The Cowgirl BBQ – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cowgirl BBQ & Smokehouse in Santa Fe

Cowgirl” is an attitude really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage.
The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses.
Cowgirls take stands; they speak up. They defend things they hold dear.
~Dale Evans

In a 1980s commercial for Pace Picante sauce, several hungry cowboys threatened to string up the cook for brandishing a foreign-made (translation: not made in Texas) salsa.  “Why, this here salsa is made in New York City!”  “New York City?  Gil a rope!” With such a xenophobic attitude about New York City, you would think those cowboys would have raised a ruckus when a restaurant named the Cowgirl Hall of Fame launched in New York City.  “New York City?  Git a rope!”  The restaurant’s raison d’être was to promote the culture of the American cowgirl through the foods of the American West and Southwest. 

On 1 June 1993, the second instantiation of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame opened its doors, this one in a hundred-year-old building in the historic Guadalupe district of Santa Fe.  Known today solely as Cowgirl BBQ, this quaint restaurant celebrates Cowgirls thematically and attitudinally. A portrait library is replete with photographs of National Cowgirl Hall of Fame honorees while the walls feature memorabilia which celebrates the Great American west and the cowgirl. The female wait staff is nattily attired in tight-fitting jeans and western accoutrements such as bandanas and high-crowned, wide-brimmed straw hats. In a 2004 episode of $40 A Day on the Food Network, Rachael Ray called it “Girl Power.”

One of the Capacious Cowgirl Dining Rooms

If you want to catch the nightly musical entertainment or dine with your four-legged fur children, the dog-friendly outdoor patio, weather permitted, is your best bet, but whether you dine indoors or out, you’re bound to catch some of the “City Different’s” different characters. Cowgirl’s is one of the city’s best people watching restaurants, a milieu in which office attire, grunge clothing, skiing ensemble and western regalia seem equally in fashion.  In many ways, the Cowgirl is the antithesis of the stereotype that Santa Fe’s restaurants are uppity and stuffy.  You couldn’t get any more down-to-earth than the Cowgirl.

As for the cuisine, Cowboys and Indians magazine once proclaimed Cowgirl’s barbecue the “best barbecue west of the Mississippi.” That’s only fitting considering that before Cowgirl even launched, one of the principal founding owners placed an ad in the local Santa Fe Reporter and asked what type of cuisine the locals would want. The resounding response was “BARBECUE!” .  Barbecue it’s been for nearly three decades: brisket, chicken, baby back ribs and more.

Salsa Diablo
Salsa Diablo, the habanero-based sauce which proved too much for the Food Network’s “Heat Seekers”

Perhaps the most incendiary barbecue in the city honors would go to a pulled pork BBQ sandwich simmered in a spicy Salsa Diablo BBQ sauce made with incendiary habanero peppers and piled into a Kaiser roll.  In an episode of the Food Network’s “Heat Seekers” program, hosts Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking tested their masochistic mettle by sampling some of the city’s most piquant plates.  The pulled pork BBQ sandwich proved too much for the celebrity chef stars.  Fire-eating New Mexicans will fare better with this salsa.

Cowgirl’s menu has something for everyone including several excellent starters. The Five Pepper Nachos with Salsa Diablo are inventive and delicious–tortilla chips topped with black beans, Jack and Cheddar cheese, red onions, guacamole, pickled jalapeños, black olives, sour cream, and Cowgirl’s extra spicy Salsa Diablo.  You can also ask for shredded barbecue beef as a topper to this mountainous mélange, which in February, 2006 was named by the Wall Street Journal as among the fifteen best nachos in America. El Pinto in Albuquerque was the only other New Mexico restaurant on this exclusive list.  In 2015, the Food Network’s “Best…Ever” program accorded “best barbecue nachos ever!” honors to these nachos.

