If you live in the US of A, chances are good that you own a grill – according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, 75% of Americans own a smoker or grill, and 61% of them use it year round. No statistics are known to exist on how many people refer to grilling as barbecuing, but it’s a safe bet that “most of them” is the right answer.
If you get home from work and start up the Char-Broil or set fire to some Kingsford Briquets to cook some tender steaks or burgers, that’s grilling. If you light a wood fire in a big ol’ half-barrel and pull up a cooler full of beer to while away some serious hours tending tough hunks of meat, you’re talking either barbecuing or smoking. It’s all in the technique and window-dressing won’t cut it: serious pitmasters know that anyone who talks extensively about their 50-ingredient secret barbecue sauce recipe is an unworthy poseur and amateur. Real barbecue is expensive and time-consuming; there are lots of restaurants with the barbecue name that just flood some cooked chicken with sweet gloppy sauce and assume you don’t know the difference, or care.
Femme de Joie had heard good things about Old Mill Eatery & Smokehouse in Shasta Lake and thought it was time to head north to check it out. It opened some ten years ago and was taken over by new owners in 2015. In a light-filled faux log cabin chalet on Shasta Dam Boulevard, they serve three meals a day to a variety of tourists and locals, grandpas in overalls and hipsters with flashy hair tints, business folk and families, all of whom come for the generous portions and real smoked barbecue. Service is helpful and friendly albeit sometimes a little leisurely.
House-made corned beef hash and eggs, $12.95
Canned corned beef hash isn’t worth the time and effort to make it attractive and palatable; you may as well serve a fry-up of Alpo. Homemade is a different story. Old Mill mixed pink shims of house-smoked corned beef mixed with hash browns and crisp-fried, a bit on the salty side but both crunchy and tender at the same time. More hash browns alongside had a golden crackly top and moist insides to go with eggs cooked sunnyside up.
Smokehouse breakfast with ham, $12.95
Very often the ham part of ham-and-eggs is a neat little soldier of a ham slice, uniformly cut from a pressed loaf, microwaved or held in a heating tray until needed. A nicely browned 8-ounce slice has some texture and character and heft as it was here.
A large flaky biscuit baked in-house was a breakfast in itself along with peppery thick cream gravy redolent with bits of sausage. The biscuit was not quite baked all the way through, though, so the inside was a little gummy.
Old Mill Cheese Steak, half $11.95, full $14.95
Skip the drive to Philly and get this one instead. On the lively and spicy side, luscious smoked tri-tip meshed with mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers in a coat of melted cheese. A really delicious and messy sandwich.
Potato salad and dirty rice, $3.95 each
Side orders are done especially well at Old Mill. House-made new potato salad, a far cry from that weird yellow sweet paste sold in plastic tubs in supermarket refrigerator cases, was crunchy with celery, creamy but not mushy, and lightly peppery. Dirty rice was outstanding – often made with chicken livers and giblets, this savory, fluffy rice was chock full of smoked beef niblets and seasoned generously with cayenne.
Smoked brisket sandwich, $12.95, side of baked beans $2.95, cole slaw $2.95
At dinner, full plates of smoked meats are available, but they can also be ordered as sandwiches for lunch. Smoked brisket, though on the salty side, was juicy and tender with visible smoke rings – lots of smoke taste here, though the amount of meat on the sandwich was a bit scanty. The house-made baked beans had a snappy vinegary tang with diced bacon flavor. Femme de Joie assumed the cole slaw would have a creamy dressing and was pleased to instead taste a piquant apple cider vinegar-based sharp dressing that paired well with smoky meats. A A tiny cup of barbecue sauce tasted of ketchup, sugar, vinegar, and liquid smoke; the brisket did not deserve to be sullied with it.
Though not everything was perfect, there are many good things going on at Old Mill Eatery & Smokehouse – enough to warrant a drive up I-5 to Shasta Lake. If you crave barbecue that isn’t coated with sticky bottled sauce, this is worth trying out on your way up to the dam (go have a look while there’s water in it).
Old Mill Eatery & Smokehouse, 4132 Shasta Dam Boulevard, Shasta Lake, CA 96073. 530-275-0515. Open daily, Sunday though Thursday, 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM, Friday and Saturday 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Parking lot. Cash and cards, no checks. Beer and wine. Not much for vegetarians to see here. Follow them on Facebook.