Inside Rodney Worth's New BBQ Restaurant in San Ramon
Worth Ranch is the accomplished chef’s best restaurant yet.
Where there is smoke at Worth Ranch, there are smiles. The diner-length menu is full of country favorites: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and most notably, the smoky BBQ that lends chef Rodney Worth’s seventh restaurant its distinct personality.
Worth Ranch has taken the place of Jack’s Brewing Company (before that it was Big Horn Grill, whose stunning design by famed Pat Kuleto still shines through), but a Jack still remains. Jack Daniel’s—not single malt—stars at the whiskey bar: It’s served on tap, as a slushy, with a bottle of real-sugar Coke (Worth’s drink of choice), and in the rarified form of Jack’s Sinatra label—for $40 an ounce. And all of that comes before even mentioning that Worth procured 252 bottles of aged Jack Daniel’s drawn from a single barrel during a private barrel tasting in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
Clearly, Worth knows Jack, but it was a revelation, not expertise in whiskey, that inspired the theme of the restaurant. While in Lynchburg touring the limestone caves that filter spring water used to make Jack Daniel’s, Worth says he experienced an “overwhelming heavenly feeling.” He admits the sensation was “kind of weird,” but it seems to have paid off. When Worth took a look at the former Jack’s Brewing Company space, his next concept immediately leapt to mind: BBQ and Jack.
When you try Worth’s divine ribs and brisket (a cut he knew next to nothing about before he chose the restaurant’s direction), it’s clear there’s something good going on. That 12-hour brisket—whose smoky juices drip into meaty baked beans—is remarkably tender and moist. And the pork rack (enormous even by Worth’s restaurants’ generous standards) tickles the palate with a rub spiked with cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger. Lightly basted with pear nectar while smoking, the ribs are offered with both a spicy vinegar and a traditional BBQ sauce, but they are also delicious naked.
This is all the more impressive knowing Worth hasn’t spent any time with a pit master; he’s learned largely through trial and error on his rickety home smoker. Of course, the professional model brought a new set of challenges; he turned brisket after brisket into beef jerky before finding the key to locking in those juices.
Worth is known for his sandwiches, and here, with smoky tri-tip and crusty pulled pork at hand, they are particularly hearty. In fact, it was hard to find much of anything on the opening menu, even appetizers, that would qualify as light. Our wedge salad was dressed with blue cheese, ringed with burnt ends (well-done bits of brisket), and mounded with fried onion rings. And our potato skins were packed with cheddar and bacon.
You might laugh at having chicken wings before BBQ, but you won’t regret it.(Doggy bags are expected.) The meltingly tender wings are rubbed with garlic, chiles, and sage, then smoked for hours. They barely cling to the bone.
On our first visit, which was on the restaurant’s second night, some of the food was bland, but the cheddar- and cream-rich grits (with shrimp), and the gravy-soaked mashed potatoes (with the fried chicken) were standouts. On our next visit, when we explored the BBQ, all of our sides were exceptional: crisp, pecan-strewn coleslaw; macaroni and cheese with a sauce as creamy as fondue; coarse corn bread with pear butter; and those smoky rich beans.
These are fitting flavors for the setting: The roomy Ranch evokes a country lodge—the sort of place to rest and revive one’s bones and brain. Cedar beams, whiskey casks, and reclaimed redwood fencing become the down-home backdrop to copper salt-and-pepper shakers, a gilded cow’s head, and—most prominently—a line of steel Texas stars.
The adjoining lounge has a lively vibe drawn from the backlit bar and busy kitchen window. There are also three wide-screen TVs, which suit the bar but are plainly visible from the more rustic dining room—a sore point for my companions on both visits.
Much of Worth Ranch’s success is simply due to Worth’s joy. I’ve reviewed most of his seven restaurants, and I’ve never seen him so excited to be out on the floor mingling with diners. When you combine this with the intense seriousness of his staff—plainly illustrated by a cook’s rapt expression while receiving feedback from Worth—it’s clear the restaurant’s potential is great.
The proof, of course, is in Worth’s brisket—and the drinks. When asked what pairs best with BBQ, Worth has an answer ready: the Jacked Up Manhattan. It’s made with top-shelf ingredients, including pear nectar, Luxardo cherries, and—of course—Worth’s signature single-barrel whiskey.
Contact: 2410 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon, (925) 831-2175, rodneyworth.com/worth-ranch. Lunch and dinner daily.