Cabeza de Ajo
Cabeza de Ajo

Another excellent starter is the cabeza de ajo, two heads of roasted garlic planted beside an island of melted jack cheese with tomatillo salsa and toasted baguettes. Extricating the garlic cloves from the steaming hot garlic head is a chore, but the results are quite good.  Top a toasted baguette with a dollop of cheese, a sweet garlic clove or two and some of the tangy tomatillo and you’ve got three potent flavors competing for your rapt attention.  Add a little of the Salsa Diablo to kick it up a notch or ten. 

26 June 2020: Considering the flack I caught for proclaiming my admiration for Colorado chile, you might think I’d be wary about admitting to like Texas chili.  Yeah, former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici once called Texas chili “that inedible mixture of watery tomato soup, dried gristle, half-cooked kidney beans, and a myriad of silly ingredients that is passed off as food in Texas and Oklahoma.”  Maybe he hasn’t had the Cowgirl’s chuckwagon chili (Texas-style ground beef & brisket chili with beans and veggies, jalapeños, red onions, sour cream, cheddar cheese with jalapeño cornbread on the side).  We enjoyed the chuckwagon chili in the form of a Frito pie.  There wasn’t much heat, but plenty of flavor.

Chuckwagon Chili Frito Pie

26 June 2020: In commemoration of its 20th anniversary, Cowgirl BBQ created a green chile cheeseburger which by its very name implies (according to Wikipedia) “the largest or most significant example of a class, which completely overshadows all other cases in the class.” Called “The Mother of all Green Chile Cheeseburgers,” it’s a pricey behemoth at fifteen dollars. The burger is crafted from a “top secret” blend of black Angus, antibiotic and hormone-free, grass-fed, grain-finished, custom-ground beef, locally raised buffalo and applewood smoked bacon grilled to your exacting specifications and served in a Cheddar-green chile bun with melted brie, chopped green chile and a slice of heirloom tomato. Just ask for “Mother!”

This burger is aptly named.  It is surprisingly good, one of the few green chile cheeseburgers to truly distinguish itself from so many other great ones.  One of the difference-makers is the substantial bun baked on the premises as are other sandwich breads and buns.  The bun is both soft and chewy as well as savory and sweet and an excellent canvas for moist ingredients.  The beef is magnificent!  You won’t want it prepared at any more than medium to maximize its moistness.  The green chile includes a smattering of roasted red chile which has an entirely different flavor profile altogether.  The burger is served with hand-cut truffle oil fries.  Forget ketchup and dip them in the Salsa Diablo. 

The Mother of All Green Chile Cheeseburgers with a Baked Potato

26 June 2020: Red, orange and yellow flame icons denote menu items–such as chiles and the jerk sauce–which are spicy…or at least they are for tourists.  For New Mexicans, those items are pleasantly piquant plus–hot enough to get our attention, but not so piquant that they water our eyes.  One of the most surprising entrees on Cowgirl’s spicy-hot scale is the Jerk Chicken Platter, two char-grilled chicken breasts marinated in a spicy-hot Jamaican Jerk BBQ sauce and served with rice and beans (the accommodating wait staff may allow substitutions such as a loaded (chives, shredded cheese, sour cream, butter and salsa) baked potato.

The chicken breasts are thin, but perfectly char-grilled with lovely grill stripes running vertically.  My Chicago born-and-bred Kim isn’t quite as enamored of esophagus-eating spices and heat as her volcano-eating husband is, so she asks for the jerk sauce on the side (which leaves plenty of side for me to use as a dip for everything else I can get my hands on).  Jerk, by the way doesn’t refer to an obnoxious person or member of Congress, but is a term for the seasonings traditionally used in the curing process of chicken and beef in Jamaica   The sauce includes a melding of flavorful and piquant spices including Scotch bonnet peppers (among the most piquant in the world), allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and more.  The sauce has a spicy kick with an offset of sweetness.  This is a very good rendition of Jerk Chicken.

Jerk Chicken Platter

26 June 2020: Dessert offerings include pastel tres leches, the wonderful Mexican tort made with three types of milk. Cowgirl’s version isn’t quite as moist as other tres leches cake we’ve had (milk should ooze every time you press your fork down into the cake), but is served with a rich cream and tart strawberries that make up for its lack of moistness somewhat. Cowgirl’s version is served in a cake-like version not as a pie-like wedge.

26 June 2020: A better option is the flourless chocolate cake with chile served with a side of vanilla ice cream, a dollop of housemade whipped cream and a drizzle of chile-infused chocolate sauce.  The combination of adult chocolate and red chile is one of life’s great pleasures, a dessert that doesn’t have the cloying qualities that rot your teeth at the mere mention.  In addition to an easily discernible chile flavor, this cake has a heavy Mexican cinnamon influence.  That’s a good thing!

Pastel Tres Leches

In 2019, the Food Network’s Bite Club visited Santa Fe where it staged “Duel in the Desert,” a competition of three of Santa Fe’s best chefs vying for the title of hometown champ. For his secret ingredient Chef Patrick Lambert of Cowgirl BBQ brought jerk spices, Chef Renee Fox of Arable chose hard apple cider and Chef Xavier Grenet of L’Olivier brought the house down with his choice of sweet breads. Judging the event held at the Coyote Cafe’s kitchen were scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning cookbook author Cheryl Alters Jamison and two-time New Mexico Chef of the Year Martin Rios. Despite not plating his buere blanc sauce, Chef Lambert won the first round with a wildly creative creation featuring green apple sweetbreads with Jamaican mop sauce and crispy tostones.

The judges furnished authentic local ingredients used in Santa Fe cuisine for the finale. Cheryl brought New Mexico’s official state cookie, the biscochito. Chef Rios selected cantaloupe while host Tyler Florence surprised the chefs with huitlacoche, a Mexican truffle broadly known as “corn smut.” Chef Fox earned the coveted title of Santa Fe’s Fight Club Champ with a huitlacoche soup paired with biscochito-crusted prawn and tropical salsa. The soup was laded onto the plates tableside. The dish was well-balanced and complex with ingredients providing complementary and contrasting notes.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Chile

Restaurants come and go and trends change with the times, but with nearly three decades of making Santa Fe customers happy, the Cowgirl BBQ appears to have staying power.  Moreover, it’s got a very interesting and diverse menu that makes every dining experience seem like the first time you dined there.

Cowgirl BBQ
312 South Guadalupe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-2565
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 22 June 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET: BBQ Beef, BBQ Sampler, Chicken Fajitas, Nachos, The Mother of All Green Chile Cheeseburgers, Jerk Chicken Platter, Cabeza De Ajo, Salsa Diablo, Flourless Chocolate Cake with Chile, Pastel Tres Leches, Chuckwagon Chili Frito Pie

16 thoughts on “The Cowgirl BBQ – Santa Fe, New Mexico

  1. Hi Gil:

    I’m circling back to our conversations about In-N-Out. Now, we know you eschew chain restaurants and establishments that are not Dude friendly. BUT – I have a new plug for In-N-Out in the event you find yourself stranded in your never ending search for good burgers when traveling outside of New Mexico. Certainly, there are those of us who really do like the burgers at In-N-Out, especially the Double-Double. As it turns out, The Dude might also enjoy a visit to an In-N-Out. I recently ran across an article titled “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dogs” in which it is reported as follows: “While you chow down on a Double-Double and fries, your furry friend can demolish a Pup Patty, lovingly made with plain, unseasoned beef.”

    1. Yo Chica,
      Would it be UnPC to Canine-Owners if a venue said it was dogged about wearing masks? Were to offer a fare titled Hush-Puppies? Do I&O still offer Doggy Bags? If they said Tuesdays were the Dog’s-Day-of-Summer? Had signage asking patrons not to hound the waitress (Yes, I uphold the Gen-ID as a form of feminine and profession respect) as to whether or not her ruff and husky voice is a symptom of CoVid as well as never refer to her as a retriever, nor request we eliminate Collieflower as a side!
      Speaking of your NYC: I never had the “pleasure” of dining at Katz. As such, I can imagine they did not have a doggy patio.
      Speaking of cats, ocelots, pumas, monkeys, parrots,….equality, diversity and all that, ….

