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Smoky flavors will get the best of you at Ranch House

David Wagner waits on people late last year during lunch at The Ranch House on Santa Fe’s south side. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

David Wagner waits on people late last year during lunch at The Ranch House on Santa Fe’s south side. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

We’d heard from a variety of people that The Ranch House was a nice place with good food. Figuring all those folks couldn’t be wrong, off we went to the southern reaches of town one evening to see what the excitement was about.

The Ranch House turns out to be more than a steakhouse. It’s also a barbecue joint, but a very nice one, nice enough for special occasions while remaining understatedly comfortable enough for just a meal out. It’s run by the people behind what was Josh’s Barbecue on Zafarano and it’s a showcase for what may be the best smoked meat in town.

We arrived on the early side for dinner Friday and we had reservations, so we were promptly seated in a large and comfortable booth. Be forewarned: By the time we left after 7, the place was packed and it was standing room only in the lobby.

In keeping with the barbecue theme, we started with an order of smoked chile con queso ($7.25) with chips. It was very good – just a little smoke flavor for the cheese and just enough heat in the green chile to be a big cut above the often uninspired average.

My guest ordered a half portion of The Ranch House salad ($3.95), mainly to sample the cornbread croutons. It was a generous toss of greens, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, served with the house dressing – a smoky ranch concoction that set it off nicely. We liked the croutons, which were softer and far tastier than the standard stale-bread things dumped out of a box.

We also liked the fact that The Ranch House offers its smoked meats, as well as shrimp or salmon, as toppings for its salads for $2.50-$5.95, turning a small salad into a light meal. Smoked meat entrees can be customized the same way, so you can get a taste of chicken with the brisket, or a couple of ribs with either.

It was my lucky night that Friday – The Ranch House serves smoked prime rib on Friday and Saturday nights only. (Tuesdays, smoked turkey is on the menu.) I chose the smaller 8 oz. serving ($16.95) and reveled.

It was served rare as I had ordered (next time, I’ll opt for medium rare) and came with a good-size dish of horseradish, too. The meat was tender and delicious, with just the barest hint of smoke. It’s hard to imagine an improvement to good prime rib, but that slight smokiness may be it.

The accompanying baked potato – a substitute for the potato salad, slaw or barbecued beans listed as standard – arrived as I had ordered, too, with a simple garnish of sour cream and chives.

My guest tucked in to her New York strip steak ($22.95), also cooked perfectly medium well, as she ordered. It, too, was tender and delicious, and garnished with a bourbon-shallot butter for extra flavor. We both especially enjoyed the calabacitas, the classic New Mexican summer squash medley, because it was freshly cooked and not overdone.

We also liked the fact that The Ranch House allows you to opt for an enchilada as a side for its steak offerings instead of the standard potato and veggie choices.

Another plus: The dinner menu includes a variety of burgers with trimmings, as well as barbecued meat sandwiches, a brisket burrito with green chile, salmon tacos, and mac and cheese. So it’s possible for the only lightly hungry or the non-carnivorous to find something to eat here. (The Ranch House serves antibiotic- and hormone-free beef, some of it from New Mexico ranches.)

Yet another plus: Even as every table filled, we were able to converse easily across our booth and at normal volume. The Ranch House remains serene and relatively quiet even when it’s packed – not a common characteristic among Santa Fe restaurants.

Dessert was mandatory for review purposes, even though we were nearly stuffed after the steak and prime rib. My guest chose chocolate, of course, or more exactly, chocolate peanut butter mousse ($5.95). I chose the rhubarb-strawberry crisp (also $5.95) with ice cream.

Both servings were huge – we guesstimated each would have allowed three people a good taste and, on top of the meal, would have been a perfectly adequate serving for each. But we sampled valiantly, managing to eat half of each between us.

The mousse proved to have a layer of each flavor – a nice visual cue for this quintessentially American combo. My guest was more than pleased. The fruit crisp was good, too, but too sweet for my taste. Rhubarb is a favorite of mine and I like it straight up, without adulteration by sweeter fruits.

Service at The Ranch House is excellent and remained so even as the place filled up. As its crowded lobby and packed dining room attest, this restaurant, which opened nearly five years ago, has earned a well-deserved reputation for excellent food at reasonable prices.