The long and colorful history of the Ponderosa restaurant
By Chris Mayo
Maybe the Ponderosa restaurant hasn’t always been a steady presence in the East Mountains, but the building certainly has. In fact, whether the restaurant is up and running at any given time or not, folks who live south of Interstate 40 on NM Highway 337 (North 14) have used the Ponderosa building as a landmark for directions for decades: their street is either north of the Ponderosa or south. “If you get to the Ponderosa, you’ve gone too far,” is a common refrain.
The restaurant has been less reliable. Sometimes it was open and sometimes it was not. Over the past 20 years or so, it has had several owners and enjoyed varying degrees of success. The building’s most recent period of vacancy lasted about five or six years. The new owner, Jason Landgram, and his business associate, Nate Geary, are dedicated to bringing both the building and the restaurant back full force.
Landgram looked at the building about two years ago. “I walked in and knew right away that I had to take it to its full potential,” he says.
He bought it, and, with Geary, spent a year and a half of often backbreaking labor bringing things up to code and turning it into his vision of what a rustic country restaurant should look and feel like.
The interior of the building is warm and inviting, a kind of home-away-from-home, with huge exposed log beams, rough-cut lumber floors, and hundreds of retro knickknacks and decorations—everything from stuffed animals (mostly bears) to World War II recruitment posters. You could easily spend an afternoon just browsing the décor.
“And if you’re going to do that,” Landgram says, “you might as well eat.”
Landgram’s long-term vision is that the restaurant becomes a family hangout. With that in mind, the menu offers fresh, homemade comfort food with plenty of choices, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Main courses run the gamut from local favorites like enchiladas and fajitas to hearty servings of meatloaf and lasagna. Try a skillet dish at breakfast, and a sandwich at lunch—maybe the grilled chicken, which is tasty and generously portioned. Carnivores should make sure to try the Pondo Burger, piled high with roasted green chile,
The restaurant is important to Landgram for sure, but so is the rich East Mountain history that accompanies it. In fact, Landgram insisted that if we were to write an article on the restaurant, the history of the building had to be a part of that.
When Rudy Gonzalez was born in 1952 on the Ponderosa property, the current building didn’t exist yet. Instead, his mother birthed him in a small cabin, which still sits on the property and is attached to the bar. His father bought the land for six dollars an acre shortly after he got out of the United States Army in World War II. Having fought in the Battle of the Bulge, building a cabin was not all that daunting a task to him.
Gonzalez grew up in the East Mountains, and came to know most of the locals, from Chilili to Mountainair. He employed a few of them while building the Ponderosa with his girlfriend, Sharon Bird, in 1975, inspired by this aunt and uncle’s own bar on the property, which they ran in the `50s and `60s.
Gonzalez recalls his helpers as being able-boodied and fun-loving. “Adobe Joe was good with an axe. Then there was this hippy guy named Hoot, Mac McClellan, and Dale Berry. We used to tease Dale about having a normal name.”
They were the core group that helped construct the building, but there were others, of course, including Cliff Duquette, who did all the siding (the timbers in the building came from the property on which it sits, and a few came from Chilili). Gonzalez wants to credit all the people who helped make the place a success over the years, and to apologize in advance for any names he may have missed. “There are some great reliable country people up here,” he says.
During construction, Gonzalez lived in the cabin he grew up in. “People were pretty excited about us building a bar up here,” he says, “so I started selling beer out of the back window of the cabin before we finished the building. Things were a little different back then.”
The name of the bar and restaurant Gonzalez was about to open was inspired by a patron at his aunt and uncle’s place. “There was a lady with a straw hat that came in about once a month on a Friday or Saturday night. She sat at the bar and drank until she was done, sometimes a little past that, and then she would go outside and lie under the same ponderosa tree every time and sleep until morning. We called her the Ponderosa Lady.”
The bar opened in 1976 and slowly morphed into a restaurant. At some point they started making breakfast burritos and the food service grew from there. It was a colorful place in the early days, with many of the guests arriving on horseback and carrying six-shooters in their holsters. “Eventually we started making them hand their guns to the bartender until they were ready to leave,” Rudy says. “They would start drinking and start shooting if we didn’t. But nobody ever got hurt.”
Sure enough, on the day we meet, Landgram points out a hole in one of the ceiling beam timbers that was caused by a shotgun blast. “Better a viga than a person,” Gonzalez quipped when I told him about it. “Everybody laughed at us when we started building,” he continues, “but eventually they stopped laughing and started coming in to drink and eat. It was a lot of fun in the early days.”
Landgram and Geary don’t want the latest version of the Ponderosa to be quite as lively as it used to be, but they do have a vision. They’re about to acquire a player piano, and they already have karaoke nights and live music. They’re waiting for a license to serve beer and wine.
“Good food, good atmosphere, and good company are important,” Landgram says, “but so is honoring the rich history of this place. And we intend to do that.”
Welcome back, Ponderosa.
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