by Alan Thomas
John Bemesderfer is used to growing things. From farming to parenting to raising pigs with his wife's uncle, he knows how to put in the hard work and thoughtful care to bring an idea to fruition. An experienced restaurant worker with a childhood spent in the kitchen with his aunts, he'd thought about opening an eating establishment before. Then, a couple years ago, he watched along with the rest of the community as the former site of the highly popular Mexican restaurant in Philo—Libby's—received an extensive makeover. Combine that with encouragement from friends and family, and John made up his mind to open the Poleeko Roadhouse.
When locals learned of John's intentions, an anticipation took hold that bordered on impatience for those of us who had already tasted John's cooking. Opening a restaurant takes time, and all we could do was wait as the lengthy list of permits and regulations were applied for and attended to. In the meantime, we remembered the home-raised pork dishes John has served up at parties and local community events, as well as his pop up Asian food night in Boonville a few years ago, inspired by his wife Regine's fried rice, where he sold 94 meals in 40 minutes.
Like so many life dreams, the restaurant idea took root long before John had even heard of Philo, California. John was raised in West Virginia by his father and two aunts on the family farm, 150 acres on the edge of the Ohio River. They grew a mix of dairy cattle, row crops, and 100 acres of alfalfa. From the age of ten, John worked the hay fields and remembers those river-flooded bales as the heaviest he's ever lifted.
As the youngest in his pack of cousins by four years, John was often left behind as the older kids went out to have their fun. Consequently, he spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his aunts as they prepared large family dinners. One of his earliest memories is picking turkey meat off a carcass to make stock, then later rolling out the handmade noodles and cutting them with an electric carving knife for turkey noodle soup.
With all of his fingers still intact, John graduated high school and went straight into the Navy. He got to travel the world as a Bosun's mate on the USS Enterprise, a photo of which sits above the bar in the restaurant. Correspondence courses at sea helped him further his education, and at 24 he left the Navy and entered college in Arizona as a junior. He loved world history and thought he'd teach high school, but after a stint as a substitute teacher—wearing a tie daily and getting worn down by both the kids’ attitudes and their sometimes heartbreaking home problems—it became apparent that teaching was not the career path for him.
In high school, John had worked as a dishwasher in local restaurants. Later, he tended bar when he could and worked as a line cook while on leave from the Navy to supplement his low pay. His unstoppable work ethic and versatile skills meant he could pick up shifts wherever he was, be it the Tap House in Norfolk, Virginia (where he was stationed in the Navy), the Kingfisher restaurant in Tucson, Arizona or, as it was known locally, Bob's Eat and Get the Hell Out Grill in Nagshead, North Carolina. In college he worked in carpentry on the weekends. As his father said, if you can cook or tend bar and also know carpentry, you'll always make a living. When things are good there'll be plenty of building work, and when times are hard, folks need a drink!
Work in construction brought John to Santa Cruz. It was a great scene for his 20s, but in his 30s it felt a little too fast-paced, and there was no way he was going to be able to afford a home. Ready for something else, he helped a friend move to Anderson Valley for a summer job. He stuck around for the season, and when the time came for his friend to head back, John took a look around, liked what he saw, and decided to stay.
The fact was the rolling green (at least in spring) hills covered in oaks, as well as the easygoing community, reminded John of growing up in West Virginia. At first he worked construction in the valley and around the county, building high end homes for the contractor whose niece John would later marry. He began raising pigs—Mangalitsa and Mangalitsa cross breeds, a Hungarian pig with wool-like hair, known for its flavor and good marbling. He catered a friend's wedding, as well as his own to wife Regine, then later he was hired to do hog roasts and bbqs at the Not-So-Simple Living Fair and various AV Wine Association events. From this "hobby" came a joint venture with his uncle-in-law, Jim Boudoures, and Mendocino Heritage Pork Company (MHPC) was born. Together they raise and sell free range pork to restaurants and locals alike, who purchase the meat by the quarter pig, half pig, or whole pig.
