When it comes to existentialism, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have nothing on my university classmate Ron who would argue that the meaning of life is to ponder the meaning of life. In his ongoing analysis of existence, he can turn any subject into a philosophical debate. Once while enjoying a rack of ribs at Anjac’s BBQ in Gulfport, Mississippi, he actually pondered the essence of barbecue–to sauce or not to sauce, what is lamb’s place in barbecue, etc. While he pondered, I ate.
It appears my friend is not the only person who has contemplated the essence of barbecue. Meathead Goldwyn, the self-professed “barbecue whisperer and hedonism evangelist” believes “the seductive aroma and flavor of smoke is the essence of barbecue.” Author Rick Browne who has a “PhB” in barbecue argues that the essence of barbecue is the sauce, “the glorious thickened liquid (sometimes not-so-thickened) that we gleefully baste, mop and slop with.” William McKinney who co-authored Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue counters: “Sauce is fine and can perk up the meat, but the essence of barbecue lies in that process.” Los Angeles Times writer Charles Perry weighs in with “the essence of barbecue–a guy, a fire and a dead animal–is impervious to change.”
All of these answers are at least partially correct, but the true essence of barbecue may have been best defined by restaurateur Chris Schlesinger when he said “People spending time together while preparing food and eating – this is the essence of barbecue.” Not even the naysayers who lament the perceived absence of outstanding barbecue in the Land of Enchantment can argue that point.
Those naysayers should also cease and desist from any assertions they may have about the lack of enchantment in New Mexico’s barbecue. In the July, 2012 edition of New Mexico Magazine, contributing culinary editor Cheryl Alters Jamison listed four bastions of bodacious barbecue she really likes. Across the entire fruited plain, there is no one more credentialed than Cheryl when it comes to barbecue. She and equally credentialed husband Bill have authored several definitive books about barbecue, including Smoke & Spice: Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue, a James Beard award-winning tome. So, when Cheryl endorses a barbecue restaurant, it would behoove us all to listen attentively.
One of Cheryl’s favorite barbecue restaurants in New Mexico is the Ranch House in Santa Fe which she praised on her Tasting NM column for a menu which “covers the four major food groups–BBQ, New Mex, burgers and tater tots–and manages to excel at all.” With an endorsement like that from America’s premier smoke savant, you know it’s got to be great stuff. To ensure the essence of the barbecue experience, bring along several someones you love.
The Ranch House, which launched late in the year 2011, is a relative newcomer to New Mexico’s burgeoning barbecue scene, but it has a well-established pedigree. Before there was a Ranch House, there was Josh’s Barbecue, the eponymous brainchild of Josh Baum, a a graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, a Le Cordon Bleu affiliated school. Prior to owning and operating a barbecue restaurant, Josh’s spangled resume included tenure as sous chef at the Old House Restaurant under the tutelage of executive chef Martin Rios, a culinary icon in the City Different and beyond.
In many ways, the Ranch House is a “grown-up” and “grown-out” version of Josh’s Barbecue, now occupying a sprawling edifice that is several times larger than its predecessor. Its contemporary Southwest meets Wild West ambiance is cowboy cozy and homey yet opulent enough to pass as a Santa Fe-style high-end fine-dining establishment. A full bar, two large dining rooms and two capacious patios provide seating for dozens of hungry patrons while a comfortable lounge will ensure to their comfort should they have to wait for a table to come open. The Ranch House is situated about a mile south of the city’s westernmost exit to I-25. Interestingly one of its neighbors is the pseudo Australian Outback Steakhouse.
For savvy diners, there’s only one real option for magnificent meats in this corner of Northwest Santa Fe and it’s not the popular chain across the street. Members of the “chain gang” craving a steak will find their carnal needs sated by the Rancho House’s steak offerings. Smaller appetites can enjoy an all-natural choice New Mexico beef six-ounce top sirloin while hearty eaters might opt for the a fourteen-ounce Cowboy Cut Bone-in Ribeye served with roasted shallot bourbon butter, crispy onions, sautéed spinach and a baked potato. If torn between having New Mexican food or a steak, you can have them both in the form of a steak (six-ounce sirloin) and enchilada combination.
Five lunch specials are available during a lunch hour (11AM to 4PM) duration most of us can only dream about, but you can also choose from the entire menu at all hours of operation. Wines and champagne are available by the glass or bottle and there are eight beers on tap. Vegetarians aren’t completely left out thanks to several salad options as well as such sides as sautéed spinach, Brussels sprouts, baked potato, sweet potato fries, green chile cornbread, green chile slaw, tater tots and housemade potato chips. Only the pinto beans, which include brisket, should be eschewed by non-meat eaters.
10 June 2012: There are ten appetizers on the menu, but sometimes with addition comes subtraction. The Ranch House no longer offers Josh’s outstanding chile con queso with carne adovada, perhaps my favorite con queso in the entire state. All is not lost, however, because the smoked green chile queso with tortilla chips (Cheryl prefers the addictive tater tots) and green chile brisket is a worthy substitute. This is not your ballpark quality processed cheese glop, but a real cheese (Cheddar and Jack) infiltrated by smoked green chile that packs a punch. You’ll double that punch with the green chile brisket, a tangle of brisket tendrils marinated in green chile which will get your attention.
29 September 2013: Because that smoked green chile queso made such a tremendous impression during our inaugural visit, we had to have it again, albeit showcasing other elements. French fry fanatics will enjoy the Queso Waffle Fries, which pairs waffle fries with the smoked green chile queso and (for a pittance) your choice of pork, brisket or green chile brisket. This is a magnificently messy dish, one for which you’ll have to employ the use of a fork. The fries do become a bit mushy under all the cheese and pork, but they’re still quite good. The pork is shredded into delicious tendrils.
