You don’t have to be Patsy Montana to have a rip-roaring good time or great meal at Cowgirl BBQ, a jumping joint in the Bohemian Guadalupe District renowned for its festive ambiance, raucous nighttime entertainment and inviting summertime patio. Launched on June 1, 1993 as The Cowgirl Hall of Fame, this bustling restaurant quickly became a popular good time venue, garnering a reputation for its margaritas, nachos, barbecue and more. It’s still going strong more than twenty years later.
Known today solely as Cowgirl BBQ, this quaint restaurant celebrates Cowgirls thematically and attitudinally. A portrait library is replete with photographs of National Cowgirl Hall of Fame honorees while the walls feature memorabilia which celebrates the Great American west and the cowgirl. The female wait staff is nattily attired in tight-fitting jeans and western accoutrements such as bandanas and high-crowned, wide-brimmed straw hats. In an episode of $40 A Day on the Food Network, Rachael Ray called it “Girl Power.”
If you want to catch the nightly musical entertainment, the outdoor patio, weather permitted, is your best bet, but whether you dine indoors or out, you’re bound to catch some of the “City Different’s” different characters. Cowgirl’s is one of the city’s best “people watching” restaurants, a milieu in which office attire, grunge clothing, skiing ensemble and western regalia seem equally in fashion.
As for the cuisine, Cowboys and Indians magazine once proclaimed Cowgirl’s barbecue the “best barbecue west of the Mississippi.” After twice being underwhelmed by the barbecue sampler platter (ribs, chicken, brisket, potato salad, coleslaw), we wouldn’t go nearly that far. While the meats have a pronounced smoky taste and are terrifically tender, the lip-pursing vinegar-based sauce is applied too generously.
We’ve actually enjoyed the BBQ beef on a bun much more than we have the platter. This sandwich features shredded smoked beef brisket marinated in the aforementioned sassy sauce, but not quite so liberally applied. It’s one of the better barbecue sandwiches we’ve enjoyed in Santa Fe, but hardly the most incendiary. That honor would go to a pulled pork BBQ sandwich simmered in a spicy Salsa Diablo BBQ sauce made with incendiary habanero peppers and piled into a Kaiser roll. In an episode of the Food Network’s “Heat Seekers” program, hosts Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking tested their masochistic mettle by sampling some of the city’s most piquant plates. The pulled pork BBQ sandwich proved too much for the celebrity chef stars. Fire-eating New Mexicans will fare better with this salsa.
Cowgirl’s menu has something for everyone including several excellent starters. The nachos are inventive and delicious–with generous dollops of sour cream, guacamole and salsa, two kinds of melted cheese (a white Mexican queso and an American longhorn) and black olives atop blue- and yellow-corn tortilla chips. You can also ask for shredded barbecue beef as a topper to this mountainous mélange, which in February, 2006 was named by the Wall Street Journal as among the fifteen best nachos in America. El Pinto’s in Albuquerque was the only other New Mexico restaurant on this exclusive list.
Another excellent starter is the cabeza de ajo, two heads of roasted garlic planted beside an island of melted jack cheese with tomatillo salsa and toasted baguettes. Extricating the garlic cloves from the steaming hot garlic head is a chore, but the results are quite good. Top a toasted baguette with a dollop of cheese, a sweet garlic clove or two and some of the tangy tomatillo and you’ve got three potent flavors competing for your rapt attention. Add a little of the Salsa Diablo to kick it up a notch or ten.
In commemoration of its 20th anniversary, Cowgirl BBQ created a green chile cheeseburger which by its very name implies (according to Wikipedia) “the largest or most significant example of a class, which completely overshadows all other cases in the class.” Called “The Mother of all Green Chile Cheeseburgers,” it’s a pricy behemoth just north of ten dollars. The burger is crafted from a “top secret” blend of black Angus, antibiotic and hormone-free, grass-fed, grain-finished, custom-ground beef, locally raised buffalo and applewood smoked bacon grilled to your exacting specifications and served in a pretzel bun with melted brie, chopped green chile, a slice of heirloom tomato and a drizzle of truffle oil. Just ask for “Mother!”
This burger is aptly named. It is surprisingly good, one of the few green chile cheeseburgers to truly distinguish itself from so many other great ones. One of the difference-makers is the pretzel bun baked on the premises as are other sandwich breads and buns. The pretzel bun is both soft and chewy as well as savory and sweet and an excellent canvas for moist ingredients. The beef is magnificent. You won’t want it prepared at any more than medium to maximize its moistness. The green chile includes a smattering of roasted red chile which has an entirely different flavor profile altogether. The burger is served with hand-cut truffle oil fries. Forget ketchup and dip them in the Salsa Diablo.
Red, orange and yellow flames denote items–such as chiles and the jerk sauce–on the menu which are spicy…or at least they are for tourists. For New Mexicans, those items are pleasantly piquant plus–hot enough to get our attention, but not so piquant that they water our eyes. One of the most surprising entrees on Cowgirl’s spicy-hot scale is the Jerk Chicken Platter, two char-grilled chicken breasts marinated in a spicy-hot Jamaican Jerk BBQ sauce and served with rice and beans (the accommodating wait staff may allow substitutions such as a loaded (chives, shredded cheese, sour cream, butter and salsa) baked potato.
The chicken breasts are thin, but perfectly char-grilled with lovely grill stripes running vertically. My Chicago born-and-bred Kim isn’t quite as enamored of esophagus eating spices and heat, so she asks for the jerk sauce on the side (which leaves plenty of side for me to use as a dip for everything else I can get my hands on). Jerk, by the way doesn’t refer to an obnoxious person or member of Congress, but is a derivative of “jerky,” a preserved meat. The sauce includes a melding of flavorful and piquant spices including Scotch bonnet peppers (among the most piquant in the world), allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and more. The sauce has a spicy kick with an offset of sweetness. This is a very good rendition of Jerk Chicken.
Dessert offerings include pastel tres leches, the wonderful Mexican tort made with three types of milk. Cowgirl’s version isn’t quite as moist as other tres leches cake we’ve had, but is served with a rich cream and tart strawberries that made up for its lack of moistness somewhat. A better option is the flourless chocolate cake with chile served with a side of vanilla ice cream, a dollop of housemade whipped cream and a drizzle of chile-infused chocolate sauce. The combination of adult chocolate and red chile is one of life’s great pleasures, a dessert that doesn’t have the cloying qualities that rot your teeth at the mere mention.
Restaurants come and go and trends change with the times, but with two decades of making Santa Fe customers happy, the Cowgirl BBQ appears to have staying power. Moreover, it’s got a very interesting and diverse menu that makes every dining experience seem like the first time you dined there.
312 South Guadalupe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: BBQ Beef, BBQ Sampler, Chicken Fajitas, Nachos, The Mother of All Green Chile Cheeseburgers, Jerk Chicken Platter, Cabeza De Ajo, Salsa Diablo, Flourless Chocolate Cake with Chile, Pastel Tres Leches