      1. Bob, I continue to marvel at your creativity. It seems to me that The Dog House or Urban Hot Dog could make good use of your talents.

        As for Katz’s, to my knowledge they’ve never had a patio, let alone one that is dog-friendly, but who knows? In COVID times, changes are occurring daily.

    2. Thank you, Becky. The Dude is one finicky eater. Finding something he’ll like is always a travel challenge. Mostly he just wants to have what we’re having.

  2. So – by now, we all know – or should know – that New Mexico chile is not “chili”. But what is real “Texas chili”? I have always understood it to be chile con carne made primarily from meat and peppers with no tomatoes, tomato sauce, or beans – definitely no beans. (The best tome ever written on Texas chili is “A Bowl of Red” by Frank Tolbert.) The more common chili containing beans and any tomato product (as well as copious amounts of that dreadful cumin) would typically be referred to as Tex-Mex chili, classic chili, cowboy chili, or chuckwagon chili.

    I wasn’t surprised to read that Gil has once again strayed beyond the boundaries of New Mexican cuisine (he’s a bit of a bon vivant) and admitted that he likes the chili at Cowgirl but what did give me pause was that he refers to their chuckwagon chili as “Texas-style”. I guess the reference to “Texas-style” allows a little wiggle room. But Gil – for Texas chili purists, it’s technically misleading and it makes you sound like you’re from New York CITY (emphasis on City). We can’t have that here on Gil’s Thrilling.

    1. “New York City? Git a rope!” It serves me right for copying and pasting Cowgirl’s description of chuckwagon chili from the Cowgirl menu. Siri has been conditioned to utter profanities whenever I even spell “chili.” Simultaneously, my spellchecker quickly highlights the offending word in red and won’t let me proceed until I correct the grievous error of my ways. That’s my excuse for not correcting Cowgirl or Saint Pete Domenici in their mistaken attribution of Texas chili being made with beans.

      One of my favorite Texas food writers, three-time James Beard award-winner Robb Walsh was cited in a very interesting piece on Texas chili a few years ago. In the piece, he theorizes on how that foul demon spice cumin came to have polluted Texas chili forevermore. It’s a good read, but it still leaves the origin of Texas chili in a rather murky state.

      1. Gil, I think we can dispense with the need to get a rope at this point but we may have to subject you to a penance of devouring a couple of Whataburgers, as noted by Tom, or my personal favorite In-N-Out Burgers . Pick your poison.

        Thanks for the link to that excellent article in Texas Monthly. Robb Walsh is a great guy and he may be correct in his theory of how “the foul demon spice cumin” infiltrated Texas chili. Having researched the origins and provenances of dozens and dozens of our most popular dishes, I know how hard it is to find facts and information. The article you provided makes excellent points, especially when it comes to references going back so many years and the very real possibility that the names of dishes changed over time. As so much material has been digitized, it’s a bit easier than when I originally started my searches but it comes down to dogged determination and whole lot of effort. And as more information becomes available, original premises can change drastically. It’s a real challenge.

        1. Whataburger or In-N-Out…that’s a tough choice. Whataburger was our salvation when we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We used to drive 50 miles to Mobile, Alabama just to have Whataburger’s taquitos (what everyone north of San Antonio would call a breakfast burrito). Whataburger’s tortillas were surprisingly good and with a little bacon (there’s never enough), the taquitos were rather good. So, for my penance, can I devour a couple taquitos instead of burgers?

          Dogged determination and effort are practices lost on far too many journalists and bloggers nowadays. Some find gospel truth in Wikipedia. Others plagiarize. Only the great ones like you do the real legwork to provide factual, well-researched content. That’s why your books remain my unimpeachable sources of truth.

          1. Gil, not a tough choice. In-N-Out burger is far superior to Whataburger. But no locations in NM. I just got back from eight months in CA and In-N-Out Burger was a regular drive-thru, especially since no mask required. Come to think of it, staying in your car and eating is the original “social distancing.”

