This is the tale of The Meat Locker. It’s a barbecue joint located in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a once-upon-a-time small town swallowed up by development in Ventura County, a 2,200-square mile stretch of forests, grassland and beachfront southeast of Los Angeles — and a population approaching a million people. Despite the suburban-style sprawl, it’s home to everything from snow-capped mountains where bears, cougars and bobcats still roam to sun-kissed beachfront property where multi-millionaires can be seen in their natural habitat.
Ventura County is where you’ll find the town of Simi Valley, notorious as the site of the Rodney King trial, less so as the home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. More recently, Ventura County is where the LA Rams football team is mimicking much of the rest of America: They’re recent migrants from some cold, dreary Midwestern city lured out West by the prospect of getting rich in the Golden State.
The Rams are training for the upcoming NFL season on the practice fields at River Ridge in Oxnard, some 15 miles east of Thousand Oaks, which means that the team’s roster of very large men needs some local restaurants to fuel their off-season workouts.
A recent story in the Ventura County Star, titled, “Getting to the Meat of the Matter with the LA Rams” — hey, who gave them permission to use my tagline? — speculated that a couple high-end steakhouses in Oxnard would be likely destinations for hungry Rams.
But a tweet last week from Rams offensive lineman Jamon Brown that read, “Hungry!! What’s something good to eat in Thousand Oaks?” triggered multiple shout outs for the Meat Locker. As the article noted, “One fan even gave directions,” which leads to the restaurant’s backstory.
By the way? Brown stands 6’4” and tips the scales at 323 pounds (suggested playing weight), so he’s clearly a man in need of a heapin’ helping of healthy protein.
The Meat Locker first opened in the late 1950s — as an actual meat locker, a butcher shop that, legend has it, was the destination for cattle from Reagan’s Santa Ynez Valley ranch, where the two-term president was frequently photographed cutting firewood. In a plot twist straight out of “House of Cards,” the owner and head butcher, Bruce Oxford, was good friends with The Gipper, despite their political differences.
Decades later, the Meat Locker no longer butchers cattle; there’s not many left on the ranch lands that are now covered with ranch houses. But as the article stated, “The (very) casual restaurant has plenty of timeworn charm to make the [football players] feel right at home.”
As is true with many far more pretentious eateries, the walls of The Meat Locker are covered with “framed magazine covers and head shots of the athletes, TV stars, and other celebrities from the days before selfies replaced autographs.”
Wait — there are celebrities other than actors and athletes?
The restaurant’s current co-owner, Bruce’s daughter-in-law Robin Oxford, noted that Reagan hung out at The Meat Locker while awaiting the election returns in his 1966 bid for California governor, which he won convincingly on his way to the White House 14 years later.
And it was during Reagan’s White House years that the restaurant switched from butchery to barbecuing, along with a catering sideline that delivers its specialties to large groups of people, along with the large portions served to very large athletes.
For instance, The Meat Locker sells an entrée called the Manly Man Combination (see photo). For just $12.25 (tax and tip not included), you get a tri-tip sandwich containing a half-pound of sliced-to-order barbecued beef paired a choice of two sides.
And if you’re someone with the appetite, if not the physique, of an offensive lineman, you can add some a la carte selections to supplement your Manly Man Combo, including hot link sandwiches, or maybe a full rack of pork ribs ($18.50) or an order of Uncle Bum’s chicken (only $12.75 a pound).
So did Brown and his teammates follow the tweets urging them to hit The Meat Locker after leaving their locker room?
“I haven’t seen any Rams players,” Oxford told The Ventura County Star, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if some came by. It’s real food, no fluff.”
Which, unfortunately, is the opposite of the aspirations and lifestyles of most contemporary Californians.
Thankfully, there are still restaurants like The Meat Locker where, along with your meal, you can enjoy a hearty serving of two things people these days seem determined to ignore: history and heritage.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator