The teeth, tail and eye of the tiger caused quite an uproar in the Sandia National Forest near Tijeras, New Mexico back in 2015 and it made the national news. A mountain biker took a blurry photo of what appeared to be a tiger and posted it online. The photo went viral, prompting Bernalillo county officials to issue a warning urging hikers to take caution and call 911 if they saw it. A subsequent investigation by the New Mexico Game and Fish Department uncovered a life-sized plastic statue of a tiger. Because of the uproar it had caused, the plastic tiger was destroyed.
New Mexicans found the presence of the jungle cat in Tijeras wilderness quite ironic. There’s been a standing joke for years about tourists being unable to pronounce Tijeras so they just call it “Tiger Ass.” These, by the way, are probably the same tourists who’ve given alternative names to such New Mexico places as “Elephant Butt,” “Lost Curses,” and “Toucan Carrie” among others. Other than as an assault to proper pronunciation, Tijeras has nothing to do with tigers. Tijeras actually translates from Spanish to “scissors.” It sits in Tijeras Canyon (Tiger Ass Canyon to some tourists), which divides the Sandia and Manzano mountain ranges.
Tijeras also gained notoriety in 2014 when the National Geographic Channel paid for a portion of Route 66 in Tijeras to be made into a singing road. A series of permanent rumble strips along Route 66 play “America the Beautiful” when motorists traverse over the strips at precisely 45mph. The goal of the road is to help drivers stay focused on the road. That’s not always easy to do considering all the scenic qualities of Route 66 in the area. There’s a lot to see. Just do it safely.
Only a portion of the village of Tijeras sits on Route 66 with much of the village’s population of just over 550 centered on the west and east sides of the Route’s intersection with State Highway 337. There’s another part of Tijeras that sits off Highway 337, a scenic, serpentine highway that takes you through the Cibola National Forest. This route is an exemplar of picturesque high desert topography. At the crest of a long vertical climb, just past where the mountain flattens out into a verdant valley sits the Ponderosa Family Restaurant & Grill, never to be mistaken for the Ponderosa Steakhouse chain.
By the time we discovered the Ponderosa in 2005 it had already been doing a bustling business for a number of years. Denizens of the back side of the Manzanos congregated at the Ponderosa where Wrangler jeans, ten gallon hats, tank tops and Cowboy boots were commonplace but shorts were not; where scruffy, unkempt beards were routine and cigarette smoke billowed like a blue haze over the outdoor porch. The Ponderosa played both types of music, Country and Western, and remained unchanged by the ravages of time. It was 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 beautiful.
Shortly after the Ponderosa’s owner passed away in 2012, the restaurant shuttered its doors and was put up for sale. About a year later, the Ponderosa doubled as a New Hampshire mountain bar in a season five episode of Breaking Bad. While taking shelter in a rustic hunters’ bar, Walter White made the decision to return to Albuquerque. No stranger to either the big or small screen, the Ponderosa made a “cameo appearance” and was one of the few saving graces of a sophomoric 2004 movie called “Elvis has Left The Building” which was filmed mostly in the Land of Enchantment.
On 1 May 2017, after months of assiduous effort and extensive renovations that included upgraded wiring, plumbing, seating, kitchen, music area, tables, booths, patio and just about everything that was and wasn’t nailed down, the Ponderosa opened its doors once again. Owner Nate Geary, who runs the front of the house, regaled us with horror stories about the backbreaking labor of sanding layers of paint to reveal the distressed wood planked floors. Nate has returned the Ponderosa to the rustic charm for which it has been renowned while giving it a pristine veneer and more importantly, a capacious Dude-friendly patio.
Gone is the pool table which once occupied the front room. Also gone is the malodor of cigarettes, a remnant of the days when smoking was allowed within the restaurant. Today, the restaurant’s prevalent fragrance 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 (a country-cut sixteen-ounce T-Bone) on the menu is under $25 and unlike at some Duke City establishments, “a la carte” is a foreign concept. Each steak dinner comes with a baked potato or fries and garlic bread with butter. If you’re not in the mood for a slab of beef, the menu offers a phalanx of options from such comfort food favorites as meatloaf and lasagna to burgers, sandwiches and paninis. Burritos and made-to order omelets are available for breakfast. You won’t leave hungry no matter what meal you enjoy at the Ponderosa.
Julia Child once quipped “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” It wasn’t her sage comment that motivated us to order a salad in lieu of an appetizer. It was a section of the menu entitled “Garden Sensations” that lists eight salads, a soup and salad combo and wild smoked salmon. The Greek salad (spinach and mixed field greens, red onion, plum tomatoes, olives, cucumbers and croutons topped with sun-dried tomatoes, basil feta cheese with an oil and vinegar dressing) is artistically plated with ingredients splayed out in colorful synergy. That synergy also comes across with each bite of components which complement each other.
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 three quarters of an inch thick, it’s a carnivores’ delight. 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 may have to trim off some fat from the sides, but you’ll get more steak than sinew, more flavor than fat.
Although the baked potatoes aren’t the size of footballs, they make up for their diminutive size with great flavor. The baked potato of choice at the Ponderosa is a blonde Yukon Gold beauty with a natural sweetness and moist flesh. Kim’s side of choice was a red beet and onion salad that pairs slightly sweet and earthy beets with the mild astringency of red onions. My choice was a “gourmet” coleslaw with pineapple reminiscent of the coleslaw served at Sparky’s in Hatch.
Several years ago, the twangy chords of Lynyrd Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama” played in the background while a Chili’s restaurant television commercial boasted of its “meat lovers dream” menu. The Alabama anthem came to mind as we reviewed the “Homemade Dinners” section of the menu where you’ll find such anachronistic favorites as Salisbury steak, house-smoked ribs, cedar-grilled hand cut salmon, hickory-smoked sausage and sirloin-cut pork chops with an apple chutney maple reduction butter sauce. Sadly, an early lunch rush had depleted ingredients needed to construct the chutney, but the chops (two moist, tender, well-seasoned slabs) were quite good nonetheless.
Playwright David Mamet had it right when he said “Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” Has any truer statement ever been uttered? The moment we saw the line-up of pies on display near the bar, any semblance of stress vanished–even though we were told pies were available only whole, not by the slice. Pineapple pie was something neither of us remembered ever having tried before, but after devouring a couple of heaping slices, we certainly want to relive (re-taste) the experience. Cinnamon is sprinkled atop a flaky crust that sandwiches moist pineapple pieces.
At the Ponderosa, you’ll find yourself effusively praising a dining experience in an unbeatable rural setting where winds rustle lightly, skies seem more blue and nary a tiger is in sight.
Ponderosa Family Restaurant & Grill
10676 State Highway 337
Tijeras, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 June 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Greek Salad, Pineapple Pie, Center-Cut Pork Chops, T-Bone Steak