Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Race to the Finish in West Texas: In Pursuit of the Best BBQ and Bone-In Ribeye

After his trip to Austin checking out the local food truck culture, our traveling foodie, David Latt, liked Texas so much he headed back in search of great barbecue and steaks. On a short visit, he took the long view and ate in twenty-five restaurants in thirty-six hours.

I hadn't gone shooting since I was a kid, so the instructor's saying the shotgun "will kick a bit" was good to know.

Overhead, the sky was deep blue.  You could hear traffic from the interstate a few miles away, but otherwise the air was hot, still and quiet.
Hands sweating, two shells loaded into the shotgun, one eye squinted closed, the other aimed down the barrel, I was ready. "Pull," I said and from the left, the hockey sized puck flew into the sky.

I moved the barrel of the shotgun to follow the skeet as it arced in the sky. The puck seemed to move in slow motion when it reached its highest point. That's when I slowly squeezed the trigger and...missed.

Luckily I had a full box of shells and the afternoon to spend on the beginning of a fun four day trip in West Texas that started at the Wildcatter Ranch, a working ranch on top of a plateau overlooking the small town of Graham, an hour from Fort Worth and Abilene.

The trip was about barbecue and bone-in ribeye steaks, West Texas style. I only had a few days to cover a lot of territory and a lot of eating to do.
'Cue Joints and Steakhouses

The Wildcatter Ranch was a lot of fun.

Besides skeet shooing, there's archery, horseback riding and river rafting. Not a dude ranch, the rooms are nicely supplied with Western memorabilia, cable TV and Wi-Fi but the grounds are scruffy, reminding you this is a working ranch and I definitely knew I wasn't in the city when I saw the warning signs outside my cabin--"DANGER Rocks Snakes."
Texas Barbecue Lesson #1: Dry Rub Only, No Wet Sauce

During a cooking class with chef Bob Bratcher, he made it clear that the first lesson of West Texas barbecue is dry rub is king. No wet sauce touches the meat during cooking. Sauces are available but only applied by the diner.
Chef Bob's baby back ribs are dry rubbed and cooked until tender and smoky. 
Likewise his mesquite grilled ribeye has a great dry rub-grill crust and tons of flavor. The 16 oz. steak comes garnished with a Texas star carved out of a thick slice of pineapple just in case you forgot where you were. 

BBQ by the side of the road

On the road near Wildcatter ranch, we experienced every foodie-traveler's dream.

We discovered a gem of a restaurant on a dusty, god-forsaken highway,  Hashknife on the Chisholm Trail in Peadenville (population 6, no fooling', that's really the whole population) at the junction of Highways 281 N. and 254.
Big Jim McLennan and his wife Lesa are proud of their restaurant in the middle of nowhere. "We have a little menu and what we do, we try to do well," Big Jim told us as we're hunched over paper plates filled with brisket, sausage, pork ribs, ribeye steaks, chicken fried steak and "big ole burgers."
On his menu, Big Jim has found a happy balance of barbecue, country cafe and steakhouse dishes.
His 'cue was first rate. The pork ribs were sweet with the proper amount of fat. Along with the extremely large portions, we were encouraged to have a big cup of sweetened iced tea or a long neck Lone Star, which local Brian Briscoe told us "tastes better in a bottle than on tap." Several bottles later, we couldn't agree more.
One of the best dishes at Hashknife isn't meat at all but poultry. Big Jim puts his barbecue smoker to good use when he makes a delicious smoked chicken salad sandwich on toasted white bread.

Another treat was a special dessert made by his wife Lesa. Her banana cake was moist with lots of flavor. Surprisingly, she uses plantains instead of regular Chiquita bananas. A break with tradition and a good one.

Abilene

From tiny Peadenville, I headed to Abilene for the next stop on my mad, barbecue dash across West Texas.

A must-stop for any encounter with old school 'cue is Harold's Pit Bar-B-Q.
The restaurant is about as stripped down as you could imagine. Florescent lighting brightens up the rectangular cinderblock interior. The smoker and serving counter are all the way in the back. In between are picnic tables filled with people eating big plates of food.
You won't find steak, shrimp, chicken, fish or chicken fried steak at Harold's. The menu focuses on barbecue classics: sausage, ham, pork ribs, brisket, turkey, cornbread, cole slaw, pinto beans, collard greens, flat green beans, potato salad, fruit cobblers and sweetened ice tea.
The sausage and thick sliced ham were nicely smoked, sweet and chewy with a salty finish. The beans have heat. The ribs were tender and fatty. The sweet and creamy potato salad had a good relish-crunch.

In his heyday, Harold would come out from behind the counter and sing for the customers. He loved people and they loved him back. Unfortunately, these days Harold is taking it easy and doesn't come by much, but the food's the same, watched over by Harold's son, Russell.

Texas Barbecue Lesson #2: Fatty Brisket Reigns Supreme

If you visit Abilene you also have to stop at Joe Allen's with two dining rooms, a spacious good-time bar, big game trophies on the walls and twinkle lights circling the room.

The restaurant has the feeling of a rambling, Texas roadhouse. Just the sort of place you want to sit and spend time talking, drinking and eating 'cue.
The fatty brisket was delicious. Sweet and juicy with a perfect balance of tender meatiness and smoky tang and seasoned only with dry rub and enough black pepper to make your tongue tingle.

