One good thing about The Ranch House is that if it weren't for Interstate 30 just a few yards away and Lake Ray Hubbard (which is really just a gully with big hips) nearby, you'd think you really were on a ranch. And I'm not necessarily talking about the décor, which includes a welcome sign spelled out in horseshoes cemented into the sidewalk, and walls mounted with the heads of just about every hoofed animal in existence--plus a bass. No, I'm referring to how they serve the food. Cisco salad, a respectable batch of lettuce leaves mingled with toasted pecans and wedges of blue cheese, is served in a big bowl, and diners are left to fend for themselves. Spicy ranch-house beans--a clean, flavorful batch of firm, well-seasoned beans--are served in a metal bucket. You almost feel like a pig having its way with slops.
Which is OK, because this place is almost a full-court kitsch press. There are strands of barbed wire next to the sign on the roof. The plates are framed with barbed wire along the edges. Sculpted metal silhouettes of Western scenes are perched on the dining-room dividers. It all looks very ranchish until you get to the refrigerated glass display case stuffed with fresh vegetables and meat wrapped in cellophane in front of the open kitchen. Virtually every fleshy rendition from the menu makes an appearance here (some of them graying): the West Texas ja-lop-peno steak, the Roy's rib eye, the Gabby's top sirloin, and the city-slicker strip.
The last is actually quite good, especially for the $14 price tag. The modestly thick cut, singed to appropriate medium-rare tinge, was tender, juicy, and seasoned well, and it skirted distracting pockets of tough gristle and stringy sinew.
The Ranch House
2901 Village Drive, Rockwall
Open for dinner 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday; 12-11 p.m. Saturday; 12-9 p.m. Sunday. (972) 771-5225 $$
Chicken Rockwall: $9.99
City Slicker Strip: $13.99
Mom's Meatloaf: $6.99
Whiskey River Ribs: $9.99
Peach Cobbler: $5.99
But the names they use to designate entrées can get a little distracting--names such as "better than Mama's meatloaf," a good, moist meat bun with a smooth, rich flavor and a zesty tomato sauce spiked with clove. It was surely better than my mother's attempts, which left me with a meatloaf phobia for some years. Yet this one wasn't sauced well, and we had to request an extra ramekin to trim it out.
Spareribs can always be tricky, mostly because they arrive parched or too fatty. But Whiskey River spareribs held chewy, moist meat draped in a bourbon-apricot barbecue glaze, a sauce that was muscular, fluid, and smooth instead of dry, cloying, and sedimentary.
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The biggest surprise was the chicken Rockwall, a plump, moist breast drowned in an intense mushroom-sherry demi-glace. The sauce was brilliantly seasoned, punching the breast with vivid flavor while it allowed the meat itself to peek through.
In addition to bean pails and salad bowls, The Ranch House offers cheesy au gratin potatoes, a boat riddled with undercooked spud lumps swimming in a runny cheese sauce. Jalapeño cheese biscuits were more successful: light, airy, and delicate. In a way, these feminine little puffs were out of place on this menu of brawny slaughterhouse fare.
For dessert the "good n' gooey" peach cobbler proved a good gullet glue to hold everything else together. It was chewy, moist, and tasty, but a little too gooey.
But really, can you ever get too gooey on a ranch?