Like the official slogan of the Texas Department of Tourism, the back side of the mountains may as well be “like a whole other country” to some urban dwelling Duke City residents. Behind the Manzano mountains there exists a rural supra-culture of people who seem more comfortable in their own skin than their urban neighbors fewer than 20 miles away, people not as weighed down by the stresses and pretensions of the dog-eat-dog world.
These folks congregate at the Ponderosa Steakhouse where Wrangler jeans, ten gallon hats, tank tops and Cowboy boots are commonplace but shorts are not; where scruffy, unkempt beards are routine and cigarette smoke billows like a blue haze over the outdoor porch. The Ponderosa plays both types of music, Country and Western, and remains unchanged by the ravages of time. It is a haven for the hard-working, blue-collars, many of whom are fortunate enough to work and live off the land–and what land it is. The Tijeras area is among the state’s most scenic.
The Ponderosa Steakhouse is situated in an old log cabin whose exterior signage extols the popular libations offered at the bar. If you’ve never been there and you’re not careful you’re bound to drive right by it. That’s because it sits virtually at the crest of a long vertical climb, just past where the mountain flattens out into a verdant valley. The winding highway takes you through some of the most picturesque vistas imaginable, particularly in the fall when golden leaves on the Turquoise Trail are at their peak of magnificence.
The interior of the Ponderosa is a continuation of the rustic theme. Rough-hewn vigas on the ceiling support wagon wheel lights which provide a dimly lit ambience. The wood planked floors are distressed and well-worn from years of being heavily trod upon. The charred remnants of branding irons have left their impressions on the walls. Antique brickerbrack is strewn about.
The bar is usually crowded with thirsty patrons engaged in spirited discussions. A wood stove distributes warmth throughout the restaurant during those cold winter nights at more than 7,000 feet. An adjacent room includes a solitary pool table.
Despite the cigarette malodor (a remnant of the days when smoking was allowed within the restaurant), the restaurant’s prevalent odor is the unmistakably distinct aroma of steaks sizzling on the grill. You won’t find choice or prime beef at the Ponderosa. Those cuts are too pretentious and expensive for its patrons. In fact, the beef may well have come from a neighboring ranch where grass-fed cows graze lazily on their verdant high mountain bounty. It’s good beef–very good beef–for which you won’t pay city prices to get country portions.
The most expensive steak on the menu is under $25 and unlike at some Duke City establishments, “a la carte” is an expensive and foreign concept. Each steak dinner comes with a salad, baked potato or Fries, vegetables and a bread roll with butter. You won’t leave hungry.
Salad sophisticates might marvel at the delicious simplicity of a Ponderosa salad. It’s constructed of mostly iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and a fleck of bell pepper here and there. The restaurant offers about a half dozen salad dressings, all served in those little plastic tubs. The salad dressings are thin, perhaps watered down. Baked potatoes are served with butter and sour cream embellished with chives. The bread roll is yeasty and soft, the type of which you might want to consume several.
The T-Bone steak is enormous and will take longer to prepare than anything on the menu. This is a peerless cut consisting of a supple, tender filet and a robust strip separated by the T-bone. At about a full inch thick, it is a carnivores’ favorite. Ask for any Ponderosa steak to be grilled with salt, pepper and garlic on both sides and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a well-seasoned, highly flavorful slab of beef. It’s not perfect by any means. You’ll have to trim off some fat from the sides, but you’ll get more steak than sinew, more flavor than fat.
As tender as just about any ribeye we’ve ever had, the Ponderosa’s ribeye has the juiciness (but not the bloodiness) of a rare steak even if you ask for medium well preparation. Quite honestly, we’re often surprised at how good the steak is, enjoying it more than we have pricy steak at swanky (and very expensive) big city steakhouses. It’s not prime or choice beef, but it’s a good choice for tasty beef at a reasonable price.
The third cut of steak on the menu is a simple sirloin. When you order “sirloin” at a restaurant, you never quite know what you’re getting. The bottom sirloin which is most often served at restaurants is less tender and much larger than the top sirloin. Ponderosa offers a bottom sirloin, a good steak but not the most tender or flavorful.
While steak is certainly a highlight of the menu, other entrees are also quite enjoyable. A steak and enchiladas plate features surprisingly good beef enchiladas with a piquant (albeit cumin enhanced) red chile you can respect. The beef on the two rolled enchilada jewels is well seasoned and delicious. That plate comes with a six ounce sirloin steak that isn’t quite as wonderful as the larger ribeye, but by any standards is a passable steak.
An excellent alternative if you want both steak (sirloin) and New Mexican food is the steak rellenos plate in which two cheese oozing chile rellenos, refried beans and Spanish rice leave little room on the plate for the steak, but the combination goes very well together. The refried beans have a smoky, fried in lard taste while the Spanish rice is fairly blasé.
A jalapeno and canned tomato based salsa with crisp, low-in-salt tortilla chips are brought to your table before your meal. The salsa isn’t especially piquant, but it’s got good thickness so it won’t run off your chips. A spinach artichoke dip appetizer with tostados (deep fried flour tortillas) is an appetizer offering for diners who don’t want the salsa and chips. The artichoke dip has only enough cheese to bind the mostly spinach mixture together and isn’t especially noteworthy.
New Mexican food dinners are served with sopaipillas. On two occasions in which we’ve had them, the sopaipillas had the taste of being fried in old oil and didn’t have the cloud-like texture we were used to. On another occasion, they were puffy perfection.
The Ponderosa made a “cameo appearance” and was one of the few saving graces of a sophomoric (sophomoronic?) 2004 movie called “Elvis has Left The Building” which was filmed mostly in the Land of Enchantment.
Despite the restaurant’s relatively few shortcomings, you’ll find yourself effusively praising a dining experience where you revert to a better, simpler time among good, honest people who really seem to have the right idea about living and dining.
10676 State Highway 337
Tijeras, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Beef Enchiladas; Ribeye Steak, T-Bone Steak, Salsa and Chips