by Jim S. Harrington
Sundance Mine Company is such a Palo Alto institution it's hard to believe that this El Camino Real restaurant might have been something called Hungry Hunter. Had it not been for misguided Hungry Hunter management, there might not be a Sundance. Back in the early '70s, Hungry Hunter was looking at this spot as a possible new location for one of the's chain of hearty eateries. But it was decided that there was little potential for a steakhouse in this area.
Robert Fletcher, one of the original founders of the Hungry Hunter chain, disagreed with that idea, and in 1974 he opened the Sundance Mine Company.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Fletcher making the right decision.
Sundance, which will begin serving lunch on May 17, has attracted a loyal following in and around Palo Alto by serving a small but well-chosen array of entrees that are centered on, but not limited to, a passion for beef. While it is first and foremost a steakhouse, Sundance is not limited to the cuisine of the cow.
In many steak houses, such as San Francisco's noted House of Prime Rib, there are always a few alternatives to beef listed on the menu, but they never appear worthy of serious consideration. It's almost as if these choices are listed as consolation prizes to those unfortunate few who do not want to order beef. At Sundance, almost all the entrees are equally attractive.
An evening at Sundance should start out with drinks and appetizers. The number of beers on tap is minimal but more than adequate since they have two of the Pacific Northwest's best brews, Chico's Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Seattle's Red Hook. The wine list includes several selections from nearby vineyards in Napa Valley, Sonoma, Russian River, San Luis Obispo and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
For appetizers, I recommend the crispy fried calamari ($3.95) and the jumbo gulf prawns ($6.45), both quickly fried in an excellent beer batter. Also worth ordering is the hibachi ahi, sashimi style ($6.95), a tasty offering of Hawaiian ahi tuna grilled rare and sliced thin with soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger on the side. For the less adventurous, potato skins ($4.25) are a good choice.
Both the Sundance Caesar ($2.95) and the Roadhouse Salad ($1.95) are worthwhile expeditions into the salad department, particularly when the fresh blue cheese is added. The Mine Company Chowder ($1.75) is a thick tantalizing New England mix with noticeable slices of clams strewn through it.
The seemingly obvious choice for main course is one of Sundance's signature cuts of beef. The prime rib is slow-roasted and carved lean to order for differing appetites. The Cardinal Cut ($13.95), at eight ounces, seems about the right size for most appetites, although at first bite of the succulent meat you may wish that you had ordered the 10-ounce House Cut ($16.95).
According to Fletcher, all of the beef served at Sundance is selected from the top 2 percent of Midwestern cattle, aged in a Cryovac "air-tight aging container" at 38 degrees for a minimum of 28 days and then cut fresh daily by the in-house butcher.
For those wishing to try something besides beef, the helpful staff will assist in choosing the freshest catch available among their excellent seafood selections, including a succulent, seven-ounce Pacific swordfish steak ($13.95). Also of particular note is the rainbow trout ($9.95), a freshwater selection brought in from Idaho.
There is also a short list of pasta and chicken dishes to choose from. The highlights include the Lobster Fusilli ($13.95), a healthy portion of sauteed lobster medallions with fresh spinach, butter, garlic and cream served with fusilli pasta; and the Chicken Sundance ($10.95), a skinless breast sauteed in wine, fresh mushrooms and shallots.
Sundance has an extensive menu of after-dinner drinks. Although they have some delicious cognacs and brandies, I would recommend trying one of single-malt scotches. The 18-year old Macallan ($6.50) and the 16-year old Lagavulin ($5.75) are particularly nice.
Sundance Mine Company, 1921 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 321-6798
Hours: Dinner Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday 5-10:30 p.m. Open for lunch starting May 17, Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Atmosphere: Relaxed mood in elegant setting
Highlights: The Cardinal Cut of Prime Rib, Pacific swordfish steak, beautiful wood interior reservations: yes
credit cards: yes
full bar: yes
takeout: yes banquet: yes
wheelchair access: yes
outdoor seating: no
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