            Committing to In-N-Out Burger, for me, has more logistics than the Normandy invasion. First off, In-N-Out Burger’s fries suck. I’ve seen them put the fresh potatoes through the slicer and deep fry them immediately and serve immediately.

            But they taste like cardboard, like biting into an empty wine box. Speaking of wine, my Wine Twitter following agrees about In-N-Out’s fries. So, many of us have developed a stratagem in which we swing by McDonald’s drive-thru and order fries and a cup of water. (Still love McDonald’s fries but not as much as when they used to fry them in beef tallow.) But still, better than In-N-Out’s.

            Next, like any expensive winos, we always cart at least a mixed-case of Bordeaux and Rhone wines in our trunk. (Never know when you suddenly have to shelter in place and you don’t want to be caught short of Vino.)

            We then proceed to In-N-Out Burger drive-thru and order a Double-Double Cheese with Onions and proceed to its parking lot. Next, we open a selected bottle (expensive winos are never far from a waiter’s cork screw) and empty the cup of water and replace the liquid with the grape of the Gods.

            Single drawback: In-N-Out Burger CA has no clue to green chile. So, a New Mexican in CA must bring his or her own smallish container of green chile. So you’ve got McDonald’s fries, a Double Double In-N-Out Cheese Burger with Hatch green chile (and onions), and an emptied water cup of 2015 Cotes-du-Rhone.

            I know this sounds like a lot of obsessive planning (and it is) but the alternative is not acceptable.

    2. There’s a saying in Texas: “If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain’t got no beans.”

      Fortunately, Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) blog features a panopticon design in which our roving gourmand host can be observed by a single security guard – Becky.

  3. First off, a little house cleaning item, the overuse of the word “capacious” from our esteemed roving gourmand, Senior Gil, to describe “roomy.”

    He uses it a lot. How about “one of the Cowgirl’s Brobdingnagian dining rooms”? Just a suggestion. The point is, mix up your modifiers, Amigo. It will catch your copy editors off-guard if for no other reason than the gift of surprise.

    Secondly, I have lived in Corrales for 15 years and visit Santa Fe semi-frequently and have passed the Cowgirl BBQ hundreds of time and have never stopped for a meal. I wish to but am always stare-straight-ahead for some other destination or reckoning.

    Fifteen dollars for a green chile cheeseburger stuns me like police taser at close range. I can get a really good Cotes-du-Rhone for $15 and swing through Whataburger for a double chile-cheeseburger and wash it down with my bottle in the Savers parking lot opposite Whataburger.

    The Pastel Tres Leches, however, looks awesome. Next time you go to Cowgirl Senior Gil swing by the Whataburger parking lot and pick me up. Much appreciated.

    1. Ah, Tom, I forget you actually understand and appreciate the deeply allegorical, oft scatological writings of Swift as much as I do. I had actually feared overuse of the term Brobdingnagian which a quick search reveals was used in my reviews of Jerusalem, Taste of the Holy Land, Tuerta, Bosque North, El Taco Tote and others.

      You may have noticed I’ve frequently used Lilliputian, the antonym for Brobdingnagian. I had hoped to use “Houyhnhnms” on my review of Cowgirl, but couldn’t quite figure out where it would fit.

      The fifteen dollar green chile cheeseburger is an outlier price-wise. For the most part, you can describe the fare at Cowgirl as “cheap eats” and it’s all better than Whataburger.

    1. Congratulations, Larry. You’ve submitted 100 comments to my thrilling and filling blog, joining Bob of the Village People as the only two commentators to achieve that milestone. I’ve learned much from you and esteem your opinions very highly.

  4. I would stick to the bar. I only had the BBQ combo platter. Brisket is not even close to Rudys. Beans were no cooked all the way. It does like like a good place to have a beer. Is the town of Santa Fe funded completely by parking tickets?

  5. This place is simply awful – bar-b-que ribs were boiled first and plate was dripping with water. Went there 3 times (other people paid 2 of the times or I would never have gone back) and every meal was worse. Rating I would give would be 4 or 5 at most and only because I feel a bit generous today.

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