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ISSUE 117 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/12/2004

Saddlin' up at the 'Ranch'

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 12, 2004

As soon as the wooden crossbeams, wire hangers, collectable jugs and mirror-bordered daily specials list catch your eye, you know you're in for a treat. The Ranch House on Hwy 3, south of Northfield, sells not just food, but atmosphere -- the atmosphere of a family restaurant trying to be more than just a local version of Perkins, yet still succeeding in making customers fear the splat of corn on the back of your head from the toddler at the next table.

I had the chance to partake in a relaxed lunch at the Ranch House two weeks ago. It was around 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday. My partner-in-food and I were allowed to seat ourselves, and after receiving menus and water, had plenty of time to peruse our options. The three-year-old behind us also had plenty of time to express his displeasure with his high chair to every patron in the restaurant. Before ordering a bottle of old-fashioned Black Cherry soda, perused the wide selection of bottled beers and other alcohols the establishment offers.

The Ranch House has offered alcohol with its meat-heavy menu for the past three years. Owner Mike Hoover (who will be celebrating the Ranch House's tenth anniversary on March 15) said that, with the inclusion of more steaks and seafood, it made sense to offer liquor and wine as well.

"It's pretty much all top shelf [alcohol]," Hoover said. "I want the quality of the entire meal to be increased."

Hoover said the menu changes every two to three months. The pages of the menu, printed by Hoover himself, provide a fun grammar game for any English major. Find what's wrong with the heading: "STEAKS& Award winning, born and raised by our family, right here in Rice county. Our naturally raised beef is proudly controlled by us in production and processing, so feel safe to order your steaks how you like." I didnt know you could raise steaks, though I feel slightly reassured that I can order them how I like.

The steaks aren't the only things raised; the prices are also a bit higher than you would find at a Perkins or Applebee's. The Porterhouse steak tips the scale at 22 ounces for $22.99, but you can get a chopped steak for $10.59. You can also get breakfast all day (omelettes, pancakes, or steak-and-eggs). I also saw Vegetable Pasta, as well as a Gardenburger for those looking to avoid meat products. I split an order of Curley's Ribs with my dinner guest. Sixteen-dollars and ninety-nine cents got us "Tender St. Louis style ribs fire roasted to caramelize our own sweet sauce." Two sides came along with the ribs; I have to say, the beef vegetable soup that day was fabulous. The trip to the salad bar, however, was a sad affair of messy dressing and wilted lettuce.

The building, with false ceiling and frontier woodwork, was erected in 1984 as the Prairie House. According to Hoover, the Minnesota small-town chain stayed open for five years before closing. A year later, the empty restaurant became the Old Homestead. It remained open for three to four years before Hoover and his wife, Betty, bought the lot.

"I think only about two to three percent of independently owned restaurants make it to ten years," said Hoover.

When the rack of ribs arrived, it glistened a deep red as if the blood of the cow had congealed along with the "sweet sauce." They were tasty, however, with tons of meat on each rib, and plenty of sauce to get all over the shirt I'd borrowed from a friend. The only thing missing was some WetNaps to help with the clean-up process.

I couldn't finish my half of the colossal meat presentation, and politely declined dessert. The obnoxious toddler and his family left only minutes before we were finished eating, and so I feel that my impression of the place was tainted by the jabber of the kid. The service was nice, but slow -- and the price makes dinner a rare occasion, rather than a habit. Still, the meat was good, and I'll be darned if I'm not curious about what kind of steak wins state-wide awards. I'll be back -- but next time I'm sitting at the bar.

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