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. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 have been my choice had I not had one rib too many (forgive me Larry McGoldrick). Instead my Kim ordered a 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.
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: 10 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
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