When the restaurant opportunity materialized, John and Regine paid considerable attention to the type of eatery they wanted to offer. They wanted to serve high quality food at a price that locals could afford, and they wanted to minimize the number of outside suppliers, keeping food sources as local as possible. Other than their own Mendocino Heritage Pork Company, the restaurant uses two purveyors: one for meat and one for produce. Regine travels to the coast to pick up fresh fish off the boats, so the fish tacos and the fish and chips are as fresh as can be.
The menu is concise and diverse, with Hawaiian, Asian, and even Indian dishes showing up on the menu beside the "country cooking" entrees. Breakfast options include homemade biscuits and gravy, as well as fresh egg dishes with hand cut country potatoes, and a memorable corned beef hash adorned with egg and gravy. Dinner starters include six Rocky Chicken wings in a housemade, sticky ponzu sauce and Dungeness crab cakes on baby greens with a garlic aioli and chili sauce.
The entrees usually include at least one MHPC product including my personal favorite, the Farm Burger. Unlike a regular beef hamburger (named after the German City of Hamburg where it was first created), this burger is a ham(pork)burger. The ground pork is mixed with peppers and mushrooms and topped with smoked bacon, served on a rustic roll with cheddar and homemade pickles. Accompanied by hand cut fries and coleslaw, this popular burger contains a depth of flavor that keeps me coming back. Regine's House Fried Rice with either pork, chicken, or veggies has also become the best seller—after all, as John says, almost everyone likes Chinese food. You'll usually find these dishes alongside Jay's World Famous Ribs, house smoked using local hardwoods, and the fresh local Rock Cod and Chips. Personally, I've not made it to the dessert menu as I'm usually fully satiated at this point— the portions are very generous!—although I'm reliably informed by my wife and kids that they're equally good!
The Poleeko Roadhouse is most definitely a family affair. Regine takes care of the administrative work for the restaurant, placing food and beverage orders with the purveyors, prepping in the kitchen, and making the coast runs for fresh fish. After school, the bus drops off their three boys—Noah, Cyrus and Sam—at the restaurant, where they grab a little family time before Regine takes the boys home and John takes the helm for the evening.
When asked what have been the highs and lows to date, John ran off a list of things that I found quite telling, both of him as a restaurant proprietor and as a father. One highlight occurred when he found himself talking at the bar with an Indian couple from San Francisco visiting the valley for the weekend. The woman, Shafali, was 8 months pregnant, and the conversation turned to John's love of Indian food. John said he'd love to take a culinary course at some point in order to improve his skills cooking Indian cuisine, and the next day Shafali turned up and proceeded to spend the next three hours teaching him how to make chicken curry the way her grandmother taught her, including chapati (thick Indian bread). He's served it a few times—look for Shafali's Chicken Curry on the menu—and they've stayed in touch.
Regarding the lows, John did not even stop for a second before stating he missed having the time to take the boys fishing. It's gone from twice a week before the restaurant opened to only once over the entire 2018 summer! Of course, there are more restaurant-based worries, like how do you forecast the size of crowds you're going to get and the challenge of managing staff, but I just love the fact that it was family that came up first!
On the ride home, I turned to my 13 year old daughter and said, "You're getting to grow up amongst some really great people. I could listen to his stories for hours." As the conversation had lasted longer than her teen-age patience, she sarcastically replied, "We just have!"
8651 Highway 128, Philo, CA (707) 895-7427 | poleekoroadhouse.godaddysites.com
Open for breakfast and lunch Fri – Sun, dinner Wed –Sun
You can purchase local, free range, GMO-free pork by the quarter hog through Mendocino Heritage Pork Company. Call 707 376 5563 to order.
Alan Thomas lives in Boonville. He has a small homestead where he raises livestock and a pair of kids with his wife. He enjoys making a good meal almost as much as eating one. p15 photo by Mimi Giboin Photography; p16 door handle photo