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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Good Food and Nice Drink at Ol' Buckaroo in Three Rivers

Oct 08, 2014 12:34PM ● By Brandi Barnett

Roadside Restaurant

October/November 2014
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jacki Potorke

“Across the river, where you see those Christmas lights, that’s where my mother grew up.” Nicki French speaks from a park bench and looks across the river, pointing to a home that is difficult to spot against the dry hillside. Nicki, who grew up on a fourth-generation working cattle ranch, speaks plainly about her return to her native Three Rivers: it wasn’t supposed to happen. “I graduated from high school and promptly left and said I’d never come back.”
After high school, Nicki moved to San Francisco and worked at the Slanted Door, a modern Vietnamese restaurant that uses organic produce and ecologically farmed meat. There she met her husband, T.R., where they both worked front of house – serving, bartending, managing.
After years of traveling, the restaurant business and starting a family, they bought a house and moved to Oakland. “We had so many dreams that we were trying to pursue,” says Nicki, “but they weren’t gaining momentum.” Oakland just never felt like home.
During a family visit, T.R. suggested they move to Three Rivers. Nicki balked at first, but after some thought, the move began to make sense. In Three Rivers, they’d be closer to family, the cost of living would be more affordable and, says Nicki, “Three Rivers has no restaurants.”
Their home sold in 12 days and escrow closed in another 30. They bought the building that housed the Old Buckaroo, Three Rivers’ old saloon and tavern, and moved in with their two children. That Oakland dream to open a restaurant began to take shape in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
They had moved to Three Rivers in July 2013, but eight months later their application with the water department – necessary to open a restaurant in the Old Buckaroo building – had still not been processed. With their dream again on hold, recalls Nicki, “we were losing vision.”
That’s when the idea for a roadside restaurant was born. Don’t call it a food truck: it’s much, much more than that.
For starters, Nicki and T.R. wanted to provide a service that represents who they are as individuals while recognizing the community to which they belong. “So let’s do a throwback,” Nicki says. “Let’s pay homage, and let’s keep the vibe but let’s just put ourselves into it.” So they named their roadside restaurant Ol’ Buckaroo, an allusion to the old Old Buckaroo.
And then there’s the view. They cleared out the lot adjacent to their home and raised coverings to provide shade for seating. Their patio saddles up next to a decline above the river, and when the shadows grow as the sun descends over the western hills, an evening calm settles over the river valley. John Elliott, a Three Rivers native and owner of The Kaweah Commonwealth, calls it a Western Tiki Bar. “Good tap beer on the Kaweah River,” he says. “Where better could you be?”
On the side of the sleek black truck is a blue logo of a cowboy riding rodeo, with the words emblazoned, “Good Food & Nice Drink.” Those words are more than a slogan; it’s where the rubber hits the road for this roadside restaurant. The food is fresh, and 80 percent of their product is organic. They make their own aioli and ranch, and they pickle their own cucumbers. The menu features grass-fed beef with heirloom tomatoes between a brioche bun, organic arugula salads and roasted Flora Bella Shishito peppers. For refreshment, they serve house-made watermelon-lime and blackberry-basil sodas, and carry local Kaweah Brewing Company beer on tap.
The food fits the surrounding: natural, wholesome, of the earth. Another restaurateur could open shop and settle for less because of the view. But that’s what sets Ol’ Buckaroo apart– the quality and taste of the food stand on their own merit. They could drive that truck anywhere, park in some gritty, dark alley in a city and still draw a crowd.
Really, Nicki and T.R. are part of a growing trend of young artisans who are taking their craft seriously. People are moving away from widely distributed, artificially processed, assembly manufactured goods. People want local, they want quality, they want something with personal history – call it the soul of a product. “It’s not just about the food,” says Nicki. “It’s about the ambience, the experience and the connection with other people.” That, Nicki says from experience, is why people go to restaurants. And it’s the same reason people will want to come to Ol’ Buckaroo, they say.
Though Ol’ Buckaroo just opened in July, it’s already drawing a regular crowd. “The dream is still the brick and mortar,” says Nicki, referring to the restaurant they still hope to open. “But in the meantime we’re living in the Old Buckaroo with our two children.” Which is a relief to Three Rivers and anybody with an appetite for good food and nice drink, because even though Ol’ Buckaroo rests on four wheels, it’s likely found a permanent place to park and call home.

Ol’ Buckaroo Roadside Restaurant • (559) 799-3665
41695 Sierra Dr., Three Rivers •