The phoenix of ancient Egyptian mythology was a sacred firebird of beautiful red and gold plumage said to live for centuries. At the end of its life, the phoenix built itself a nest of cinnamon twigs which it then ignited. Both the phoenix and the nest burned fiercely and were reduced to ashes from which a new phoenix arose. Similarly, the Range Cafe in Bernalillo was claimed by a fiery conflagration only to rise up from the ashes to exceed its former glory to become one of the most popular restaurants in New Mexico.
Like the phoenix, the Range is a rare breed–one of the few locally owned and operated (non-chain) restaurants which at any given time (make that, almost all the time) has diners lining up for a seat. That may be because the Range offers the “familiar” in serving comfort foods and local favorites and serves them in the profuse portion sizes American diners love.
The original Range debuted in September, 1992 in Bernalillo’s main street, Camino Del Pueblo. The restaurant was an instant success, quickly becoming more than a local favorite. Not quite three years later (on May 30, 1995), the Range went up in smoke–a huge conflagration consumed the entire restaurant. The community let it be known that they wanted their favorite restaurant rebuilt and held fund-raising events to help with the process.
Two months after the fire, the Range was back in business, albeit in a temporary location directly across the street from the church, thereby making it unlawful to obtain a beer and wine license. In April, 1996, the Range negotiated to rent a circa 1905 property which once served as the warehouse of the Bernalillo Mercantile. By December of that year, the Range officially re-opened at its present address, 925 Camino del Pueblo in the heart of downtown Bernalillo. Like the majestic phoenix, the Range rose from the ashes and has been going strong ever since.
The Range shares building space with Rose’s Pottery House owned by life-long Bernalillo resident Antoinette Silva. Part museum, part art gallery, it features contemporary and ancient Pueblo pottery and art. It’s a must stop before or after dining at the Range. During its nearly 80 year history, the building, now covering a full city block, served as a general store, movie theater, auto repair shop and permanent home to one of the finest collections of Native American and Hispanic art in New Mexico.
After obtaining a liquor license, the Range opened the Lizard Rodeo Lounge, a welcoming, non-smoking gathering place for locals and visitors alike. The Lounge includes a full-service bar and offers a full service-menu as well as live, free entertainment featuring local New Mexico bands. Every Thursday is open mike night for all aspiring stars.
A contemporary Southwestern artsy ambiance imbues your entire dining experience. Everywhere you turn, there’s something to catch your eye. Even the chairs and tables are functional art. While the milieu may seemingly scream “contemporary western,” ergo “home on the range,” the restaurant is actually named for the other kind of range–the one on which you prepare food. Several old stoves as well as stove art festoon the restaurant. Art and ambiance not withstanding, it’s the wonderful food that’s the big attraction. Not only are the portions profuse and most menu items familiar, they are generally delicious and reasonably priced.
The Range is the brainchild of restaurant impresario Matt DiGregory whose other popular restaurant ventures in the Duke City area include the Standard Diner and Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen. The entrepreneurial restaurateur is a visionary innovator whose restaurant concepts defy local stereotypes. His idea to combine fine cooking (such as applying French culinary techniques to the preparation of meatloaf) with comfort food was years before its time.
That meatloaf, christened Tom’s meatloaf in honor of Range co-founder Tom Fenton, is a comfort food standard served with garlic mashed potatoes and a delicious mushroom gravy. The meatloaf is a substantial brick-sized slab of moist deliciousness. Like most Range entrees, it’s served almost out-of-the-stove hot. The mashed potatoes are made with real potatoes, not the powdery stuff and surprise, surprise…you can actually taste the garlic.
Another comfort food specialty, the chicken fried steak (a fresh beef cube steak breaded and smothered with cream gravy) is as good as you’ll find anywhere in the Land of Enchantment’s Rio Grande valley. Even Texans (for whom chicken fried steak is a religion) enjoy the Range’s Texas-sized version which even has the size (everything’s bigger in Texas) they appreciate. This chicken fried steak is tender enough to be cut with a fork.
Recognizing that mac and cheese are everyone’s favorite, the Range makes theirs with a special New Mexico unique twist–green chile. The macaroni is rigatoni, the size of a culvert. The cheese is creamy and delicious with a prominent white Cheddar flavor though it’s entirely possible more than one cheese is used. The entire bowl–and it’s the size of a hub cap–is covered with ground parmesan. The green chile is a bit mild on the piquancy scale, but it’s a delicious chile that complements the mac and cheese very well.
You can’t mention comfort foods without a prominent spot on the list for soups. The soups–especially the cream of mushroom soup and the cream of carrot soup–are among the very best you’ll find in New Mexico. These are the type of soups you love most on a cold winter day, but which are great any time of year. Thick, rich, hearty and replete with fresh ingredients, they’re an elixir for whatever (if anything) ails you. I’m not quite as fond of the Range’s green chile chicken stew, perhaps a misnomer because it’s described on the menu as a “soup that serves like a meal.” It really is a soup as it’s not thick and creamy as most traditional green chile stews tend to be. Within a thin soupy broth, you’ll find blue corn tortilla chips, potatoes, carrots, celery, tendrils of chicken and a barely discernible chile.