The Ranch House menu is a carnivore’s dream, a barbecue buff’s paradise and a burger fanatic’s fantasy land. Burgers are constructed from fresh, all-natural 100% ground chuck. A build-your-own option truly lets you have it your way starting with your choice of four different cheeses (Cheddar, bleu cheese, smoked Gouda, Pepper Jack). You can even ask for a gluten-free bun. The BBQ Burger is constructed with BBQ sauce, Cheddar, green chile and bacon. The burger everyone’s talking about is justifiably called the “Ultimate Burger,” a towering behemoth that includes BBQ sauce, Cheddar, green chile, bacon and a quarter-pound of pulled pork topped with green chile slaw.
Burger excellence not withstanding, barbecue is the reason most visit the Ranch House. Meats–brisket, pork, baby back ribs and chicken–are prepared low-and-slow over Texas brown oak. As with all great barbecue, sauce is wholly unnecessary though the restaurant’s sauces ameliorate, not overpower, the natural flavors of the smoked meats. Where Josh’s Barbecue rotated several sauces (including a transformative apricot-jalapeño sauce) which were served in plastic bottles, the Ranch House offers only three: mild, hot and red chile-honey. The latter is a winner with a just-right combination of sweet and piquant flavors. Fittingly, the music piped in from Josh’s iPod is a playlist of classic country music favorites.
10 June 2013: The Red Chile Honey Glazed Smoked Half Chicken Plate showcases the sauce in all its glistening crimson glory. The sauce is drizzled on the half chicken (wing, leg, breast and thigh), but not to the extent that it overwhelms the delicate flavor profile of the moist, tender poultry. Neither does the smoke which is discernible, but not overly powerful. This is competition quality barbecue chicken, the best I’ve had since the defunct, much missed Mad Max’s BBQ in Rio Rancho.
10 June 2013: A rack of beef spare ribs, a Sunday special offered on the day of our inaugural visit lives up to its label of “special,” but it’s so good, you’ll wish it had a permanent place on the menu. These ribs are so meaty you probably won’t be able to finish more than half (six) of the rack. That just means you’ll have a half-dozen remaining for later. These ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and are sans the annoying membrane often left on smoked ribs.
10 June 2013: Entrees from the smoker are served with ranch house beans, tater tots, slaw and the restaurant’s signature green chile cornbread. The green chile cornbread is outstanding with just the right density–not too flaky and not too dense. It has buttery undertones and a sweet profile punctuated by the piquancy of green chile flecks. A perfect complement is the green chile coleslaw which Cheryl describes as “a lip-smacking side dish for any summer meal.” The coleslaw is light on salad cream and heavy on flavor.
29 September 2013: During our second visit, we made a concerted effort not to have barbecue, an effort requiring a lot of willpower, but one well rewarded. Considering the quality of the barbecue, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Ranch House prepares outstanding steak! In the ten-ounce New York Strip Steak, my Kim enjoyed a sumptuous slab of meat, one she enjoyed as much, if not more, than a costlier steak at a swanky steakhouse scant days previous. The steak is prepared with a shallot-bourbon butter which imbues it with moistness and deliciousness at a medium degree of doneness. It’s a tender steak with nice marbling and an excellent flavor. Accompaniment for this meaty masterpiece is equally excellent: crispy onions, calabasitas and a baked potato. Especially noteworthy are the calabasitas, perhaps the very best we’ve had at any restaurant.
29 September 2013: In May, 2013, a 105-year-old Texas woman and mother of seven who toiled in physical labor for much of her life revealed the secret to her longevity: bacon. She loves bacon and eats it every day. That’s as good advice as dispensed by some cardiologists. A unique way to enjoy bacon is in the form of the Ranch House’s BBQ Pork Belly Tacos, three warm corn tortillas engorged with thick, smoky bacon slathered in apple cider BBQ and topped by green chile slaw. Pork belly tacos are an idea whose time has come. They’re better than any fish tacos we’ve had in the Land of Enchantment.
29 September 2013: The dessert menu includes several must-try options though it’s conceivable you might not have room for a post-meal sweet-treat. Cheryl recommends the banana bread pudding which would also be the my choice of my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with a perspicacious palate. No ordinary bread pudding is this. It’s a chocolate-banana bread pudding made from chocolate brioche, walnuts and rum chocolate sauce topped with whipped cream. Served warm, it’s a dense yet spongy bread pudding with a lot going on.
10 June 2012: A more whimsical dessert is the Ranch House’s Caramel Sundae (vanilla ice cream served with homemade caramel sauce, honey caramel popcorn and a chopped chocolate peanut confection). As sundaes go, this is a very good one with ingredients you don’t often see together. Both from a textural and flavor perspective, it’s an inventive, yet playful dessert we enjoyed very much.
If the closing of Josh’s Barbecue warranted flying a barbecue apron at half mast, the launch of the Ranch House warrants a full rack salute…or an existential discourse from my friend Ron who would certainly ponder the green chile on that cornbread.
The Ranch House
2571 Cristos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 September 2013
1st VISIT: 10 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Smoked Green Chile Queso with Tortilla Chips and Green Chile Brisket, Red Chile Honey Glazed Smoked Half Chicken Plate, Beef Spare Ribs, Caramel Sundae, Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding, BBQ Pork Belly Tacos, NY Strip Steak, Queso Waffle Fries