Times Food Critic
You can tell there are pros at work here. It looks like the prototype for a chain restaurant that could one day dominate suburban strip malls all over the land. The food seems just right for this climate: Straightforward but with a nice breadth of options, budget-minded and ample, family friendly but with enough cocktail-hour panache to be a night out.
This is something new from Louis Pappas.
It's been an interesting road for the veteran restaurateur, from his family's flagship business in Tarpon Springs years ago, to overseeing a fleet of eponymous fast-casual Mediterranean-Greek spots. He sold the big restaurant in Tarpon in 2002 and at one point oversaw seven Louis Pappas Market Cafes. That might have been that, had not Roy Speer intervened. The HSN pioneer built a big red barn in Odessa with the aim of doing barbecue. Roi's BBQ didn't quite take, but Speer had the confidence that Pappas could make it go. Pappas wasn't so sure. "I told him the big red barn would be better suited to an antique car garage."
Since October, throngs of Trinity area diners haven't left much room for antique cars in Pappas Ranch. After a makeover, the big red barn has a masculine, hunting-lodge-in-Wyoming vibe, but with elegant touches like pretty Navajo blankets. The walls are decorated with pictures from Pappas family hunting and fishing trips.
In fact, the shadow of the Pappas family falls over the largely barbecue menu as well. You'll see the famous Greek salad (they are said to be the originators of the potato-salad-in-the-middle phenomenon), an evening's special of avgolemono (a lemon chicken soup with orzo) and huge slabs of plush prime rib, the same kind that made Riverside Cafe near the Sponge Docks such a success all the way back to 1925.
The salad ($8.99, $14.99) is a good place to begin, the large version so imposing and bristly with scallion, peppers and planks of cucumber that one wouldn't be surprised to see a wobbly mouth open to say, "Take me to your leader." It's a little hard to deconstruct and eat, but the building blocks are good and the dressing has zest. From here, a quartet of smoked sliders ($7.59) will require extra napkins and a fork assist, but the lovely smoked brisket and pulled pork, bedded down on sweet buns and topped with crunchy-creamy cole slaw, are delicious.
Vegetarians are just about out of luck at the Ranch, but seafood fans can get excited about the butter pan-fried shrimp ($12.99, another holdover from the Tarpon restaurant) with its chipotle- and lime-gussied tartar sauce; or a pair of crisp-crusted blue crab cakes ($12.99). Most entrees come with a choice of two sides, the regular fries outdone by the crinkle-cut sweet potato fries, and tomato-simmered green beans another reminder of what we like about Greek food.
Pappas has a central commissary kitchen in Tarpon that services his markets. The Ranch has its steaks cut there and the proprietary sauces and dressings come from there as well. It's smart, the economies of scale involved translating into reasonable prices for the customer: A full pound rib eye for $19.99, the same price for a huge slab of bone-out prime rib. Still, I think the Ranch's top offerings are the pulled pork and the sliced brisket (both $10.99 as a platter), a gorgeously homey peach bread pudding (buttery and warm, $5.49) and a Louie's Lemonade (Jack and fresh-squeezed lemonade). Put that all together and there's good reason to be thankful the big red barn isn't housing antique cars these days.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.