Here’s the beef

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Alex Heard For The New Mex­i­can

A mod­ern steak­house like Rio Chama has an an­ces­tral link to the old chophouse restau­rants and “beef­steak” ban­quets that started show­ing up in New York City after the Civil War. Chop­houses were dingy places fre­quented by peo­ple look­ing for a filling, meat-heavy meal. Beef­steaks, which The New

Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell wrote about in a clas­sic 1939 ar­ti­cle called “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks,” were com­mu­nal feasts de­voted to steak-eat­ing glut­tony. For a long time, th­ese events were mostly stag, but Mitchell re­ported that women started get­ting in­vited to po­lit­i­cal-party-spon­sored beef­steaks after they won the right to vote in 1920, with con­se­quences that some purists found un­set­tling. “[Women] forced the ad­di­tion of such things as Man­hat­tan cock­tails, fruit cups, and fancy sal­ads to the tra­di­tional menu of slices of ripened steaks, dou­ble lamb chops, kid­neys, and beer by the pitcher,” he wrote.

Ob­vi­ously, Rio Chama’s more civ­i­lized menu would make those old boys squirm. Here, you can skip beef en­tirely and try veg­e­tar­ian lasagna, sal­mon, sea bass, and chicken. But this is still pri­mar­ily a steak joint, where beef is king and the sal­ads and sides are sup­port­ing play­ers. It’s long been tra­di­tional in steak­houses to make th­ese of­fer­ings rich and cheesy calo­rie bombs, as em­bod­ied in that fa­mil­iar sta­ple, creamed spinach. Rio Chama fol­lows this path, so be fore­warned: This is no place for di­eters. The wedge salad I or­dered was typ­i­cal. It con­sisted of a hunk of ice­berg let­tuce drowned in blue cheese dress­ing, with a floppy piece of ba­con laid on top.

Rio Chama oc­cu­pies a ram­bling com­pound just north of the state capi­tol build­ing with many com­fort­able spots to drink and eat. The restau­rant’s big bar, which fills the main build­ing’s north­east cor­ner, is a fa­vorite for sports fans be­cause of its four large, high-mounted TV screens and so­cia­ble at­mos­phere. The main din­ing room, south of the bar, is warm, spa­cious, and woody, with kiva fire­places flaming away this time of year. Ex­pan­sions here and there have cre­ated pri­vate din­ing ar­eas avail­able for rent, like the Pres­i­dent’s Room and Pa­tio (a large ban­quet space) and the Abiquiú Room (a wine-cel­lar din­ing area that seats 32).

For both of my re­cent meals, I tried to cap­ture that old beef­steak spirit by open­ing with a strong mixed drink. Fit­tingly, Rio Chama’s cock­tail menu fea­tures three dif­fer­ent Man­hat­tans, but I went with a sen­ti­men­tal fa­vorite: an Old Fash­ioned, a com­bi­na­tion of bour­bon, bit­ters, a sweet­ener like sim­ple syrup, ice, orange slices, a cherry, and (some­times) a squirt of min­eral wa­ter to lighten things up. The Rio Chama ver­sion is gen­er­ous — the bar­tenders here pour big — and not too sweet. But it didn’t have quite enough bour­bon kick. My com­pan­ions no­ticed this with three other drinks we tried, in­clud­ing a mar­garita and a mar­tini. They all seemed a bit wa­tered down.

The two ap­pe­tiz­ers we or­dered — chicken flau­tas and raw oys­ters on the half shell, which were billed as be­ing from coastal Vir­ginia — were both very good. The flau­tas con­sisted of minced chicken breast rolled inside three corn tor­tillas that were then fried and served with gua­camole and two sauces, one of which was an oniony mari­nara. The guac was great; the ma­rina is a so-so con­coc­tion that could use more herbs. As for the oys­ters, I may have to go back. Years ago, I con­sumed a lot of bi­valves dur­ing vis­its to Chin­coteague, Vir­ginia, and the oys­ters that Rio Chama served were ex­actly like what I re­mem­ber: smaller and thin­ner than a Gulf oys­ter, but also sweeter and tastier.

Over the course of two nights, my com­pan­ions and I tried four dif­fer­ent cuts of beef: the prime rib, the New York strip, the rib-eye, and the filet mignon. Rio Chama’s menu and web­site don’t say any­thing about what kind of cat­tle they’re us­ing, but if you call they’ll tell you: It’s feed­lot-fin­ished Black An­gus from south­ern Colorado. The beef has been dry-aged, which means its fla­vor has been con­cen­trated by hang­ing for a few weeks in cold tem­per­a­tures. Ev­ery cut we tried was very good — fatty and fla­vor­ful — and the steaks were juicy and nicely seared.

Rio Chama’s weak­est link is its side dishes, which are some­times much too heavy. (Ev­ery steak or­der comes with a side; each ad­di­tional one is $5.) The creamed spinach and cheesy grits are so loaded with dairy that they’re over­whelm­ing, and the sautéed kale was ba­si­cally bathing in but­ter. The two desserts we tried — pump­kin cheese­cake and choco­late pot with crème anglaise — were sur­pris­ingly sub­tle and light by com­par­i­son. I think even those flinty old beef­steak purists wouldn’t have minded giv­ing them a try.

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