Bring an Appetite
By Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Nov. 5, 1999
Ranch 616616 Nueces, 479-7616
Mon-Sat, 11am-3pm; Mon-Wed, 5-10:30pm; Thu-Sat, 5-11pm
Restaurant partners and childhood friends Kevin Williamson and Sharon Gerhardt grew up eating in the Austin eateries of the Sixties, restaurants with a distinct Austin personality and Texas flavor. That meant Cisco's for breakfast, lunch at Jake's, and dinner at the Hoffbrau or Matt's El Rancho. When the duo set out to open their second restaurant, one of the main goals was to salute the successful operations they respected and create a joint with a menu and personality that would encourage customers to choose it as their hangout. Along with partners Darryl Sneary and Rebecca Rather, Williamson and Gerhardt found a smallish building on the southern edge of the downtown legal ghetto, just a block off busy West Sixth, and set out to build the Ranch. Few things evoke the traditional Texas image better than a ranch, and a somewhat nontraditional spin on that tried-and-true Western motif works very well in Leslie Fossler's design for Ranch 616. Evan Voyles' impressive rattlesnake sign spells out the name on the side of the building with a neon tongue and rattle for punctuation. On the dining room wall, a Bob "Daddy-O" Wade mural features the painted photograph of a 1930s Western swing band, and the molded concrete bar is covered with Bonnie and Courtney Mann's clever tile mosaic highlighted with dominoes. Western memorabilia and old Austin photos round out the decor, with all the different elements contributing to the festive ambiance the owners hope will inspire their clientele to relax regularly at the Ranch. The design at Ranch 616 is definitely a winner; at a glance it's obvious the room is hip, comfortable, and fun. Nighttime crowds pack the Ranch, swilling bright magenta cactus pear margaritas in a convivial atmosphere.
With a good location and an inviting design, the only remaining question about Ranch 616 is whether the menu is likely to develop a following in its own right. After several visits over a period of months, it's safe to say you can count on a good meal at the Ranch, pardner. Though the original plans called for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the owners haven't been able to put together the kind of breakfast crew they want, so at this point, the day officially begins with lunch. Starting with salad, the Ranch Slice of Ice ($5.75) is a large, glistening wedge of iceberg lettuce enrobed in a deliciously rich bleu cheese dressing that tips its hat to the bygone days when all restaurant salads were made with the humble iceberg. For salad lovers of a more New Age hue, there's Lupita's Salad ($5.50) of mixed field greens sprinkled with toasted Texas pecans, sliced mushrooms, spicy shredded carrots with the tangy house dressing, and a crisp jalapeño crouton. It's impossible to go wrong, either way.
It's easy to make a full lunch out of the appetizer offerings because the choices are eclectic and the portions more than generous. Frog legs ($7.95) come grilled or fried on a bed of roasted poblano mashed potatoes and the house dipping sauce. Non-amphibian eaters can feast on two plump Texas Gulf Coast Crab and Redfish Cakes ($7.95) atop a field green salad with chile-lime aioli as a condiment or an enormous pile of Crispy Oysters ($8.95) with a bottomless bowl of zippy chipotle tartar sauce to enhance them. Quesadillas of the Day ($6.95) are stuffed with black beans, roasted corn, smoked peppers, and serrano Jack cheese plus a filling that varies daily. We can highly recommend the versions with shredded quail or piquant achiote-marinated shrimp. The only misstep we noticed in the otherwise tasty quesadillas was seriously undercooked (and inedible) black beans on one visit but the problem had been corrected when we sampled the dish a second time.
If you don't fill up on salads and appetizers, the sandwich menu is bound to satisfy. The Framed Burger ($6.50) is about as good as you're likely to get around town, with a hand-formed, 8-oz. Angus beef patty stuffed with bleu cheese served with a deliciously messy side of thin tobacco onion rings. It may require several napkins, but it's well worth the trouble. Vegetarians can opt for the Grilled Vegetable Sandwich ($6.50) stuffed full of grilled eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, roasted peppers, and portobello mushrooms with a big serving of field green salad. Although there are several Lunch Plates that look very promising, so far we've been so enamored of the first page of the lunch menu that the Lunch Plates will have to wait for a return visit.
