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Road-Trip: Pappy and Harriet’s

I'm the last human in Southern California to visit Pappy & Harriet's
Photo courtesy of Pappy and Harriet's

By Troy Johnson

Shouldn’t he be dead?

That’s what I remember thinking in grade school, watching footage of Neil Armstrong step on the moon. That’s a frozen ball of death dust. There’s no oxygen, no plant life, no water, just a whole lot of lunar chalk and ways to perish. Without his shiny oxygen suit, the air would be sucked out of Armstrong’s lungs, his body would freeze like a TV dinner, and he’d be hurtled into the black drain of the Milky Way.

It’s the same feeling I get in Joshua Tree. There’s something about a place this dead that makes you feel acutely alive. You grow hungrier, thirstier, more alert against predators of all sorts (rattlesnakes, dehydration, influencers). Every sense is heightened because survival isn’t such a sure thing anymore. Even the shade is dusty and abusive. This place is for lizards, and only human ingenuity, central AC, and REI make it livable for periods at a time.

Maybe that’s what makes Pappy & Harriet’s such a salvation. In the desert, there are times when even old, hot car water sounds refreshing. So a dark, cool place like P&H—serving craft beer, darkness, margaritas, darkness, live music, darkness, and properly smoked organic barbecue, and darkness—feels like a good neighborhood in the afterlife.

It’s my first time at Pappy’s, which makes me the least hip desert tourist on earth. I also heard there’s a party nearby where they burn a man. I’ll look into it.

The bar first opened in 1946 as The Cantina, 11 miles up a windy road from Joshua Tree in a place called Pioneertown. They filmed Hollywood westerns in the dirt here. John Wayne sauntered racistly for the camera. Gene Autry crooned as he shot a man who couldn’t sing as well. Now they sell ceramics and art in the old movie sets. You can watch shoot-‘em-up shows with live actors on weekends, pet some goats and chickens.

In 1982 it was renamed Pappy & Harriet’s. Owner “Pappy” Allen died 12 years later. Lots of great musicians showed up in tribute, including Lucinda Williams. Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz have owned it for 16 years now. They’re originally from New York. People from New York thrive in places not suited for human life.

From the Joshua Tree Inn (country troubadour Gram Parsons died in Room 8, and now it’s become a charming, hip, albeit morbid destination for music lovers), our taxi is 40-something bucks each way. Our driver explains they’re putting in water lines to Pioneertown. Once that happens, he says, it’s all over. Makes it sound like Pioneertown will become New Vegas, which seems tragic and romantic and a tad exaggerated. He also tells me not to drink the water in Pioneertown. Not sure if he’s basing this on solid research, but I always heed locals’ advice on water.

It’s my first time at Pappy’s, which makes me the least hip desert tourist on earth. I also heard there’s a party nearby where they burn a man. I’ll look into it.

Expect to wait at Pappy & Harriet’s. We show up at 5:30 p.m., put our name on the list, and are seated at 8 p.m. It’s especially packed this weekend, due to a desert-rock festival. P&H is the Hodad’s of the desert; there’s always a line. Their slogan is, “If you’re in a rush, you’re in the wrong place.”

The L-shaped bar is a good purgatory. It’s not like you’re missing anything. The Joshua trees will still be out there, looking like the shaggy, unshaven, un-killable trees that they are—a cross between a palm and Keith Richards’ liver. There’s room out back on the picnic tables, some shaded, some exposed to the murderous desert sun. The smoke from their grill wafts right through you out there. Tomorrow, you will smell like meat smoke and the Maillard reaction, which is not a proven aphrodisiac but I’m betting science reaches that conclusion eventually. Dust accumulates in the foam in your beer, though if you give a damn you should’ve gone to Laguna.

P&H’s food has an unfair advantage, because drunk people will eat burritos off carpet and claim it’s their lord and savior. And with a long wait and a wall of whiskeys, we see lots of diners wobble to their seats.

But P&H’s food is good, no matter how swollen and happy your cells may be. We order their famed Santa Maria tri-tip (all their meats are organic). Tri-tip is to Southern California what brisket is to central Texas—our signature backyard meat. Pappy’s is as advertised, juicy and well-seasoned, char and smoke and caramelized proteins. A side of garlic mashed potatoes with gravy is the legwarmers of food, idiosyncratically 1980s, and terribly delicious. The salad is fresh and the blue cheese is either housemade (chunky, fresh) or doctored or some of the best jar sauce around. The mac ‘n’ cheese is creamy but not too much so, a nice little grain of cheese to its smooth cheese jazz. Our ribeye is pretty basic, a little under-seasoned. Might skip that.

Dust accumulates in the foam in your beer, though if you give a damn you should’ve gone to Laguna.

We can’t see the stage as Sara Petite and her band start playing. She sounds twangy and great, like a pair of overalls that can sing soprano. There’s a wall of some sort that separates the “stage room” in two, blocking the view of those in the back. I wish that wall wasn’t there. I’m sure P&H feels the same. It probably serves a function, like making sure the roof doesn’t fall.

Like I said, it’s dark in here. This is a house of rock ‘n’ roll and meat. Barbecue likes the darkness. Rock people like the darkness. And anyone exposed to the desert sun and wind and dust and lack of moisture likes a dark little oasis like this.

My best advice: Watch their concert calendar like a hawk. There’s some truly good music being made live here. Soon as one pops up you wanna see, book a table. Be sure to ask the staff for a table with a view of the stage.

Pappy & Harriet’s, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown.

Road-Trip: Pappy and Harriet’s

Photo courtesy of Pappy and Harriet’s

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