Here’s the beef
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.