Dinner at the Ranch begins with a few additional appetizers such as Calamari 616 ($7.50) with more of that divine chipotle tartar sauce. Though I'm not a fan of crispy fried squid, a dining companion who grew up eating them in Puerto Rico and Spain pronounced the Ranch effort first-rate. I started dinner with the Camarones Rellenas ($8.25), toothsome Gulf shrimp stuffed with a mixture of cilantro and serrano Jack cheese, grilled in a wrapping of apple-smoked bacon. This is a very credible version of the popular shrimp hors d'oeuvre known by many different names on menus around town. After appetizers and a basket of bread, we were in serious danger of being too full to try entrees again, but an assignment is an assignment, after all.
A word of warning: If you expect to finish a dinner plate here, don't fill up on bread. In keeping with the other retro touches such as iceberg lettuce and ranch-hand sized portions, you won't find any crisp-crusted, chewy artisan breads on this ranch house table. All meals at Ranch 616 come with baskets of fresh, warm Ranch Rockets, shiny, soft-crusted torpedo-shaped rolls made of an almost sweet brioche-like dough by Rather Sweet Bakery. From what we hear, these babies are responsible for single-handedly destroying the no-carbohydrate regimens of most of the zone dieters and sugar busters in West Austin! When the bread basket arrives, proceed with caution.
We'd suggest a hard day's work before you chow down at the Ranch, where the dinner menu offers some game (quail), some fish (snapper or trout), and some steaks (Angus rib eye and strip loin) with a pork tenderloin and a chicken breast thrown in for good measure. The fork- tender medallions of Pork Tenderloin 616 ($15.95) are bathed in a honey-achiote glaze and nestled against a huge serving of buttery mashed potatoes, roasted corn, and mushrooms. It's possible to make a lighter meal with the Gulf Fish Tacos ($12.50), in which filets of Gulf fish are fried in a light, crisp coating and served in tacos garnished with shredded cabbage and chile-lime aioli and a side of fiery Tabasco and jalapeño onions. Chefs Williamson and Sneary are particularly adept at devising just the right condiment to complement their menu items, the chile-lime aioli, chipotle tartar sauce, honey-achiote marinade, and decadent bleu cheese dressing are all stellar creations that perform well in combination with several dishes. Only one item, the house special cactus pear crema, isn't very appealing. Perhaps it's the fact that colorful squiggles of it are splashed across so many dishes or that the bright pink color is just too suggestive of Pepto-Bismol, but something about the cactus pear cream really puts me off.
As with everything else on the menu, dinner entree and side-dish portions are extremely generous, and most plates are piled with garnishes of fresh pico de gallo, guacamole, or a colorful shredded cabbage and carrot salad. Such big portions create a genuine sense of value for dollars spent, but I've found myself dining with groups who were full and leaving half a plate of food on more than one occasion. In any case, pace yourself during the meal so that it's possible to enjoy one of the fanciful desserts pastry chef Rebecca Rather has designed just for Ranch 616. After a midsummer meal, our group of ladies fought over a sinfully warm and flaky Texas peach fried pie topped with a melting scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, and we've also seen folks get downright territorial over the Mexican chocolate cake with a warm center and a decadent layer of fudge pecan frosting. Rather's take on the traditional Texas cafe favorite coconut cream pie is a nutty tart crust filled with sweet coconut custard topped with a swooping cloud of toasty meringue. Do save room for dessert.
On each of our visits to the Ranch, service was friendly and informative. Sharon Gerhardt's well-trained front-of-the-house staff knows just how to make folks feel at home. With a clever design, several menu items with the potential to become local classics, and a staff that makes it look like an enjoyable place to work, Ranch 616 has a good shot at becoming the kind of enduring success the owners hoped for. If you're looking for just the right spot to wet your whistle after a hard day riding the Silicon Range or you're hungry for a tasty meal fit for a hard-working ranch hand, lasso your crowd and mosey on down to check out the brand at Ranch 616. This is a joint you can make your own.