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Vacation From Touristland

by B.A. Nilsson on October 25, 2012

Ranchero, 23 Main St., South Glens Falls, 636-5090, rancherosteakhouse.com. Serving dinner 4-9 Sun, Tue-Thu, 4-10 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Tex-Mex inspired

Entrée price range: 7 (burger) to $23 (ribeye steak)

Ambiance: Southwestern saloon

Just my luck. The entrée I selected, after long deliberation, was a nine-ounce piece of top sirloin crusted with crushed pepper and topped with garlic butter. It’s called “The Alamo,” no doubt because of its memorably spicy flavor. But a memory only it shall become, as it’s fallen off the restaurant’s forthcoming menu. Too many who ordered it found it’s spiciness an unpleasant surprise.

Never mind that the menu spells out its construction. Never mind that pepper-crusted steak (“au poivre”) is a celebrated classic. Never mind that 35 years ago, when I cooked at a restaurant where the French version of this dish was featured, we never had a complaint about it. I hate to think that the South Glens Falls of today is more culinarily cautious than the Ridgefield, Conn., of way back then.

But I’m inclined to throw tantrums when food is denied me, and I’m already mourning the Alamo. I don’t fault Ranchero owners Heath and Jeff Ames, who are committed to styling their restaurant to accommodate the community’s tastes. In fact, I give them plenty of credit. They see their restaurant as a work in progress, and they’re particularly dedicated to the belief that they can offer a dining experience that will challenge the comfort and familiarity of the chain restaurant, which lurk in evil abundance around Northway exit 17, while bettering though places with food that’s cooked to order from fresh ingredients. And believe me, that’s something the chains tend to avoid.

Ranchero occupies a building once known as Jake’s Round-Up, which started as a yogurt shop in 1992 before expanding into a full-scale eatery. When the Ameses bought the place three years ago, they kept much of what was there intact, renaming it Jake’s Road House, but it proved not as amenable as they wished to the customers they wanted to attract.

“We took a harder look at local tastes,” says Heath, “and continue to work the menu to reflect that.” She’s from the area, and, as children entered the picture, she and her husband moved from the San Francisco area, where they’d run three restaurants. They opened Cantina in Saratoga nearly six years ago, and the South Glens Falls place seemed a natural extension.

Re-revised and re-renamed, Ranchero is pleasant and welcoming, its rooms still sporting the Western-themed furniture and posters, its youthful servers busily circulating, treating you as if you’re dining in a fancier white-linen place.

You can see the rejiggering of the Tex-Mex concept from the start of the starters list. Texas eggrolls ($6.79) gives a nice twist to the concept of a wrap, and the two you’re served have contrasting fillings of pulled chicken and jalapeno-and-cheese. Casa calamari ($7.64) has a tomato-based Veracruz sauce, and “cowgirl sweet potato fries” ($5.79) are sui generis.

But you also can start with a quesadilla ($7.79-$9.79, depending on filling), coconut shrimp ($6.89) or potato skins ($6.84).

There are salads such as chicken taco in a tortilla shell ($8/$10.25), chicken Caesar ($6.49/$8.79) and mixed greens with gorgonzola, pecans and fruit ($7.69/$9.59), and more dinner-like arrays that feature chicken or steak or ahi tuna.

The heart of the menu is its list of steaks and Southwestern fare. Although my $19 Alamo—oh, tasty top sirloin vehicle!—will ease away, there’s a $16 top sirloin preparation you can douse with any of the hot sauces found at every table. Filet mignon comes in six-ounce ($17) and nine-ounce ($23) servings, while a 12-ounce strip steak is $23—although for the same price you could nab a 14-ounce ribeye, which is more interesting to navigate.

Two side dishes of your choosing come with your steak—mine were garlic mashed potatoes, done right, and a small Caesar salad; fries, rings, soup and more are also waiting to be selected.

The Ranchero burrito contains grilled steak ($11.69), pulled chicken or pulled pork ($10.69). The pulled pork version balances the zesty meat with black beans and rice and melted Monterey Jack within, sour cream, guacamole and salsa without. And if, like me, you’ve already plowed through the complimentary salsa and chips, you’ll be faced with a daunting pile of even more chips with this dish.

Other items on this menu page include a trio of chimichangas ($12.84 for chicken, a dollar more for steak), beef or chicken enchiladas with rice and beans on the side (two for $10, three for $13), fajitas (with vegetables, $12.49; chicken, $14; steak, $16; shrimp, $17) and a flank steak with salsa verde and rice and beans ($15.29).

Keeping the menu varied (and a sure lure to draw me back) are fish and chips for $14.49 and blackened chicken penne Alfredo for $14. I like to think I’ve long outgrown the lure of mac and cheese, but here it is for $13.

On the other hand, burgers never stale, and the simplest version, which weighs in at more than five ounces, is $7, with fancier preparations offering chipotle seasoning and pepper jack cheese ($9.74), bacon and blue cheese ($9.89) and, I swear, a bacon burger served between two grilled cheese sandwiches ($10.79). Served with fries, of course—endlessly, the menu promises.

Flanked at top and bottom by the tourist meccas of Lake George and Saratoga, and being farther from the Northway than Aviation Mall and its overbuilt environs, South Glens Falls is a bit of a world of its own. Ranchero is a civilized entry into that world, and a worthy respite from the Touristland.