Cuyama Buckhorn is a true gem located in the middle of nowhere, California. Originally established in 1952 as a roadside stop to enjoy a meal and community gathering place, today it’s been completely renovated as a full resort retreat. This charming, cowboy-chic getaway features 21 guest rooms designed with rustic furniture, desert-inspired decor and a big nod to the Wild West. It also has a pool, sauna hut and hot tub.
Located on Highway 66, between Santa Maria and Bakersfield, it’s nestled in The Hidden Valley of Enchantment. Surrounded by small farms, ranches and natural landscapes including the Los Padres National Forest and the Bittercreek Wildlife Preserve, it has little to no light pollution making it an incredible place to stargaze, as well as take in stunning sunsets and experience the beauty of the desert, wildflowers, salt flats and sprawling grassland.
Though the Cuyama Valley is recognized as a food desert, organizations that include Cuyama Buckhorn, Blue Sky Center, Cuyama Valley Food Action Network, Condor’s Hope Vineyard and more are working together, alongside the Cuyama community, to help develop a resilient food system via collaboration, resource sharing and educational opportunities.
“Blue Sky Center has been gathering farmers and ranchers in the Cuyama Valley for five years to share resources and bridge opportunities through collaboration and innovation,” says Em Johnson, Executive Director of Blue Sky Center. “Today, the Cuyama Valley Food Action Network is a critical component to achieving community development opportunities in the rural, unincorporated communities within the Cuyama Valley as it works to improve access to food for all Cuyamans, market Cuyama Valley raw and value-added products to a wider regional audience, and support small and medium-sized farms with technical assistance and best practices training.”
Creating sustainable economic prosperity for local farmers, ranchers and businesses is another key goal for those who work within the Cuyama Valley Food Action Network, a non-profit of which this organizations work with.
“Forming relationships with our local farmers and ranchers have taken a very long time, due to the fact that there is no communal sourcing option (such as a farmers market) to meet and connect with our local food producers. Similarly, actually sourcing the local products and goods has been an extreme challenge since we have to send our team members to the various farms and ranches of our valley (and our Santa Barbara County cities) to pick up the products or have the farmers and ranchers deliver the products directly to us, which is an incredibly time-consuming process,” says Savannah Fox, Manager of Cuyama Buckhorn Restaurant and Inn.
“Having a local farmers market to source the products of Cuyama Valley and our surrounding Santa Barbara County region would greatly improve the ease of sourcing locally, save our team members and our local farmers and ranchers’ valuable time, and allow for us to increase the number of products and ingredients we source locally for our business.”
In addition to a unique property to stay, Cuyama Buckhorn is a hub for upscale dining in the area. Led by executive Chef Daniel Horn, The Buckhorn Restaurant and Bar prides itself on creating meaningful, symbiotic relationships with local purveyors, in efforts to create a truly one-of-a-kind farm-to-table menu of comfort food classics. The seasonal menu is most known for the resort’s famous Santa Maria tri-tip on the restaurant’s Red Oak grill.
Bar manager Brandon Gomez equally impresses with his beverage program, which uses small batch spirits and wine from nearby distilleries and wineries. He also features a range of ouse made liqueurs, bitters and seasonal syrups from local produce on his menu.
The menu features popular items like the smoked pulled pork tacos on handmade tortillas, Buckhorn burgers and club sandwiches on house-made bread, the Cobb salad with local SZ Ranch organic egg and house-smoked bacon, and the smoke house platter with the Santa Maria Tri-tip or smoked pulled pork accompanied by Rancho Gordo Pinquito beans, house spicy pickles and house BBQ sauce.
Chef Daniel also features daily specials such as his Fried Chicken sandwich with a masa turmeric crust, Cuyama homegrown greens and house made bread-and-butter pickles and his weekly seasonal pasta dishes highlighting farm fresh produce and fresh house pasta
The Buckhorn Restaurant emphasizes the importance of intentional sourcing, cultivating relationships with farmers and investing in the localization of their food offerings. The focus on creating a better, more sustainable future for the valley is extremely clear here. Everything they do is geared towards help boost the local economy while offering guests a top notch resort experience.
The resort team seeks to highlight as many locally made products and goods as they can throughout the property, from the goodies in their market and cafe to the ingredients on their dining menu. The Buckhorn Market actually was created during the pandemic to specifically help provide the essentials for the community. It has since evolved into a lovely shop selling specialty items and locally produced crafts. Cuyama Buckhorn also features a craft coffee shop offering Verve Coffee Roasters Coffee and freshly baked, in-house made pastries.
We talked to Executive Chef Daniel Horn on his culinary endeavors, the famous tri-tip, pandemic pivots and more, as well as, Em Johnson, Executive Director of Blue Sky Center on sustainability, food cultivation and innovation. Here’s what they had to say.
Despite being in the middle of nowhere, Cuyama Buckhorn is continually being booked out! What makes this high dessert getaway so special?
Daniel Horn: Covid made people slow down, reevaluate, pause. So the serene, off-the-grid appeal of the resort is more attractive than ever. I think travelers want more of an escape when they travel, a place to unplug, and not necessarily a busy/bustling scene to keep up with. Cuyama Buckhorn offers a taste of the remote lifestyle.
