Cafe Reviews

Michele Laudig discovers a heaping helping of country fried soul at the Ranch House Grille

I love a good mystery.

There's a tiny, vintage strip mall at 56th Street and Thomas that's seen a slew of restaurants come and go over the years, and I've often wondered why such a seemingly good location — not far from well-heeled Arcadia, convenient to Scottsdale — couldn't hang on to just one decent eatery. Until recently, they've been establishments with "supper club" or "bistro" in their name, places where (in theory) locals could go for a classy, intimate dinner.

Well, I think I've finally solved the crime. As it turns out, what the neighborhood was really craving was a good breakfast joint, the kind of friendly, no-frills place you'd more likely find in a small town than in the midst of metropolitan sprawl. Ranch House Grille has made itself right at home here, and it's a nice fit.

With hearty eats, huge portions, and old-fashioned prices, the place feels as though it's been there for ages, a Phoenix institution, but it's been open only a little more than a year. Actually, its roots are in Page, Arizona, where the Cline family opened the first Ranch House Grille in 1999.

That small-town atmosphere is evident at the Phoenix outpost, too; behind the small counter near the entrance, there's a display of Navajo rugs, kachina dolls, and Arizona Gunslinger hot sauces for sale. Country-style décor includes a wall-mounted lasso, plastic floral tablecloths, framed waterfall photos, and a feathery faux rooster perched on a high shelf. And the waitstaff wears matching Ranch House Grille T-shirts that proudly spell out the Page connection.

Country fried steak is clearly the star dish here, not only because the restaurant promotes it, but because it's already amassed quite a cult following. People come here just to get their fill. No wonder — the beef is so tender you hardly need a knife to cut it, and the flavorful fried coating is lightly crunchy. With three eggs, a pile of hash browns, and toast, it's a jaw-dropping amount of food for seven bucks. You can get it smothered in creamy, pepper-flecked gravy or pork chili verde.

Popularity aside, I realize that country fried steak isn't for everyone. And honestly, as much as I enjoyed it, it wasn't my flat-out favorite thing on the menu. It was that spicy pork chili verde that really got my attention. Filled with moist shreds of pork, and lusciously thick, it certainly complemented the country fried steak, but it was the highlight of other dishes as well. Tucked into a fluffy, perfectly cooked omelet with a layer of melted cheddar, or spooned over corn tortillas and topped with eggs and cheese in the outstanding huevos rancheros, it made for a great hangover breakfast. But it figured into a fantastic lunch, too — one day I tried it wrapped in a burrito and served with beefy red chili, pinto beans, and moist, tomatoey Spanish rice.

Another top-notch concoction was the Spicy Tortilla, which sort of reminded me of the Eggs Maximillian at Harlow's in Tempe. Ranch House Grille's recipe wasn't nearly as decadent, but it was still pretty substantial, with salsa, diced red onions, green chiles, globs of spicy chorizo, shredded cheddar, hash browns, and three eggs on top of a thin, crisp tortilla.

Those zesty Southwestern dishes were all great, but Ranch House Grill did a fine job with straightforward breakfast food as well. Eggs were precisely cooked, hash browns a pleasing balance of crispiness and potatoey softness, and big buttermilk pancakes were moist. However, I wasn't impressed with run-of-the-mill sausage patties or links, and the limp, bland French toast was disappointing. As for the biscuits and gravy, they tasted all right, but a really good biscuit should have a buttery, velvety density. Here, the biscuits needed gravy to be palatable.

Considering that breakfast is served all day, it'd be easy to stick to that on every visit. However, there are just as many lunch options, from casual bites (burgers, wraps, salads) to hefty platters served with mashed potatoes, veggies, and Texas toast.

One of my dining companions, a vegetarian, had a heck of a time ordering. She doesn't like eggs, a grilled cheese didn't appeal to her, and a salad didn't sound comforting on a cold January day. That left her with one option, the spicy black bean burger. I felt bad because she seemed bummed out. But when the burger landed in front of her, she perked up. Surprisingly, it was better than the typical meatless default dish you find at most restaurants; the patty tasted freshly made, and it had a nice peppery kick.

Meanwhile, I sank my teeth into a sloppy, delicious Reuben sandwich stuffed with tender corned beef, while another friend got his protein fix with a gargantuan Philly steak sandwich. It was tasty, served open-faced on a soft hoagie roll, and piled high with thinly sliced beef, sautéed onions, mushrooms, and bell pepper, and melted Swiss. I'd certainly have it again, although I don't think I'd attempt to pick it up like my friend did — even two hands weren't quite enough to keep the thing intact.

My biggest quibble with Ranch House Grille is the service. Stop by on a weekday, and everything's fine. But swing by for a weekend breakfast, and brace yourself for confusion. It seemed like multiple employees were juggling the waitlist, which made it hard to know where to put your name. How about a clearly displayed tablet for people to write down their names and wait outside, à la Matt's Big Breakfast? A few heat lamps on the patio would be a welcome addition, too, because people who didn't want to shiver out there created a traffic jam inside — right in front of the register. And at peak times, it was hard to flag down anybody for a menu, a coffee refill, a table wipe-down, whatever. The staffers were nice, but totally swamped.

I'm sure I'll still go back to Ranch House Grille, though. Even if service is slow, you can't overlook homey food and cheap prices.

And you know what they say about two outta three.