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.