Inspired by music, Leland Cline moved to Phoenix with dreams of starting a band. When he realized that wasn’t in the cards, he went back to his roots in the restaurant industry and opened the Ranch House Grille, one of the Valley’s hidden gems on Thomas Road and 56th St. Leland sat down to share his story with Arcadia News.
How did you come to open Ranch House Grille?
I helped my parents open the original Ranch House Grille in Page in 1999. I was a cook – always a cook – but I went on with my life. I wrote a CD and came down to Phoenix 14 years ago to find a band and play some punk rock. That didn’t work out too well.
Around 2006, I was working at a Village Inn, but I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to own my own restaurant. Village Inn wanted to make me a trainer and an opener and travel around the country opening restaurants, and I thought, “Okay, is this really what I want to do?” I called my dad when I was driving home from work one day and told him, “I think it’s time. I want to look for a restaurant.”
I started searching the internet, but mostly everything was $500,000, $300,000. Then I found one for $25,000. I thought something must be wrong with it. So my sister and I went to check it out. It came down to me and another couple, and in the end, I got it.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I started working in restaurants at 12. That’s all I’ve ever done. I started serving at 15, cooking at 16. It’s just my thing. When my parents bought the restaurant in Page, they asked me if I was on board – and the rest is history.
Who first taught you how to cook?
There’s a mom and pop fast-food place in Page called R.D.’s Drive-In. The owner of that restaurant was an old lady back then, and she taught me how to cook. That’s where I learned about speed and precision and thinking ahead. Learning a routine. And that was good for me because it was fast-food, so I knew what to do in a kitchen from then on.
What are the most popular dishes at Ranch House?
We serve Southwest comfort food. The southwest chicken fried steak was once named one of the top 50 dishes in the Valley from Phoenix Magazine. Our pork chili verde is the most famous and well-received dish around here. It’s won tons of awards. It’s also the reason we’re still a restaurant. Probably about half the people that come in here order it in some form or another.
Are there any interesting stories about the restaurant?
In 2010, a neighbor burned down the whole strip mall. It was kind of good because the restaurant was way different before, and I don’t think it was actually meant to be a restaurant. It took 17 months to rebuild, but the positive was that I got to renovate the whole place and change it into a proper restaurant.
We also get a lot of baseball players in here when they come for spring training. The president of the Diamondbacks comes in a lot. He was on a radio show once and mentioned that we were his favorite breakfast place, so that was cool.
What is unique about the dishes at Ranch House?
I rewrote the menu after the fire and changed everything. I added the “off the griddle” section, with sweet stuff like crepes and new versions on pancakes. I focused on the Southwestern aspect and added a little spice. I’ve also heard that we have the best gravy around – bacon grease, pepper, sausage – it comes out really good. Our thing is big portions – we don’t want anyone leaving hungry.
What is the most challenging part of working in the industry?
In Phoenix, getting through the summer is rough. It slows down quite a bit; people aren’t here, the heat is so bad that people don’t come out as much. That took me years to get used to and realize that you have to prepare for that and schedule accordingly.
What is your go-to comfort food?
Chicken fried steak, over-medium eggs and sourdough toast. That’s actually my license plate. Most people don’t know what it means, but it’s the shorthand/ old-time waitress version of that dish: CFSOMSD – that’s what my license plate says. That’s my ultimate – if I just want to eat, that’s what I go for.
Who is your favorite chef to work with?
I’ve worked with professional chefs, but I like working with my guys. My chef’s name is Porfirio. I hired him four days after I opened the restaurant 14 years ago. He’s been running the kitchen for the last eight years. I could work with him all day. I taught him all the “stuff.” He does everything. He’s awesome.
What or who inspires you?
My wife inspires me. She knows her stuff, and she’s awesome. Aaron Franklin – he’s the best “smoker” guy in the world right now. He works in Austin. His restaurant has people lining up at 4 a.m. when they open at 11. To get to that point, where people line up every morning and then to sell out [of food] every day, that’s the ultimate restaurant goal. I’d love to be as busy as I am on Sundays every day.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I run a lot – I’m really into trail running. That’s my hobby. I also hang out with my family. I have three kids, so I stay busy. We swim a lot.
What advice has stayed with you throughout the years?
It’s funny, this morning I was just saying to myself: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Or “only serve it if you’d eat it.” Or only serve it if you’d serve it to your grandma. And be proud of it. We like our plates to look nice. That’s important.
How is Ranch House
being affected by COVID?
I’m confident that we’re going to make it through this thing, but it’s been sketchy. It’s devastating. We had our busiest day on March 1. March is always our busiest month because of spring training, so it’s been crazy hard.
I have a big smoker for smoking meat. I recently got it for my house, but I’ve been thinking about starting a side business. So I brought it to the restaurant, and I started throwing barbecues. I started smoking a bunch of brisket and ribs and pulled pork, and that was when there were hardly any cars on the street.
My wife and daughters stood on the sidewalk with signs that said: “barbecue today.” That kind of helped. We had to change everything up and go to being a barbecue restaurant three days a week. I sold 130 racks of ribs one weekend. We’ve done five barbecues so far, but it’s so hot out.
There’s been a couple of issues, but we’re going to bring it back in October and have a monthly “meat up.” It’ll be a great neighborhood thing. We want to collaborate with Arcadia Premium, set up tables, music and every second Saturday have a big cookout. So that’s the plan.
Ranch House Grille • 5618 E. Thomas Road • ranchhousegrille.com