Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., July 7, 2006
8108 Mesa, 853-9480
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-9:30pm
Friday & Saturday, 5-10pm
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2pmwww.mesaranchaustin.com
Mesa Ranch proprietor Steve Ray grew up around two well-loved Austin steak houses of the Sixties and Seventies, the Barn and the Feedlot, both operated by his dad, Jack Ray. After that early training, Ray spent most of the Eighties running his own restaurant in Houston and then returned to Austin with an Outback Steakhouse franchise from 1993 to 2004. After selling his interest in Outback, Ray and his wife, Lane Anderson, struck out on a cross-country journey visiting successful local steak houses everywhere they went. The culmination of all that experience and research is their own place, Mesa Ranch, opened in July of 2005.
Lane Anderson transformed a bland suburban space in Northwest Austin into an inviting restaurant with an atmosphere that evokes the American West. The walls are sponge-painted in warm colors to create the impression of stucco, and the tables are topped with fabric that resembles tooled leather. Saddles, boots, and Western art pieces are strategically placed, the booths have a leather look, and the rustic ladder-back chairs have woven seats. The full bar features nightly live music in the cowboy-country-folk vein, completing the picture. Meanwhile, Ray's Mesa Ranch menu is heavily weighted toward items cooked on the mesquite grill. Portions are generous, and the spicing is robust. Jalapeños, roasted poblanos, cilantro, corn, and tequila are key ingredients in many of the appetizers, sides, and sauces, which creates a menu with a somewhat one-dimensional flavor profile. The grilling, however, is expertly done.Ê
Several appetizers piqued our interest on our dinner visit, but each had pitfalls. The Cactus Fried in Shiner Bock Beer Batter ($5.95) has to be one of the most innovative appetizers I've encountered in a long time. Thin strips of Nopal cactus pads are soaked in a tequila brine to cut the natural viscosity and then deep-fried in a crisp beer batter and served in a paper cone with poblano queso and tequila ranch sauce for dipping. It's a great idea, and the frying was skillfully done, but the crispy batter was so salty we couldn't enjoy much of the dish. The description of the Grilled Poblano Relleno ($9.95/$6.95) offered one or two peppers stuffed with a mixture of three cheeses and grilled shrimp. What appeared were roasted peppers laid flat with skewers of excellent grilled shrimp placed on top, but no cheese stuffing was evident. Likewise, the Stuffed Jalapeños ($8.95) promised bacon-wrapped peppers stuffed with goat cheese and deep-fried in the Shiner Bock batter. What we got were torpedoes of batter so thick that the peppers inside were uncooked and there was no bacon in sight. The queso dip, roasted corn and pepper salsa, and tequila ranch sauce that accompanied the appetizers were all flavorful, but the missteps made the overall effect disappointing.
We fared much better with entrées. My 12oz. Rib-Eye ($20.95) with poblano mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus was cooked exactly to order and very satisfying. The Grilled Pork Chops ($17.95) were tender and moist, and the Citrus Marinated Grilled Chicken Breast ($12.95) over bow-tie pasta with ancho cream sauce was excellent. Entrées come with pleasant house salads of fresh field greens and a choice of homemade dressings, plus buckets of tasty jalapeño corn muffins baked in festive cactus shapes. The chocoholic member of our dining party was perfectly delighted with the decadent Brownie Tower ($6.95), but unfortunately the Lemon Meringue Pie ($5.95) had a bland filling and a tough meringue.
We dropped in for lunch one day and enjoyed a Cowboy Cheesesteak Sandwich ($7.95) with pork tenderloin, grilled peppers and onions, and spicy queso. I was very impressed with the Chicken Fried Venison ($9.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner) with poblano cream gravy and poblano mashed potatoes. The meat was very tender, had great flavor, and the crispy crust had a wonderful crunch. However, the side of green beans I ordered à la carte was so salty it was inedible and had to be sent back. The waiter graciously removed the item from our bill, and owner Lane Anderson herself came to the table to assure us the kitchen had been advised of the problem.
Reflecting on my dining experience at Mesa Ranch, I found the atmosphere inviting and the management and staff friendly and very eager to please. There are obviously people in the kitchen with skilled hands at the grill and the fryer. The devil here appeared to be in the smaller but equally crucial details. Good culinary ideas deserve better execution.
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