Bucking the Future
The past is alive and well — and with better plumbing! — at the completely renovated Buckhorn Saloon.
By Donna Clayton Walter
The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos is one of those "sights" to which locals always take their out-of-town guests. Sporting its striking, quirky dcor — a massive, genuine buffalo head on the wall, old-timey paintings of, well, "working girls," and the hardly politically correct mannequin "Indian Joe" sitting at the bar — the Buckhorn never failed to draw stares, pointing fingers and good-hearted laughs. If Indian Joe charged for the numerous photos visitors have snapped with their loved ones' arms around his shoulders or clinking their glass against his brown bottle, the poor old wooden head (not unlike Kawliga of song) could have retired long ago, maybe even bought back his native lands.
"The Buck," as most locals affectionately call it, also has a history of satisfying at the dinner plate with its long-favored menu including generous slabs of meat, hearty green chile stew with kick and "honest pours" at the full bar. Its tradition of live music most nights of the week has cultivated a loyal following and made the watering hole a favored destination over the years.
When the place shut down in 2009 for an extensive, year-long makeover, a pall was cast over the mountain, stretching down the valley into Silver City and beyond. Rumors abounded as to what the changes would mean, and a collective shiver went through the "regulars" when Thomas Bock — a California Culinary Academy grad, no less! — reported his plans to instill a "higher-end, big-city steakhouse" feel to the Buckhorn when it reopened this spring.
Well, I am happy to report that the saloon's rustic door has been thrown back open wide, as Lyle Lovett says in song, and all is well at the iconic and beloved eatery. Curious, of course, I visited the Buckhorn in its first couple of weeks after the re-opening and laughed to myself at the buzz over the new bathrooms. "Oh my God! You've got to see them," exclaimed one startled patron after another as he or she returned from visiting the restrooms. Some even took pictures, the details of which I do not want to see. To be honest, the old restrooms were something to see, and not in a good way. The new, improved bathrooms are a welcoming and comfortable place to, um, sit. In fact, the establishment's massive bar was taken apart, moved a number of feet, and reassembled to make space for the spacious, updated bathrooms now available to patrons. (See Tumbleweeds, March 2010, for details on the saloon and opera house's construction renovations.)
But beyond all the brick-and-mortar changes, the food, drink and live entertainment quickly and most certainly are reestablishing the Buckhorn's place as a favored place to wine and dine — well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say "toss 'em back." And service, also, has much improved — which is to say that there actually is service!
The larger dining room is still the place to sit for the more elaborate, elegant meal. All the appetizing favorites are back on the menu, and delivered with much-improved culinary consistency, I might add. The Green Chile Stew ($6.95) garnished with cheddar cheese, sour cream and tortilla, still kicks butt. The Gila Monster Eggs ($8.95) are a wonderful stuffed pepper creation favored by the regulars. Other fried staples like the Green Chile Fries, onion rings and the Combo Platter ($8-$9) are great to enjoy with that cocktail — did somebody say "single malt"? Yup, it's here! — before the New York strip steak ($23) or ribeye smothered in Hatch green chile sauce ($29) come to the table. Soups ($5) and a Mediterranean Plate ($11) with hummus, etc., offer alternatives to the fried route.
At my first visit back to the Buckhorn, however, I eschewed the teasers — which for me are a meal in themselves — and saved room for my old favorite, the Hatch Green Chile Chicken Alfredo ($18). The kitchen's expert handling produced a dish with perfectly done pasta, coated in the spicy-creamy sauce and a nice amount of grilled chicken pieces. My friends enjoyed the Buckhorn Italia ($18) with spicy Italian sausage in brandy cream sauce over penne and one of the house specialties, herb-marinated grilled quail with balsamic reduction ($25). The quail was tender and juicy and — mama mia! — the pasta was a stand-out!
We split three desserts between us, trying to taste a bit of sweet variety, and chose the pecan pie, the New Mexico at Midnight chocolate pound cake and a crme brle ($7.50-$10). All were worth the indulgence, of our bellies and our wallets, but take our advice and split just one of these wonders among two or even three diners. The hard part will be choosing.
But my favorite way to dine at The Buck is at the bar. The menu is smaller but packed with favorites and the dinner check is a whole lot easier on the pocketbook. Patrons rotate from barstools for a cocktail, to tables for their casual supper, and sometimes back to the bar again for a nightcap. The only disappointment I've yet experienced in the new Buckhorn bar was a spinach salad. A monumental portion of fresh greens topped with cheese and bacon, yes, but my first plate was seriously overdressed. A friend advised me to get the dressing on the side the next time, and that made things all better. But on a subsequent visit, a friend ordered it dressed and got a perfect dish. Maybe they were still working out the kinks.
The Buckhorn burgers never fail to please. Get the classic Buckhorn Burger ($10) with green chile and cheese, a lean Buffalo Burger ($11) or the Ultimate Burger ($11) with basil aioli, goat cheese, roasted red peppers and grilled onion. All are satisfyingly juicy — unless you're one of those fried-to-a-cinder "well done" people, and then you get what you deserve. All the burgers come with steak fries or onion rings — or get a half-and-half and enjoy both!
Wash it all down with something from the moderate wine list, decent selection of beers or a generous cocktail — my own fave is the ample vodka martini, perfectly dry and made to my elaborate specifications, thank you. For those looking to avoid alcohol, there are some virgin drinks, sparkling water, sodas and juices — even a typical old-fashioned sarsaparilla. I noted with a smile that that's Indian Joe's choice of beverage these days. Perhaps he's a little more politically correct after all!
Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House, Main Street, Pinos Altos, (575) 538-9911, www.buckhornsaloonandoperahouse.com Open Monday-Saturday 3-11 p.m. Food served in saloon beginning at 4 p.m., dining room open 5-10 p.m. Dining room reservations recommended, by phone only.
Donna Clayton Walter also wrote this issue's feature on animal communication.