At the gates, a constellation of lights dangles overhead from signs advertising treats and tchotchkes. A sonic barrage of classic pop obliterates conversation as soon as it leaves the mouth, so the crowd simply stares ahead, endorphins surging in rhythm. Scents — butter, dough, sugar, smoke — start to mingle, and soon, we are starving. It is 10:30 a.m.
This is the entrance to Six Flags Magic Mountain, the amusement park and tourist landmark on the edge of the Santa Clarita Valley. Since its opening in 1971, it has become the premier destination for the adventurous children of parents hoping to avoid a more exhausting (and expensive) trip to Anaheim or Buena Park.
Growing up in this city meant spending dozens of birthdays at “Magic” in my youth, as it still does for many thousands of visitors annually. It also meant eating my weight in what the park calls “all-American fare” — usually a mélange of fast foods and sweets that damaged my parents’ pocketbooks — several times a year. Since time immemorial, it has been both a thrill seeker’s mecca and a health-conscious gourmet’s nightmare.
But a visit to the park this fall, my first in half a decade, revealed a fascinating evolution from the Six Flags of my childhood.
On clear display throughout the 262-acre property is a freshly blossomed ambition: to revamp and elevate the park’s cuisine from biologically mandated drudgery to something more delightful. Some of the dishes that have sprung up in this effort even flirt — go ahead, gasp! — with excellence.
Among the best of these are new lunch options at places like Ace O’Clubs, a barbecue joint named for a bar in the comic book city of Metropolis. The restaurant, since opening in July, has doubled down on Southern-style plates that required big jumps in both quality and price point. This is something of a gamble for a destination known primarily for its quesadillas and chicken strips, but it pays off handsomely.
Baby back pork ribs in a Memphis-style sauce compare favorably to those at Backwoods Inn and Lucille’s Smokehouse, two of Santa Clarita’s many rib destinations. Ace O’Clubs doesn't go overboard with the sauce; the downside is that too little is left to mop up with the gigantic hunk of cornbread served on the side.
The true star, however, is a tri-tip sandwich served with house-baked kettle chips. Christopher Parker, the culinary services manager at Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor, told me that creating the marinade and finding employees able to make it was unprecedented in its difficulty. To park-goers, it was worth the effort.
Given the mammoth portions of these meals, a walk was necessary before climbing on the rides in Metropolis (take it from a former Austinite: The only thing worse than meat sweats is dealing with them on roller coasters). Leaving the district for dinner was a nonstarter, since another July-born venue, the Metro Park Pub, offers the most diverse of the park’s culinary experiments.
This is where the tension really plays out: how to balance the needs of modern eaters — artisanal beer craving, sustainably minded — with those who expect the greased and battered fare of a bygone era?
One solution is to keep standards like fish and chips, fried green beans and nachos on the menu but beautify them: The cod is now beer-battered and served with house-made sriracha ketchup; the green beans are tempura-ed; and nachos are topped with pulled pork.
As Parker put it, “We have a long way to go.” True, perhaps, but better late than never.