“Who’s gonna fill their shoes?,” laments the legendary Country music crooner George Jones over the loudspeakers at the Rodeo Grill. ”Who’s gonna stand that tall? Who’s gonna play the Opry and the Wabash Cannonball? Who’s gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you? Lord I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes.”
Ironically I was thinking something similar as we stepped into the kitschy and brash restaurant on Wyoming which purports to feature “nuevo vaquero chow.” My thoughts, though, were of the iconic figures of American pop culture and historical legacy–the cowboys portrayed in the movies of my youth by stalwart stanchions of masculinity and virtue such as John Wayne, Jimmy Steward, Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum. I wondered who, if anyone could possibly fill their shoes. That led to contemplating what these rough-riding, tough-fighting, quick-shooting cowboys would think of the Rodeo Grill, a restaurant and cuisine they might consider “feminine.”
Save for Gene Autry whose famous cowboy code advocated truthfulness, respect and patriotism, the cowboys of Western lore were certainly not politically correct, despite their other virtues. Were one of them (I have John Wayne in mind) to write a review about the Rodeo Grill, I imagine it would be peppered with pejoratives, laced with epithets and flowing with foul invectives. There’s no way “The Duke” would have tied his horse on the pavement fronting the restaurant to dine at what he might have considered frilly and lady-like and whose menu would have seemed strange and unnatural.
Listening to George Jones bemoaning the old-time Country singers, also made me wonder if there would be a place in America today for John Wayne and other paragons of masculinity. In the age of Oprah, men are in touch with their feminine sides, show uncommon sensitivity and think nothing of publicly describing their feelings and emotions as they confess past indiscretions to the world. It’s so unlike John Wayne. So is the Rodeo Grill.
That last statement doesn’t equate to a dismissal on my part. While the Rodeo Grill may not exemplify the conceptions of masculinity showcased in cinematic portrayals of the Old West, two of the first people who recommended I visit this restaurant are throwbacks to the Old West Cowboy. They’re unfailingly honest and direct and they wouldn’t hesitate to tell me a restaurant stinks. If the Rodeo Grill is masculine enough for John Skinner, a tactical flight officer for the Albuquerque police department’s Air Support Unit and for Roberto a retired Hollywood executive who is no stranger to manly movies, it’s masculine enough for me.
John Skinner and Roberto would have made good scouts in the Old West, the type who would have been able to locate vague clues to track and find lost calves, desperate outlaws and fair damsels needing to be rescued from scurrilous scoundrels. I’ve long trusted them to scout visit worthy restaurants and they’ve never let me down. Roberto who’s never met a slice of meatloaf he didn’t like, told me the Rodeo Grill’s comfort food is quite good, describing in his inimitable way, all the things he liked and those he didn’t. Neither Roberto or John mentioned anything about quartered watercress sandwiches and tea served on fine bone china, two things John Wayne surely would have dissed in his down home drawl.
Duke City diners began mozeying on down like stampeding cattle to the Rodeo Grill from the day it opened its doors over the Labor Day weekend in 2009. It helped that the location was already familiar and that the founding owner Matt DiGregory has a reputation as a culinary pioneer, previously having established The Range and the Standard Diner as local institutions. Appropriately, the Rodeo Grill and its vaquero chow can be corralled at the former site of The Range on Wyoming, a yawning 4,500 square-foot edifice which has been renovated to look nothing at all like its predecessor.
The exterior is painted a reddish shade reminiscent of the deeply earthy hues seen on the magnificent cliffs and colossal canyons which slice through New Mexico’s Route 4, the magnificent two-lane highway which forms the main artery of the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway. Yellow campfire flames ascend the center third of the sprawling frontage.
There’s so much more to see inside the restaurant. Walls are festooned by the folk art sculptures of acclaimed Placitas artist Gene McClain, renown for depicting cowboy life in uniquely rich and colorful ways. Lashed from the ceilings are New Mexican latillas, the familiar peeled aspen poles. An attractive bar is available for cowboys and cowgirls wanting something stronger than sarsaparilla. Seating, whether on tables or booths, is more functional than comfortable.
Thematically, the restaurant’s focus is on “modern cowboy chow with Latin influences.” There are some components to the chow which might be familiar to John Wayne, but probably not in the combinations in which those components are put together. One of the menu items showcased is called the “Burgito,” a tortilla burger using your choice of Angus beef, chicken, Mahi Mahi or a house-made veggie pattie. The concept behind the burgito is apparently that cowboys are resourceful enough to use tortillas when some low-down varmint has absconded with the hamburger buns.
No ordinary tortilla burgers are these. The menu features seven different Burgito combinations including one in which the restaurant’s barbecue meatloaf is used instead of a conventional beef patty. New Mexican cowboys or vaqueros would, of course, insist on a green chile cheeseburger and the Rodeo Grill has a Burgito version of one. It’s called the “Nuevo Mexicano” and it includes not only roasted Hatch green chile, but chile con queso as well. Still another burgito features fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth Yucatan pulled pork (along with roasted Hatch green chile strips, queso fresco, lettuce and tomato).