How popular is The Buckhorn Restaurant with locals and passersbys? Do you see more locals or more road trippers? Where are the passerbyers coming and going from?
Daniel Horn: Our restaurant crowd is very interesting because it is a true mix of audiences between local Cuyama community members, travelers passing by on Highway 166 and our hotel guests. Restaurant traffic is a pretty equal balance between the audiences for our regular daily traffic. We have some community members who come in on a daily basis, or at least multiple times a week.
We also have a steady stream of passerbys stopping in throughout the day every day. The passerbys are usually traveling from Bakersfield to the coast or from the Central Coast to Bakersfield; however, we also get passerbys who are coming from Ojai/Highway 33 and heading to the Central Coast. Many of these passerbys are commuting and then others are just out for drives or traveling from one area of CA to another and stopping in to dine (and/or stay with us) on their way (i.e. Bay area or Central Coast people traveling to LA/down South).
From the Central Coast drivers can do a loop via Highway 166 (from Santa Maria) with a stop at The Buckhorn for lunch and then continue on their way through Ojai back to the Central Coast. On the weekends, the restaurant is a major destination/stop for car and motorcycle clubs and rallies out for road trips/day trips.
During the summer months we have a heavy stream of people, especially families, traveling from Bakersfield to the Central Coast to the beach for day trips and camping trips.
Our road life community and our history as a roadside motel and restaurant is a very important piece of our identity and something we are very proud to be a part of.
When it comes to creating a sustainable, fruitful and collaborative community for generations to come, how crucial is food cultivation and how important is innovation in all of this?
Em Johnson: Utilizing our facilities as the catalyst in connecting producers to buyers and processors to distributors through community investment, network capacity building, and Cuyama Valley product branding and distribution, ultimately, Blue Sky aims to build a more resilient foundation for a thriving rural economy that can contribute to a diverse regional food shed.
We see an opportunity to invest in enterprises that add value to the agricultural industries in the Cuyama Valley that do not unnecessarily contribute to the increasingly critically over drafted water basin. This means investing in Cuyama Valley branded products that exemplify farming practices that are climate-specific, contribute to our local food & job infrastructure, and showcase the abundance of the Cuyama Valley.
What are some of the things Blue Sky Center is doing to make lasting change in the community?
Em Johnson: Blue Sky has launched its first social enterprise, Cuyama Beverage Co. Cuyama Beverage Co. is a small-batch sparkling mead production and distribution company that is based in New Cuyama. Cuyama is a small and isolated community. Because of this, employment and educational opportunities in the trade oriented form of “learn by doing” are limited.
Cuyama Beverage Co. will affect change by creating jobs that are scalable and valuable in an emerging market, adding revenue to Blue Sky Center – leading an innovative pathway to self-sufficiency, and ultimately providing an inspiring case study for replicable rural business incubation programs that can greatly impact our distinctive Central Coast foodshed.
Santa Maria tri-tip — how is it prepared and why is it so good?
Daniel Horn: Tri-tip is one of the best, tastiest and most affordable cuts of beef you can get nowadays. As a good Chef friend of mine (from Wyoming) used to say, ‘all you need to make a successful menu in California is avocado and tri-tip.’ And the way it is prepared in the Santa Maria area is just really the best, slow cooking over the red oak.
We start by trimming up the tri-tip, removing the elastin and fat, to create a clean cut of meat. Then we season the meat with a blend of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika. Next, we rub the tri-tip with oil and then place on our historic Santa Maria style grill with the rack about half way up its pulley. If the fire is hot raise the rack higher and if the fire is low, then lower the rack. Rotate and flip the meat as necessary, cooking to desired internal temperature. I recommend cooking it to 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
Do you have any tips or tricks to share? Key ingredient?
Daniel Horn: Low and slow, the best thing to remember is to keep the temperature low and let the tri-tip cook slowly. That’s why the Santa Maria grill is so perfectly designed; if the fire is too hot, you just raise the cooking grates and the reverse – lower the grates as the fire cools.”
The red oak is the key ingredient. The flavor that it adds as the meat smokes, is truly one of a kind. I’ve worked with quite a few different oaks over the years and none of them provides the sweetness like red oak does. That’s why it pairs so well with the acidity of the pico de gallo.
Has it been tough to reopen? Have there been any unforeseen complications?
Daniel Horn: Staffing in general is a challenge for our property due to our remote location, so as things begin to reopen more and as we continue to grow and expand our operations (due to both our resort reveal/heavy increase in resort traffic, as well as COVID restrictions easing), increasing the size of our team has been a challenge, and this challenge is only exacerbated by the fact that the rest of our industry is hiring simultaneously.
That being said, the team we have in place, the vast majority of which are local to Cuyama, is absolutely incredible and we are so grateful to each and every one of them for their amazing dedication and their unwavering work ethic, especially over the past challenging year. We feel beyond fortunate to have a small and incredibly tight-knit team, most of whom have been with us for many years/since we took over the property, if not before.