Holy smoke

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Alex Heard I For The New Mex­i­can

Run­ning any restau­rant is hard enough, but run­ning a smoke­house-style place like the Ranch House brings ad­di­tional com­pli­ca­tions. One in­volves fuel. Nat­u­ral gas or char­coal pro­vides most of the cook­ing heat, but if you’re not burn­ing some kind of aro­matic wood un­der or near the meat, you’re not re­ally “smok­ing” it at all. Such wood (hick­ory, oak, pecan, ap­ple, and oth­ers) is rel­a­tively scarce in North­ern New Mex­ico, so the Ranch House brings in oak from Texas. Since hard­wood is ex­pen­sive, the first thing I al­ways look for at bar­be­cue res­tau­rants is the an­swer to one ques­tion: Do they seem to be burn­ing enough to re­ally im­part fla­vor?

The other thing I look for is tim­ing. Whether you’re do­ing ribs, pulled pork, chicken, beef brisket, or sausage — all of which are of­fered at the Ranch House — the prep­ping, slow­cook­ing, and smok­ing process takes many hours, some­times more than a day. When the meat is done, it needs to be re­moved from the heat and kept warm in a way that doesn’t dry it out. The Ranch House sells a lot of prod­uct ev­ery week. Does it man­age the com­pli­cated lo­gis­tics of this con­sis­tently and suc­cess­fully?

The short an­swer, based on two re­cent meals, is that some­times it does, some­times it doesn’t. One night I had pork ribs that were smoky and cooked just right, with the meat fall­ing off the bone. The next day, the ribs were dried out, with a tex­ture alarm­ingly close to beef jerky. In the past, I’ve eaten a lot of take­out chicken from the Ranch House and its pre­de­ces­sor restau­rant, the now-shut­tered Josh’s BBQ, and it has al­most al­ways been smoky and good. But the half chicken I tried dur­ing a sit-down din­ner just wasn’t ac­cept­able. Even the dark meat was dry, and there was al­most no smoky fla­vor per­me­at­ing the bird, which tasted oven-baked and noth­ing more. The take­away is that, while you can cer­tainly find good food at the Ranch House, just as of­ten you’re likely to be dis­ap­pointed.

Get­ting there re­quires a car trip — the restau­rant oc­cu­pies a big, boxy build­ing on Cristo’s Road, which is out near Kohl’s and the Santa Fe Auto Park. In­side, the at­mos­phere is woody, warmly lit, and quiet, with an an­i­mal pelt or two nearby to let you know you’re in car­ni­vore coun­try. You can eat in din­ing rooms straight past the main en­trance or in a long bar-and-TV space to the right.

For din­ner one night, in the main din­ing room, we started with two cock­tails and an or­der of queso and chips. My din­ing com­pan­ion’s mar­garita was a stan­dard-is­sue blend that sup­pos­edly con­tained Coin­treau, but I couldn’t taste it. I tried a mo­jito made us­ing prickly pear juice. This drink has a nice red, fruity base, but its al­co­hol con­tent was no­tice­ably weak.

The queso was smoky and con­tained enough green chile for that prized fla­vor to come through. We were about two min­utes into en­joy­ing it when our en­trees ar­rived — too soon. I had baby back ribs and the chicken men­tioned above; my com­pan­ion tried the beef brisket plate. Brisket is of­ten served in long, nar­row slices that show off the grain of the beef and the way that wood smoke has per­me­ated the outer edges to cre­ate a pink ring. This meat was chopped up, was a dull brown in color, had the tex­ture of shred­ded pot roast, and didn’t taste smoky.

En­trees come with sides, and there are a lot to choose from: waf­fle fries, green chile slaw, potato salad, cal­abac­i­tas, and BBQ beans, among oth­ers. Ev­ery one we tried — sweet potato fries, slaw, and beans — was good, and I al­ready knew from my pre­vi­ous take­out ex­pe­ri­ences that the Ranch House makes ex­cel­lent potato salad.

For lunch on a sec­ond visit, my friend tried a sam­pler plate that came with brisket, pulled pork, sausage, and baby back ribs. The pork was fine, the sausage was spicy and very tasty, the brisket was the same as be­fore, and the ribs were leath­ery. I looked else­where on the menu and tried a ham­burger — a hearty stack of sesame-seed bun, beef, big strips of ba­con, and del­i­cate onion rings. I’d go back and or­der that again.

We also tried a dessert — choco­late mousse with peanut but­ter in­side and a layer of choco­late ganache on top — and the day’s big sur­prise was how good it was. That’s an­other item worth a re­turn trip. As for the Ranch House it­self: I’ll keep go­ing there for take­out, but un­til they get their smok­ing op­er­a­tion di­aled in a lit­tle bet­ter, it won’t be a des­ti­na­tion for a sit-down meal with friends.

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