The motto of the Range Cafe is “ordinary food done extraordinarily well.” Ordinary doesn’t have to be boring or the “same old thing” everyone else serves. The Range Cafe takes some liberties with New Mexican cuisine and comfort food favorites. Take for example the shrimp scampi quesadilla, sauteed shrimp marinated in tequila, lime and garlic combined with tomatillo, pico de gallo, corn and white Cheddar cheese grilled on a flour tortilla and served with sour cream and guacamole. The shrimp is sweet and succulent, blending in extraordinarily well with the other flavor combinations.
Although comfort foods hold a prominent place on the menu, my favorite entree (when on the menu) is the Thai shrimp noodles with semi spicy peanut sauce and julienne vegetables. It’s an entree as good as you’ll find at some Thai restaurants and like many Thai entrees, has a flavor profile that includes a nice balance of sweet, savory and piquant flavors.
The Range burger starts with an eight-ounce fresh ground chuck patty flame grilled to order. It’s topped with shaved ham, green chile strips and melted white cheddar cheese on a fresh, homemade bun. It is one of six inventive burgers on the menu, the most unique being a Relleno Burger topped with a blue corn chile relleno and green chile sauce. Obviously these are not boring burgers. The ground chuck patty is what all burgers in the area should aspire to be.
An eight-ounce ground chuck patty is also a key component of the Rio Grande Gorge in which the patty is served open face on a tortilla, topped with red or green chile sauce, Cheddar, grilled onions, black beans and Range fries with queso. It sounds great–and for the most part it is, save for the queso which tops the Range fries which is of Velveeta quality.
Dinner specials are generally so good you’ll wish they were on the standard menu. One example is the Range’s trout which is topped with capers, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes in a light white wine sauce. The trout is flaky and grilled to perfection. The natural brininess melds perfectly with the tanginess of the ingredients topping the trout. A lime and cilantro infused Basmati rice makes for excellent accompaniment to this dish.
Lest I forget, one of the best ways to start a meal at the Range is with the trio of guacamole, salsa and con queso with blue corn tortilla chips. The salsa is about medium on the piquancy scale, but it is fresh, rich and delicious. The guacamole is buttery and fresh, the product of excellent ingredients. Only the con queso, which lacks creaminess, disappoints. It’s a bit on the thick side and includes no ameliorants to contrast the cheesiness.
Another appetizer catering to New Mexican tastes is a plate of green chile strips, breaded whole chiles served with a cool, creamy jalapeño dipping sauce. Served four to an order, each of the green chile strips is at least six inches of piquancy and deliciousness. Unlike some chile rellenos, the batter is thin, light and doesn’t fall off the chiles. The jalapeño dipping sauce is cool heat, a perfect accompaniment for chilephiles who know the only way to improve on a heat-generating food is with even more heat.
If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the Range’s eye-opening, belly-busing breakfasts are a good way to start off the day, but if you’re inclined to get sleepy after a big meal, you might want to split breakfast with someone you love. That’s because the Range’s portions are humongous. The most popular entree on the voluminous Range menu, by the way, is the huevos rancheros.
The gargantuan breakfast burrito includes three large eggs scrambled with either ham, sausage or grilled veggies, wrapped in a flour tortilla and topped with white cheddar and your choice of red or green chile. It is accompanied by Range fries and pinto beans. Both the red and the green chile at the Range can be about as piquant (or as mild) as you’d get at some New Mexican restaurant, depending on the season and batch. It may open your eyes in the morning.
Even larger than the breakfast burrito, if that’s possible, is a breakfast entree called the “Range Roundup” in which a homemade biscuit is topped with crumbled, crisp bacon and sausage, two eggs fixed your way smothered in chile and white cheddar cheese with Range fries and pinto beans.
For a week’s worth of calories, try the stuffed Range toast–three slices of cinnamon raisin bread with a rich egg batter, grilled and stuffed with strawberries and bananas then topped with homemade apple/peach butter, whipped cream and maple syrup. These are among the most decadent French toast in New Mexico.
“Short stack” is a misnomer for the two large pancakes (the size of New York City’s much missed Twin Towers) that cover your plate should you opt for pancakes. These syrupy orbs, like most Range portions, are big enough to share (they could feed a developing country).
Desserts, including Taos Cow ice cream are almost indecent, they’re so good! The roadhouse chocolate cake is among the most moist cakes you’ll find anywhere while the “Life by Chocolate” cake defines the word decadent. Featuring milk chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, Belgian white chocolate and raspberry mousse layered together and glazed with a rich ganache, this is the type of dessert your dentist warned you about as a child and your dietician cautions against today.
The Range expanded from its Bernalillo location by launching at two Albuquerque locations, both of which experience the same overflow crowds as the original. Rather than creating a separate entry for each, I’ll update this listing for any visit to the Range, regardless of location.
This is a restaurant about which seldom a disparaging word is heard. Like the Phoenixes rise from the ashes, it continues to ascend in the estimation of its many patrons.
264 Camino Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 24
BEST BET: Desserts, Meatloaf, Mushroom Soup, Mac and Cheese, Shrimp Scampi Quesadilla