There are, as I see it, two ways to assess a restaurant. You can do as Michelin does, creating a rubric—a single set of standards—against which every venue will be judged. Or you can ask, “What is this restaurant trying to do, and how well is it accomplishing its goal?” The latter has in general been my M.O. and that of this magazine—how else could a doughnut shop garner five stars?—but like any framework, it has its limitations. For instance: What happens when you not only don’t know what a restaurant is trying to do, but you also seriously question why it would want to do it?
“Welcome to Dragon Ranch: We’re an American barbecue restaurant, with some Asian flavors just kind of thrown in.” This is more or less the introduction our server gave at the beginning of our meal. She was a great server, by the way, and her statement was accurate, but still…what? Or as my companion muttered, “Does whoever owns this restaurant not realize that Asian cuisines have their own styles of barbecue?”
The owner of the restaurant is Rockit Ranch Productions, i.e., Billy Dec and associates, i.e., they of, and —all restaurants that, when evaluated on the what-is-this-trying-to-be-and-how-well-does-it-succeed rubric, perform well. But I was hitting a wall at Dragon Ranch: I was supposed to order smoked brisket…and a bowl of ramen?
I guess I could do that. But first, I needed a drink, and the last thing I wanted was the primary offering of the restaurant: moonshine (a.k.a. white whiskey). It’s unclear why a restaurant would base its concept around this stuff, which not even the sweetness of a rhubarb-lemonade cocktail can keep from smelling and tasting like nail-polish remover. Luckily, there is a full bar, and there is one non-moonshine-based cocktail: a barrel-aged Manhattan, and it was fine. Okay, moving on. Let’s eat something.
There are three types of food on the menu: American barbecue, Asian dishes and fusion-y things. In the last camp you’ll find harmless, if heavy, deviled eggs, garnished with wasabitobiko, as well as the “Dragon Egg,” the restaurant’s take on a Scotch egg, in which a soft-poached duck egg is wrapped in sausage and rolled in panko. This would have been a great dish if the egg whites weren’t still partially raw. Also in this fusion category: nubs of undercooked, starchy carrots that get a successful flavor boost from being dressed in fish sauce. For its ramen, Dragon Ranch’s most faithful attempt at non-fusion Asian food, the restaurant makes its noodles in-house. But much better noodles simply could be bought: These lacked ramen’s alkaline flavor and its particular bite, tasting like nothing so much as spaghetti.
This leaves only the straightforward American—and most successful—part of the menu. The rotisserie chicken is juicy and coated with the char of its wood firing. The spare ribs express substantial smoke flavor, even if they lean a touch dry. The chopped brisket, on the other hand, is stringy and lacks any sign of smoke. However, instead of ordering the brisket with gummy corn bread, you can have it served with Chinese steam buns, piled with julienned pickled daikon and carrots. This is definitely the way to go. In fact, this is the one dish I tried that not only exemplifies Dragon Ranch’s barbecue-meets-Asian concept but actually makes a compelling case for it.