The very best restaurants–those we’re proud to call our favorites–aren’t always the swankiest and most elegant venues. They’re not even usually the restaurants you visit on special occasions. They’re our favorites because for the duration of our meal, all our cares dissipate and our faith that everything will be okay is restored as we’re fed comforting, delicious food by servers we know and trust. The Smokehouse has been such a refuge to hundreds of Rio Rancho area residents for nearly two and a half decades.
The Smokehouse’s last full day of operation was Saturday, June 22nd, 2013. Then on Sunday night, June 23rd at 6PM, owner Gary West invited guests to a farewell soiree where he exhausted his remaining food inventory: amazing smoked turkey, ribs and so much more. There wasn’t a charge for the meal though Gary jokingly had a jar in which guests could contribute to his retirement. Gary will be leaving the desert climes of New Mexico for Hawaii where he plans to lead a life of leisure. Aloha, Gary. You and the Smokehouse will be missed.
In his headlines segment on April Fools Day 2001, Tonight Show host Jay Leno had a good laugh at the Smokehouse BBQ’s coupons which gave patrons a generous discount on breakfast burritos. Normally offered at $200, the coupon provided an instant rebate of $199 for a total price of $1. As barbecue aficionados in Rio Rancho have known for years, barbecue at the Smokehouse is no laughing matter. The Smokehouse BBQ restaurant is one of the three or four best barbecue restaurants in the Albuquerque area, a bastion of bodacious barbecue which can compete anywhere against formidable smoke ring competition–even in Texas.
Texas is where founding proprietor Gary West cut his teeth in the smoke ring business, managing a barbecue restaurant in Lubbock. Texas-style barbecue as he learned to prepare it means you’ll see a pink hue on the ribs and the traditional pink smoke ring on the sliced beef brisket. It’s the real thing–barbecue that’s not obfuscated by a deluge of sauce to mask the flavor of poor quality meats. The meats at the Smokehouse are top notch and sauce is added only if you request it.
When Gary returned to New Mexico he managed a Golden Pride chicken restaurant for a few years before buying the franchise and transforming it to the Smokehouse BBQ restaurant, opening on January 3, 1989. He was at it for nearly twenty years before selling his restaurant in 2008. In July, 2010, Gary bought the business back after two years managing an Albuquerque Cracker Barrel restaurant. During his tenure at Cracker Barrel, he picked up a few things to introduce to the Smokehouse’s menu, including chicken fried chicken and country fried steak. His return also signaled the return of the incomparable smoked meats which waft into your motorized conveyance like a sweet Texas smoke signal beckoning you to try them.
The number of times I’ve visited the Smokehouse–over one hundred– is not a typo–I actually have dined here that many times (or more) primarily on Wednesdays or Fridays when the outstanding smoke burger is featured fare for lunch. Yes, contrary to the opinion of amateur smokers who obviously haven’t mastered the trick, it is possible to smoke burgers (and no, this isn’t one of my flashbacks to the 60s). Go for dinner (or in fact any time past three o’clock) and you won’t find the smoke burger.
For almost a year, my friend Mike Muller (pictured above) and I made the Smokehouse our inner sanctum and refuge from the rigors of a challenging multi-million dollar project by visiting this Texas style barbecue emporium every Wednesday and sometimes on Fridays, too. It remains one of our very favorite lunch stops though our visits became more scarce when Gary West moved on. His return means the frequency of our visits increased. Gary tends to the smoker with the same affection parents tend to their children. The result is high quality ‘cue. The primary object of our affection during our weekly pilgrimage quickly became the aforementioned smoke burger, one of the best, albeit most unconventional green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico. That’s saying something!
On Wednesdays and Fridays, you’d better get to the Smokehouse early because once the smoke burgers are gone, you’ll have to wait a few days to get the next one. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the restaurant will a limited number of burgers. They go fast. One patron enjoyed double meat smokeburgers (pictured below) so much and so often, the Smokehouse named a double meat special for him. Today, the Cal’s Special, a double meat smoke burger smothered in green chile, a side of your choice and a drink is the best bet for the hungriest of patrons. Each patty is close to or perhaps even a half pound so a double meat smoke burger weighs in at a pound, at least. It takes two hands to hold this behemoth burger and a big mouth (literally) to take a bite of it. Little-mouthed folk will cut it with a fork.
