Steam kettle cooking is a rarity, but that’s part of the novelty behind The Boiler in Chino Hills, Calif. The main attraction is the wonderful tasting signature dishes that focus heavily on Cajun creole seafood entrees. Many of these creations were carryovers from the popular Oyster Bar at the Palace Station hotel in Las Vegas where former Boiler Executive Chef Michael Ritter worked for two decades. Chef Ritter left The Boiler to open his own steam kettle cooking restaurant, but his recipes remained behind. As such, The Boiler attracts customers from all over who don’t want to make the trek to Las Vegas for this unique flavor.
Located in The Commons at Chino Hills shopping center, The Boiler is a relatively small space for such a popular restaurant. The seating situation inside is uncomfortable since the steam kettle kitchen takes up the majority of the room. There’s also a medium-sized beer and wine bar that goes largely unused, which also takes up valuable space. Estimating roughly, the restaurant can possibly manage serving 50 guests at one time, well below the maximum occupancy for the building. Large parties should think twice about celebrating here.
Nevertheless, the interior is cheery and inviting. It’s hard not to be immediately drawn to the marble counter in the center of the restaurant where the dishes are prepared since the steam kettles are such an oddity to behold. And behind the kettles are usually one or two cooks who are busy running from kettle to kettle, pouring in ingredients or pouring out dishes, while maintaining friendly banter with guests who are curious about how the setup works.
Steam Kettle Cooking
A giant boiler in the back kitchen turns water into superheated steam, which is piped to the front kitchen’s jacketed steam kettles, which in turn get as hot as 280-degrees. This method offers a very even way of cooking and, since the dishes are boiled, it’s very hard to overcook something. The result is a consistent product for customers.
Guests who don’t want to sit at the counter or just prefer a traditional dining experience away from all the hustle and bustle of the kitchen can sit at any of the small tables that hug the walls. Diners can also sit at the bar, but that can feel detached since those seats basically face a wall. Three large TVs are mounted to three walls respectively and are usually tuned silently to a sporting event, while overhead, pop-music rains down, but not obnoxiously so.
The menu is a respectable size, offering enough to fill out the courses while being limited enough to ensure the kitchen can focus on making a handful of very good entrees. Appetizers include choices like, shrimp cocktail, steamed clams or mussels, bacon-wrapped shrimp and more. Salads and soups are more limited with basic salads or choices of New England or Manhattan clam chowder. It’s the main course where the menu shines, offering mouthwatering options, like étouffée, gumbo, shrimp diablo and more. The creamy Pan Roasts are what diners drive from hours away for, however, which feature a tomato cream based sauce and are loaded with trinity and an assortment of seafood, like lobster, shrimp and crab. Or they can focus on a single seafood, if a guest desires. Finally, since Cajun spice is a theme for the restaurant, diners can customize the heat level of their entrees from 0 to 10. Having tried 10 before, I can tell you that it’s hot, but not unmanageable.
My guest and I visited on a slow Monday night and the restaurant was expectedly dead. We started with Cajun Calamari ($7.95), which is lightly floured, deep-fried in Cajun spices and served with a small plastic ramekin of cocktail sauce with a dollop of horseradish. The calamari was cut from steaks and was largely tasteless, but the breading was competent and made the dish edible. Nevertheless, this is not a recommended appetizer.
First course consisted of the Caesar Salad ($5.75) for my guest and a bowl of New England Clam Chowder ($4.95) for myself. The salad was disappointing mediocrity, with its store-bought dressing and parmesan powder instead of shavings. The soup, on the other hand, was a delight and a highlight of the meal. It’s warm and hearty, full of delicious, fresh ingredients, and it hits the spot on a cold evening.
For entrees, my guest ordered the House Pan Roast ($19.55) and I ordered the Shrimp Scampi ($16.55), which consists of prawns in a white wine sauce over linguini. The House Pan Roast never fails to satisfy. While it tastes a little different from the days of Chef Ritter, it’s still understandable why hungry diners travel over an hour to be here. The dish looks unassuming enough with its simple presentation featuring a scoop of white rice on top of a sea of red sauce, but one bite will have any diner reeling from the confluence of flavors. Best of all, the portion is so generous that the average person could easily take half away and eat it the next day. The Shrimp Scampi was also delicious, though not as ostentatious as the Pan Roast. It also isn’t as hearty, but is still excellently portioned.
Dessert offerings aren’t much; in fact, I don’t know that The Boiler has ever offered anything beyond a small, personal Crème Brûlée ($4.75), so we ordered that. The custard was competent, but a little too chilled, muting the flavor. Unfortunately, whoever caramelized the sugar on top held the torch too long, burning the sugar and tainting each spoonful with a bitter flavor. It’s probably best to pass on dessert and visit a nearby yogurt shop.
Service has never been a strength of The Boiler. The wait-staff, while friendly, are young and inexperienced. They don’t appear trained on coursing, so they don’t gauge when to send for the next course and instead simply wait for guests to completely finish their current one. This means there is always downtime after soups, salads and appetizers. They could also stand to patrol their stations better. More often than not, guests will have to wave their servers over for assistance of any kind. Admittedly, however, the layout of the restaurant doesn’t help when the central counter seating blocks the view of the lower elevated tables. Still, subpar service must be identified, and on this particular evening our server had completely forgotten our takeaway leftovers until we reminded her.
Even more disappointing is the kitchen staff since they should know better. Not only will they constantly forget guest modifications to dishes, but some of their ideas about food are absurd. On a separate occasion I tried the Fisherman’s Chowder ($19.55), which is basically New England or Manhattan clam chowder, but with a whole lot of other seafood thrown into the mix. The cooks have actually cut crab legs into pieces, leaving the shell on, and tossed the pieces into the soup, expecting guests to somehow shell the crab with just a spoon. Even more bizarre are the sealed clams left in this dish. When I asked the cook about them, he assured me that the restaurant buys them that way and that they were safe to eat. I was waiting for him to say more and I looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t, so I asked the obvious question, “How do I open it?” He looked back at me as if this was the first time any of his guests had asked this question, and then he went to the back of the kitchen and returned with a bread plate, a lemon fork and a teaspoon. I looked at the tools he presented and then at the sealed clam covered in chowder and wondered how this was a solution. Since I have never had to open my own clam before, I looked up a video on my phone to show me the way.
Can you imagine trying to do this with a slimy clam and a teaspoon? Or a lemon fork for that matter? If I had been feeling a little feistier, I would have asked the cook to show me how it was done with the equipment he gave me, but he was busy and he seemed like a nice enough guy.
The Boiler is lucky. It is a perpetual novelty because there are no other local restaurants that offer the same dishes, food preparation or visual engagement. Knowing that, it seems like the restaurant doesn’t really care about improving anything else, because they’re happy enough with the seemingly guaranteed patronage. Overall, the food is good and nothing that the restaurant does poorly is bad enough to drive customers away. If you’re a diner that can put up with glaring flaws, then The Boiler will offer you a unique culinary experience.
The Boiler The Commons at Chino Hills 4665 Chino Hills Parkway Chino Hills, CA 91709 (909) 597-9098