As you travel north on U.S. Route 550 from Durango, you will pass Hermosa, Trimble, and Honeyville before you reach a cornerstone of the local meat and cheese scene: The James Ranch. If you go to the Durango Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, you can easily purchase said products. You can also go the 15 minutes north of town to buy the vast ranch’s organic and natural grass-fed beef, as well as pork, eggs, and other local products. Or, you could just let them cook for you at the new James Ranch Grill.
After a year of construction, the trailer that served burgers on site for eight years is now a large brick and mortar building attached to their market. It is situated beautifully in the Animas Valley overlooking the pasture and a huge yard with picnic tables and a stage for live music. The end result is a rustic, exposed wood and metal building with lovely views surrounding a modern, comfortable space with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. If you are the type of consumer who pays the extra three bucks at the grocery store for the organic beef or cheese, James Ranch Grill is the place for you. You will pay a few dollars more on every item there, as they make the effort to source local, natural, and organic for almost everything. All the beer, wine, and cider are local, and appear to be on a rotating basis.
I arrived with my hungry partners on a Friday around 5 p.m. — despite what Facebook and Google say, they are now open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There were about three other tables of eaters, all enjoying the view and all reportedly from out of state. Among us two adults and one child, we decided to each try a different burger and share a large side of fingerling potatoes. I had a Ska Modus Mandarina to go with my potentially sweet and spicy bacon BBQ burger and the other eaters drank the unsweetened black organic tea. We also grabbed a few baked goods to sample more carbs than just buns.
I have to vent for a moment. This was a wait-in-line-to-order counter, you bus your own table, and everything is already quite expensive ($60 so far), but the point of sale tablet was preset at a 20 percent tip when using a card. I am always happy to tip 20 percent to a good server (and everyone there was super pleasant!), but here I felt like I was being milked for every penny. Extra sauce was 75 cents with no condiments in sight, and there were no free soda or tea refills while the beer was poured in a plastic pint that looked to be less than 12 ounces.
We sat outside at one of 12 picnic tables covered with oil cloth, a remnant from the simple, food trailer days. The weather was perfect and the view across the pastures to the red cliffs was fantastic. Not much else going on, so the child played with something from the basket of toys and the rest of us just relaxed while the food cooked. The text to my phone went off about 10-15 minutes later, and I grabbed the three burgers served open-faced on individual metal trays and the fries. The Green Chile Pico Burger was the most beautiful of the three. The BBQ burger surprised me with no cheese — I should have read the description more but it was $13.25 and I assumed incorrectly. The kid’s burger resembled a black little hockey puck. These grass-finished, 1/3 lb. Angus burgers really cooked down.
The cashier told us they cook burgers medium by default and they are still pink in the middle. I loved hearing this, and expected a true medium burger. My fellow diners wanted less pink and went for the medium-well. All three burgers were brown and lacking any moisture. We were totally bummed, but still ate them up to the last crumb. The buns were lightly toasted and were great, and the toppings were strong and unique. The BBQ sauce was really special, but I think the cheese on the Green Chile Burger was my favorite item. The fingerling fries were nicely salted and paired with what tasted like fresh, house-made ketchup. The ones that weren’t burnt all the way through were amazing. Honestly, those fries made the whole dinner worth it.
Unsure how we were feeling about the whole meal overall, we decided to try the baked goods. We were full enough that some of the sweets did make it home later, and luckily they were large and soft and moist but not too sweet. That sealed the overall experience as one we want to revisit. Local Emma Skala not only stocked the market next door with her unique pottery, but she also baked the pretzel covered chocolate-chip cookies, the brownies, the peanut butter cream cheese bars, and the cherry hand pies (not empanadas!).
The staff there is so friendly and hard-working. The building is an excellent improvement. The view is spectacular. James Ranch is an integral part of this community and has been encouraging us all to eat locally and organically for almost 50 years. The menu was vast, with so much more than burgers and endlessly customizable. Even the white plastic brushes that show the spaces in the parking lot shows they thought of everything. If only the hamburger meat was more moist and cost a few bucks less, I would have loved it here. Regardless, now that they are open year round and will bring back the concerts and events, in addition to their tours and Market options, I will return. But maybe just for a grilled cheese and fries.