Don’t dare desecrate the smoke burger with mustard and ketchup. Barbecue sauce and green chile are the only embellishments required and even without the barbecue sauce, this is one outstanding burger. The Smokehouse offers two sauces, the house sauce and a piquant sauce. The house sauce is a bit on the thin side with an almost equal flavor pronouncement between sweet, tangy and piquant. The piquant sauce packs real heat. The meat patty is thick and bun sized with a pinkish hue within. Contrary to what you might think, it’s also a moist burger…at least it is when Gary West is tending the smoker. He’s got the touch. The green chile is only mild on a piquant scale, but when combined with the sauce, its piquancy is enhanced.
On November 1st, 2011, the Smokehouse began using a bolillo bun on the Smokehouse, replacing the familiar and more traditional hamburger bun. The bolillo bun ostensibly stays fresh longer though the round patty extends out beyond the round buns. Each smoke burger is accompanied by one side of your choosing. The Smokehouse features some of the very best potato salad around and very good spicy pinto beans. Other options include green beans, fried okra, mashed potatoes and gravy, French fries and other sides.
As for the Smokehouse’s meats, the sliced beef brisket, smoked pork ribs, smoked turkey, hot links, beef ribs and Polish sausage are all quite good–and not just by New Mexico standards. The restaurant menu features sandwiches, plates and party packs that serve anywhere from two to twenty people. The most popular menu item, as it is at many Texas barbecue emporiums, is the sliced beef brisket which is consumed at a rate of about twenty pounds per day. Your best bet is a two- or three-meat platter with two or three sides.
Both the smoked pork ribs and the beef ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender. My friend Sr. Plata considers the beef ribs to be at the very top of his food pyramid though with his Flintstonian appetite, he yearns for the day they are offered at all-you-can-eat quantities. The smoked pork ribs have a wonderful bark, that intensely flavorful crust which occurs when a meat’s natural sugars caramelize. Sanctioned barbecue competition judges in some of the most prestigious barbecue events love a good bark and would appreciate the fine bark on the Smokehouse’s meats, especially on the pork ribs. The hot links live up to their name with a heartburn-inducing spiciness you will love. Only Powdrell’s serves comparable hot links.
The smoke burger isn’t the only unconventional twist on a New Mexico favorite. The Smokehouse also serves a smoked carne adovada made from chopped beef. A mild red chile complements the smoky beef taste very well. Unconventional also describes the Smokehouse’s Frito pie, constructed of smoked beef, spicy pinto beans, barbecue sauce (instead of chile), shredded cheese and of course, Frito’s corn chips. This Frito pie may be an acquired taste because the first time I sampled this oddity, I thought it an aberration. The second time, I was hooked–thanks in large part to excellent smoked meat and the spicy pinto beans which are always cooked to perfection. The Frito pie is also available with a more conventional carne adovada or you can have it half-and-half with born smoked beef and carne adovada. The operative term is “have it!”
In 2000, the Smokehouse began offering breakfast including the legendary Frontier Rolls. Breakfast had a thirteen year run, but will no longer be served as of June 1st, 2013. Breakfast burritos have been the specialty of the house from day one. The tortillas encasing each burrito are charred like a pinto pony and bulge at the seams holding back all those lovely ingredients and their flavor. The green chile is more piquant than the red.
How good are the meats at the Smokehouse? They’re so good other restaurants use them. There may be no better pairing in Rio Rancho than the combination of Smokehouse meats and pizza at the Turtle Mountain Brewing Company. Smokehouse meats also feature prominently on the slow-smoked carne panini from Cafe Bella. My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, calls it the “best panini” he’s ever had.
For dessert, the Smokehouse features blackberry, peach, cherry and apple cobbler alamode as well as Itlian ices. You might think you’re in the deep south as you bite into the warm, tangy blackberries and flaky crust as rich vanilla ice cream melts on the plate.
The Smokehouse’s Web site is a member of the Smoke Ring, a linked list of BBQ websites throughout America.
The Smokehouse Barbecue
4000 Barbara Loop
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 101
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Smoke Burger, Cobbler, Frontier Roll, Brisket, Pulled Pork, Frito Pie, Sliced Pork, Pork Ribs, Spicy Links, Smoked Turkey