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Ponderosa Steakhouse – Tijeras, New Mexico

The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Tijeras, New Mexico

The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Tijeras, New Mexico

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 inside of the Ponderosa Steakhouse

The inside of the Ponderosa Steakhouse

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.

Standard salad at the Ponderosa

Standard salad at the Ponderosa

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.

The T-Bone Steak at the Ponderosa Steakhouse

The T-Bone Steak at the Ponderosa Steakhouse

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.

The ribeye steak at the Ponderosa Steakhouse

The ribeye steak at the Ponderosa Steakhouse

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.

Salsa and chips at the Ponderosa

Salsa and chips at the Ponderosa

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.

Ponderosa Steakhouse
10676 State Highway 337
Tijeras, New Mexico
281-8278

LATEST VISIT: 9 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Beef Enchiladas; Ribeye Steak, T-Bone Steak, Salsa and Chips

The Ponderosa Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Category: New Mexico, Steak
  • carson says:

    Gil, I just discovered your website and am thrilled to find this resource.

    If you ever return to the Ponderosa, you MUST try the steak fajitas. When my family comes to NM for their annual visit, this is the only restaurant we visit and the only thing we ever order, year after year after year.

    October 17, 2008 at 4:01 PM
  • Kelly says:

    My husband and I recently visited the Ponderosa in Tijeras after reading Gils review. I had the ribeye and it was juicy, flavorful and cooked perfectly. As I was eating it I couldn’t stop repeating, “omg, this is sooo good!” My husband had the t-bone and had the same mouth watering experience I had with the rib eye. And our waitress, I think her name was Annette, was very friendly and does her job very well. We spent a lot of time chatting with her and enjoyed the visit. I would recommend this restaurant to anyone passing through Tijeras, or to even go out of your way! It is now our favorite place for a steak. And not just because of the food. The restaurant was very rustic and seemed like the place where the locals go to relax after work or to catch a game on one of the many TV located around the room. Just the kind of friendly, non-pretentious, relaxing place we love to visit. Oh ya, and the prices are very reasonable.

    October 18, 2010 at 7:38 PM
  • Kell Morrow says:

    Today, Betty Lynn and I decided to escape the heat and smokey blanket of Albuquerque, and we made a tri p to The Ponderosa for lunch. We were not disappointed. The Dos Equis Amber was cold and the “steak sandwiches” were hot and tender and tasty. I happened to come across this amiable restaurant about twelve years ago when exploring my new Albuquerque surroundings–and I have to say that it’s a hidden treasure.

    June 4, 2011 at 6:24 PM
  • C. Moreno says:

    We had HORRIBLE service last night. We were ignored for 20 minutes before the bartender finally took our drink order. We ordered 2 plates “to go”. It took 1 hour 20 minutes for our order and then it was WRONG. All we ordered was a burger and a philly cheese steak. The place was not busy and the bartender did everything she could to help take other customers orders first. Even though they walked in well after we did. We were the only 2 dark skinned people in the place. Other light skinned customers who walked in after we did were served immediately and they were almost finished eating their dinner before we were even given our food. PREJUDICE!!!! I will not go back there ever again!!!

    July 2, 2011 at 4:50 PM
  • J. Beachler says:

    What a treat! Celebrated my and a friend’s birthdays early last night at the Ponderosa; the food was great, the service was typical of a classic roadhouse (meaning friendly and attentive without being pushy like city places). The steaks were delightfully seasoned, the salsa had a great little kick and a cilantro pique, and they even let us put the cake we had brought in their cooler until we were ready to cut into it. I had been past this place several times in the past, going to Manzano Mountain Camp; so grateful my friend suggested it as a place for my 55th. DEFINITELY going back. The staff were so friendly, we left the remaining birthday cake for them so they could benefit from our celebration as well. Thanks everybody for a special evening! (too bad my camera didn’t work so well in the subdued lighting but next time, gotta remember to click on the flash mode :D)

    October 3, 2011 at 10:44 AM

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