Steak--damn straight--is the mother's milk of Dallas dining. When imagination fails you, when the prospect of culinary risk numbs the cojones, when the anxiety of outfitting a restaurant without mahogany, polished brass and frosted glass tulip blooms over chandelier bulbs paralyzes you, it's best to load up on 1,800-degree broilers, join a Cabernet cult and create a shortcut key for the word "prime" on your word processor. You're going to launch a steak house, a nice, stable steak house where conventioneers flock and shekels sweat from the walls.
Ranch Steakhouse Grill & Bar veers just slightly from this well-trod cliché. For starters, instead of a dazzling wood-and-glass wine cabinet set off by halogen halos, Ranch features an Indian chief carved out of a log. Instead of a crystal-and-brass chandelier, a moose antler wreath nesting dormant candles dangles from the ceiling. Rather than heavily lacquered mahogany and cherry timber, Ranch Steakhouse Grill & Bar is a devotee of raw lumber: massive wood beams joined by bolts as thick as rail spikes, wood panels for wainscoting and planks for a bar. It smells like Home Depot 2-by-4 aromatherapy body splash. Textured walls hold paintings of horse heads and roosters and cattle fording swift rivers. Wine is listed in a long, narrow, black leather-like billfold where Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Shiraz of uncultish pedigree are rendered in decorative script so slanted and loopy that it's hard to tease out the names.
But what Ranch lacks in traditional steak house sophistication, it makes up for--Barry Bonds-like--on the plate. Take the Tex-Mex nachos. On the menu, it reads like this: chips, chili, jalapeños, cheese, sour cream and guacamole. We put in for a half-order.
Big mistake. These nachos arrive with unprecedented bombast. A thicket of chips is crowded with coarse ground beef tethered by strands and elasticized pools of cheddar cheese in lush bulldozer yellow. Diced tomato is tumbled into the pile, and frothy blooms of sour cream and guacamole rise from chip heap summits. It's massive enough to head-butt two appetites at once, all by itself.
"Sorry. I should have told you it was huge," says our server in a nervous giggle. (According to our check, our server's name is Bubba). "Me, I just took mine home." Where it could stretch into a week's worth of meals if only Tex-Mex nachos aged well, which they don't. Chips voraciously absorb the unctuous chili ooze, with the drooling sour cream and guacamole melding through chip tributaries like nacho bile.
Onion rings comport with equal heft. Our tall buzz-cut server warned us of this half's hugeness. He stretched out his arms and cupped his massive mitts to express the glory of the full order. It is too large to be contained on standard-issue Ranch plates, so the rings are fashioned into a hulking onion high-rise.
The onions are sliced into shoestring loops, "hand-battered" and fried, welding them into knots and hairball nests. Pull the strands apart to dip them into the tiny vat of ranch dressing and your fingertips glisten from oil. And they are annoyingly addictive. You can't keep yourself from pawing the pile. Eventually, the craving forces you to dispense with tearing off bite-size strands, and you resort to stuffing your mouth with whole snarls, not even pausing for a sweep through the ranch.
This "size matters" doctrine takes a burlesque twist with "hot pigs in a pepper," a pair of mild Anaheim peppers battered and swollen with cheese and chorizo. On the plate, these peppers, fried into a woolly bronze, are fat, thick, long and tapered. One leans upon the other like a pair of crossed legs. Cut into these peppers near the tip and the cheese shoots out in lackluster spurts. The sausage isn't very well dispersed, and our first few bites yielded no chorizo kick.
But carve your way up its widening girth and the chorizo grains seem to congregate. Spice explodes in the mouth, taunting cheek walls and taste buds with its ferocity.
Is there a Ranch example that isn't bludgeoned with senseless heft? Yes. Crawfish cakes--three flat, pink-speckled patties resting on a bed of leafy greens. They arrive with rémoulade. The cakes are embedded with bits of bell pepper. They're dismal--dry, pasty, loaded with filler that thumps the slightest perception of racy sweet crawdad into oblivion. They taste like a sponge cake marinated in diluted fish sauce and left to sauna on the hood of a black Suburban at noon.
Ranch Steakhouse is lodged next to a Ramada Limited motel in a development called The Ranch at Cedar Hill, a relatively new ensemble with gift shops and a gallery. One shop features a silversmith who crafts custom jewelry and hawks western trinkets and paintings along with belts, shirts and trousers by Tommy Bahama. It's a morsel of Santa Fe mixed with Texas kitsch. On one visit a guy twisted balloons into dogs and moose while a karaoke commenced on the green space so that sudsed-up folks could express their inner Dixie Chick.
Ranch is a split-level dining room with black cloths over tables surrounded by cherry wood chairs. Entrées arrive on this stage with considerably less heft than split appetizers. This isn't so strange when you think about it. Entrée matter costs more than an armful of chips or a bale of onions, especially when steak is involved. Still, you can snare a lot of flavor without heavy expenditures.
Example: Steak Martinez, a skirt steak marinated in lime-pepper sauce tethered to a listless sautéed shrimp salsa with faded tomato, drooping lettuce and pieces of decently pert shrimp sown in. The surface of the strip broadcasts grill skill: The bar marks are perfect, the surface showing just the right amount of char. But cut into the wily flesh, and the inside is raw instead of the requested medium rare. Back to the grill. The steak performs better on the second run, but the meat is unruly. It either wasn't marinated for a sufficient period or the skirt was harvested from a cheap steer, one that can easily stare down a citrus marinade without flinching. Still, the meat is rich and juicy.
New York strip is simply remarkable. The dab of herb butter on its symmetrical web of grill-bar imprints drools into a pool that slowly bleeds across the surface. Cut through the slab and the rosy interior glistens through its smooth fibers. It's rich and tender, reeking of lusty savor. A side of grilled zucchini, carrot, broccoli, squash and onion is near perfect, and the steaming baked potato is sprinkled with thick-cut scallion and real bacon bits crumbled from strips of freshly griddled bacon.
Grilled salmon is posted on five planks of asparagus--thick as rebar--ribbing the plate. Lemon-butter sauce, bumped with artichokes, capers and mushrooms, streams from the crisp surface and pools at the base of the thick fillet.
But the most surprising example of Ranch economy is the ribs, albeit in half-order guise. There are just four, arranged symmetrically across the plate, much like those asparagus stalks girding the salmon. Sauce is thick and remarkably restrained, just a brush stroke of orange across the span of the meaty bone. They're chewy and moist, the sauce just hinting at sass.
Ranch has its virtues as well as a host of flaws, with the virtues just barely rising above. But it could do itself and us a lot of good by throttling the ostentatious bulk (a thick slab of cheesecake swamped in chocolate, caramel and raspberry sauces is simply too ridiculous to eat). Those virtues would sure float better. 1435 N. Highway 67, Cedar Hill, 972-291-4530. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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