The menu, which would undoubtedly have brought a few choice words to the lips of John Wayne, also includes soups, salads, “campfire platters,” all day breakfast, and some of the most unique ice cream shakes you’ll find anywhere. John Wayne would probably appreciate the cold beers, but not the wine or cocktails (unless a good rock-gut whiskey is available). The price point is reasonable and the portions would certainly sate the hard-working cowboy about town.
Appetizers include some of the “usual suspects” with modern cowboy twists. One modern cowboy starter which might make even the toughest Old West cowboy flinch is the Rodeo Rellenos, spicy jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese and bacon then served with a ladylike portion of three buttermilk onion rings and cool, creamy dip. The stuffed jalapenos are indeed piquant, so much so that the city slickers among you might offer up their portion after just one bite. For those of us who consider pain a “flavor,” the jalapenos are just about right. They’ll get your attention and singe your taste buds a bit, but in combination with the cream cheese and bacon, they’ll make your lips tingle happily. The buttermilk onion rings are terrific, but it’s a pity there aren’t more than three on this appetizer.
Another terrific starter features housemade chips topped with blue cheese dressing, chopped tomatoes and chives. The chips are terrific, thin and crisp but soft and pliable when moistened by the blue cheese dressing. The dressing is light, almost watery, but the addition of blue cheese crumbles accentuates the pungent flavor of my favorite salad dressing. Chopped tomatoes and chives are a nice touch.
One of the ways in which the Rodeo Grill invites you to wash down your meal is with their thick shakes which are made with Haagen Dazs Super Premium ice Cream. The shakes are not only made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk, they’re served in a shake glass with the tin on the side. It’s much like getting a shake and a half. Better still, the flavors offered are inventive and different; you won’t find the standards–vanilla, chocolate and strawberry–on the shakes menu.
Instead, treat yourself to “Mayan Chocolatl,” described on the menu as “deep, dark Mexican chocolate shake with a bit of cinnamon and spice” to which you can “add cayenne for an extra kick.” Anthropologists are well aware that the Mayans enjoyed their chocolate with chile. It’s the way I prefer chocolate, too. Alas, the “deep, dark Mexican chocolate” is a bit too sweet for my liking, the type of sweet flavoring children (and maybe the modern cowboys) like. Sweeter still is the “Biscochito” shake, a “cookie in a glass rimmed with cinnamon spiced sugar.” We also did not discern anise in the shake and New Mexicans know anise is a critical component of the state’s official cookie. Still, both are better shakes by several orders of magnitude, than served at most restaurants.
Despite the recommendations of John Skinner and Roberto, what ultimately drew me to Rodeo Grill was a recommendation by Morgain, a faithful reader of this blog, who thought I might enjoy the Rodeo Grill’s unique take on chicken and waffles. Instead of fried chicken, the restaurant uses chicken fried chicken, or more precisely a breaded chicken breast atop a crisp waffle with sweet potato mash and creamed spinach served with maple cream sauce on the side. One of the things that makes chicken and waffles a wonderful combination is the coalescence of sweet and savory flavors.
Unless you enjoy your food dessert sweet, don’t make the mistake I made in dousing both the waffles and the chicken fried chicken with the maple cream sauce (two portions worth). That sauce is maple sugar sweet and perfect for the waffles, but somewhat overwhelming on the chicken. Sans the maple cream sauce, the chicken is delicious, like having fried chicken without the bones. The sweet potato mash also made the combination sweeter than I usually like, but by itself, it’s also a welcome respite from the garlic mashed potatoes so many restaurants seem to think are unique. The creamed spinach is just a bit on the watery side.
If breakfast is what you crave, the blue corn pancakes with blueberries is like a sweet morning kiss from someone you love. The term “short stack” may be apropos in describing two pancakes instead of three or four, but when those pancakes cover the circumference of the plate, you’re probably going to consume a day’s worth of calories. Instead of conventional syrup, these pancakes are sweetened with the restaurant’s maple cream sauce. The addition of blueberries punctuates the pancakes with just a bit of tanginess, a nice contrast.
The Rodeo Grill’s unique twists on comfort food favorites extends to meatloaf which is glazed with an Ancho barbecue sauce and topped with two buttermilk onion rings. The meatloaf is served with chipotle creamed corn and sweet potato mash. The meatloaf is very flavorful, a concordant melding of piquant and savory flavors with just a hint of sweetness. Alas, the meatloaf is just a bit on the dry side though at its deep inner core, it’s plenty moist. Roberto described the chipotle creamed corn as “a puzzle, not creamed at all, but kernels.” That’s an apt description for the chipotle infused corn medley which we really enjoyed.
The Rodeo Grill’s take on modern cowboys might remind you of the old Miller Lite commercial in which legendary baseball manager Billy Martin, nattily attired in rhinestone cowboy regalia, proclaimed “I didn’t punch no doggie (a cowboy term for an orphaned calf).” Billy Martin was certainly no cowboy in the tradition of John Wayne, but he would have enjoyed the Rodeo Grill. You will, too, if you don’t over-think the “modern cowboy” dilemma as I did.
The Rodeo Grill
4200 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2010
1st VISIT: 21 November 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Barbecue Meatloaf, Chicken Fried Chicken With Waffles, Rodeo Rellenos, Shakes