog of the gourmet variety. Sliced lengthwise, grilled and served with onions and two slices of bacon, the sausage was topped with a semi-melted slice of processed cheese. (The menu had promised pepper-jack, but this was pure American.) It was dressed with ketchup, mustard and relish, and presented on a sturdy bakery bun. Although not the best dog I've ever had, it was very good.
The Stop, Drop and Gyro was Big Al's version of a Greek pita-bread sandwich. Slow-roasted gyro meat, a mixture of beef and lamb, was sliced and stuffed into the rolled pocket bread with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions and house-made, yogurt-based tzatziki sauce. For a few bites, I thought I was in a Greek restaurant.
Best of all was the Tri Tip Sandwich. “She likes her meat rare,” I had told Edwards, and he replied, “Then that's the way she'll have it.” And my friend was delighted. Her rare beef was stacked on a lightly grilled French loaf with cole slaw and barbecue sauce.
The sides were only so-so. The sweet potato fries were tastier than the regular fries, which the menu dubs “curly-style” Hoser Fries. They were not curly, and in fact were overcooked. Onion rings, on the other hand, were deep-fried in a light batter to a golden brown.
The chipotle fry sauce was excellent. And we didn't need anyone to put out the fire.
Airport Cafe is the new name of the former Cafe 3456' at the Bend Municipal Airport. The change comes after new owners Don and Doug Peterman purchased the place from chef-owner David Hatfield, who departed for Seattle in November. A menu of breakfast (eggs and pancakes), lunch (sandwiches and salads) is priced from $5 to $11 and served 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day; an early dinner menu is planned as well. “On the Run Meals” are designed for pilots and passengers to be cockpit-friendly. Second level of Professional Air Building, 63136 Powell Butte Highway, Bend; 541-318-8989.