By Julie Pendray
Oak Glen, Calif. –When Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis got married in The Secret Garden in Oak Glen, many people probably wondered about the location. I’d never heard of Oak Glen either until last summer. That’s when I interviewed Fariad Ali, the man who won Idyllwild’s Sizzling Summer Plein Air Contest. He told me his working gallery is in this tiny community above Beaumont, 15 miles east of San Bernardino.
Recently an Idyllwild friend, Mountain Mike, suggested we go for a brief visit to sample the boysenberry crisp at Los Rios Rancho, one of Oak Glen’s historic apple orchards. The crisp was delicious! I thought, “I’m coming back when I have more time.”
So, inspired by Ali’s watercolor techniques, the boysenberry crisp and a warm sunny day, I ventured up the hill on my own. With daffodils and cherry trees blooming, the view of snow-capped San Bernardino mountains and a new steakhouse providing nightlife, Oak Glen makes a great destination. It’s a perfect day trip from Riverside and San Diego counties.To get there, take exit 92 off I-10 and go north through Beaumont and Cherry Valley and then up on Oak Glen Road. You’ll reach an altitude of nearly 4,800 feet.
Oak Glen is comprised of four large family-owned ranches, plus about 30 smaller operations. Ali and his artist wife, Jennifer, have their gallery, Wildland Images, in Parrish Ranch on the top floor of what’s known as the old red barn. Enoch Parrish opened the first apple orchard in the area in 1876, followed by the Wilshire family.
On this visit, I only had time to visit Parrish Ranch and its surroundings but the adventure whet my appetite for another outing.
Once you leave Beaumont below, the noise and stress of urban life drop away and you breathe in the fresh air with a panoramic view from a winding road along a ridge.
As the road steepens and you see the currently naked apple trees up ahead, be careful not to miss a 1927 two-storied stone building. This is Oak Glen School, once part of the C.J. “Blackie” Wilshire Ranch, according to its wooden sign. Nearby you’ll see signs inviting you to throw a tomahawk or try your hand at archery.
Orchards then begin to dominate the terrain. Oak Glen orchards offer uncommon varieties such as Vasquez, King David, Ben Davis, Gravenstein and Pink Pearl. Some highlights for visitors are picking their own fruit and taking in the Apple Blossom Country Festival presented by the grower’s association. The next one will be April 16-17.
Rounding a bend further up the road, you’ll find Los Rios Rancho on your left. This is billed as Southern California’s largest apple farm, in operation since 1906. It’s one of many stops where a tourist can savor mouth-watering apple cider and pie and take home preserves and other gifts. Picnic tables under flowering cherry trees invite you to relax a while or you can walk along a trail. This places offers tours and living history demonstrations, with an estimated 300,000 visitors arriving during apple season. Now is a good time to enjoy a lot of what Oak Glen has to offer, without the crowds.
On this visit, I made a beeline for Ali’s gallery. He greeted me with his wonderful signature smile and we chatted for an hour about his latest work, his artistic viewpoint, his life in Oak Glen and local history. He clearly loves the town. Someday, I’ll write about my interview with him, but for now I want to tell you about his environment, which he describes as the Beverley Hills of the Inland Empire. It’s certainly a wealthier community than some of the empire. Oak Glen has a population of only about 630 people.
Ali gave me two recommendations for lunch: a burger at Angus McCurdy’s across the street; or the brand new Oak Glen Steakhouse and Saloon. McCurdy’s was closed for renovations but Ali took me inside to meet Cheryl Hicks who owns and operates the eatery with her husband, Tony. She said McCurdy’s, built in 1867, was originally the equipment barn for Parrish Ranch. This structure and a house across the street are two of the oldest “stick frame” buildings in San Bernardino county, she said. A special bonus for me at McCurdy’s was meeting one of the owners’ friends, a local resident and fellow ex-pat Kiwi. He’s from Invercargill, which is one of the settings for a favorite movie of mine, The World’s Fastest Indian , starring Anthony Hopkins.
Next on my tour with Ali was the building that once served as the schoolhouse. Next to it, the Pirates of Parrish Ranch show is offered each summer and fall. David Freeman, a film industry retiree, produces the show, using the stage name Harley. Canon fire, sword fights and a pirate ship entertain audiences from late June through the first week of December, when apple season ends. The show is free for visitors to Oak Glen.
My final stop in Parrish Ranch was the store in the red barn, underneath Ali’s gallery. This was built in 1867, according to Harley’s wife, Nancy Glenn, the friendly manager. She told me Oak Glen’s Vasquez apple variety was named after Juan Vasquez who tended trees on Parrish Ranch for 60 years. The orchards there produce 19 apple varieties grown organically, she said.
The store is like a wander back in time, with delicious apple cider and butters, caramel apples and the apple crisp made from scratch by Liz, who has worked in the “barn” for 20 years. You’ll also find chocolates, caramels and brittles from Granlunds Candies in Yucaipa, as well as wine and wine tasting, olive oil, kitchen novelties, cooking books and teas. I bought the Island Vacation tea, in memory of my many trips Down Under. I also left with a little history book, “The Story of Oak Glen and Yucaipa Valley,” by O. W. Willits, which goes back to the days of the earliest known visitors, the Wanakik Cahuillas.
On my way out of Parrish Ranch, I passed a few camera-shy alpaca and enjoyed the snowy mountain scene in the distance. Winding a little further north down Oak Glen Road, I encountered the new Oak Glen Steakhouse and Saloon, which includes a wedding venue under construction, with water features and a backdrop of an old apple orchard. This business is owned by the Knudsen family.
After my tour with general manager Brandon Gallegos, I settled into the saloon (which has a great mountain view) and tried one of their specialties — Bison tenderloins wrapped in bacon. This is like a filet mignon. Knudsen said all their meats are prime cut. Executive chef John Hausotter cooked it exactly to my preference — medium. It was tender and especially flavorful because of the bacon. Guests can choose from a variety of sauces. On recommendation from the kitchen, mine came with the slightly sweet shallot-merlot sauce. It was divine. My side choices were firecracker green beans and brussel sprouts – both delicious.
This restaurant was still under soft opening until the next day, so the chef brought me a sample of lobster bisque to try. It came complete with a touch of cream sherry and accented with a swirl of sriracha sauce. Yum! Needless to say, I wasn’t able to eat all of the tenderloin on the spot because it was so packed with protein, so I took a portion home. My verdict: this place is worth the drive.
The Knudsens own a nearby ranch with 52 head of bison. In the entrance to their restaurant is a painting of their late stud, Big John. This is one of about 15 pieces by artist Ali that set the Western theme throughout this establishment. Big John’s four-feet-tall head will soon be mantled in the saloon, Gallegos said.
As I watched mouth watering dishes arriving in front of guests next to me at the bar, I struck up conversations.
“This is the best thing to happen to Oak Glen in more than 20 years,” one diner told me. After his disclaimer that he’s a friend of the family, Steven Guarderas of Yucaipa told me, “I used to come for the snow to get away with my family. Now I come two or three times a week. I’ve had the steak, calamari, lobster, tacos. Everything has been great.”
My own disclaimer is that I was treated to my meal after my interview with the manager. I’m very grateful to the folks in Oak Glen for their hospitality.
There’s so much more for me to learn about Oak Glen. Reading that little history book is a help and I look forward to more visits. I highly recommend the area as a day trip.
© Copyright Julie Pendray and SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com