As explained by Joe's son, Josh Allen, the general manager, the brisket stays in the smokers 12-16 hours depending on the size of the cut. Slow cooking is the best way to coax out the meat's deep flavors.

Texas Barbecue Lesson #3: Only Use Mesquite 

With very few exceptions, in West Texas the only wood used in smokers and grills is mesquite. 
The tricky part of barbecue is the balance of smoke, heat, fat and seasoning. Too much smoke over-powers the flavor of the meat. Too much heat and not enough fat, the meat dries out. Too little seasoning, no kick.

At Joe Allen's, they get that balance pitch-perfect right.

Bone-in Rib Eye Steaks and Chicken Fried Steaks

If you're in Texas, you'll be tossing your fears about high cholesterol levels out the car window. This is cattle country, after all, and nothing is as good as a steak cooked on a hot-as-hell grill or a breaded piece of beef that's been fried to perfection.

A favorite of locals in the area and always crowded, the Beehive Restaurant has locations in Abilene and nearby Albany. Primarily a steak house with steaks cooked on an open pit, mesquite fired grill or as chicken fried steak, the Beehive has an upscale, clubby feeling, the kind of place that attracts friends wanting a big meal and some cocktails, families with their kids, and couples out on a date.

10-14 ounce filets, ribeyes and New York strip steaks are grilled with smoky flavor on the blazingly hot pit in the kitchen. 
Owned by the Esfandiary brothers, Ali and Neiman, who arrived from Iran decades ago and, incongruously, decided to open an American-style country cafe. The story goes that the day before they opened the original restaurant in Albany, an elderly woman came in to eat. Sorry, they told her, they weren't open until tomorrow. Before she could leave, they asked if she could settle an argument they were having. Which part of the chicken, they wanted to know, did you use to make chicken fried steak?
As Ali tells the story, the woman said they were idiots and dragged them to her house for a lesson in Texas-cooking. Chicken fried steak, as everyone knows, is made with beef. From the long lines waiting to have lunch and dinner, they were clearly quick learners.

Buffalo Gap
Buffalo Gap is only a few miles south-west of Abilene. The small town (population 463) has a fascinating Historic Village, a must for any western history buffs.

The jewel of Buffalo Gap is Perini Ranch Steakhouse. Located down a twisting dirt road, the steakhouse is in a converted barn with an outdoor patio cooled by lazily turning overhead fans.
Perini's is the brainchild of Tom Perini (on the right in the photo), born and bred a Texas cattleman. He loves cattle ranching but confesses there is no money to be made that way.
Faced with losing the ranch because he couldn't earn enough raising cattle, his mother told him to turn to cooking, something he had been doing for years on cattle drives. Everyone loved his down-home, ranchhand-pleasing dishes.

That's what you'll get at Perini's. Steaks, fried chicken, ham, chicken fried steak, hamburgers, catfish, and ribs come out on huge plates, designed to satisfy the hungriest of cowboys.
There are all the usual sides you'd find on the barbecue trial--corn, flat green beans, corn bread, mashed potatoes, red beans and biscuits--as well as some excellent additions like black bean and corn salad, romaine and head lettuce salad with blue cheese and minced bacon and delicious, creamy green chile hominy with bacon and cheddar cheese.
For dessert, locals insist the bread bread pudding is a must, the combination of Jack Daniels whiskey sauce, sourdough bread croutons and pecans is to-die-for. I had some myself, so I can testify to the truthfulness of that statement.

Perini's serves lunch and dinner and--a really great way to experience the setting--Sunday brunch. Locals testify to the pleasures of a leisurely Sunday morning spent at the ranch, a cowboy bloody mary with horseradish and pickled okra in one hand and a piece of crispy fried chicken in the other with the prospect of enjoying more of the chuck wagon favorites outside on the patio buffet.

If I lived in the area, I would happily make Sunday brunch at Perini's a weekend tradition.

Fort Worth

More often than not, people have heard about Fort Worth but haven't visited Dallas's little sister. 
Since this is Texas, if you aren't eating beef, you're watching them walk by.

One of the most popular attractions in Texas, the Fort Worth Stockyards looks back to a time when railroads and cattle ruled the west. Commemorating that rich tradition, twice a day at 11:30 am and 4:00 pm, a symbolic cattle drive of 15-20 Texas longhorns ambles down E. Exchange Avenue to the delight of families with kids and travelers from all over.

To build up my appetite and take a break from beef and barbecue, I stopped at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to check out its small but excellent collection.  As enjoyable as the art, the museum building itself is amazing. The geometric lines of the galleries and ponds outside are soothing, helping visitors enjoy a few hours of quiet contemplation and self-reflection.
If I had had more time, I would have liked to have visited the other museums nearby in the Fort Worth Cultural District, a complex of art and science attrractions as varied as the Amon Carter Museum of American ArtKimbell Art MuseumMuseum of Science and HistoryNational Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Botanic Garden & Japanese Garden.
Our next stop was a ramble through the restaurants in the middle of the historic district.

Around the corner from Stockyards on North Main, Cattleman's Steak House opened just after WWII. The dark wood interior and long bar announce Cattleman's as a great place to hang out. A casual, friendly, a no-tablecloth kind of restaurant. The kind of place where strangers will reach out to one another with "Where you folks from?" as if everyone in the restaurant could be a neighbor, no matter where they are from.

Because Cattleman's and the other stockyard restaurants cater to travelers, the large menus throw barbecue together with steakhouse and country cafe cooking: barbecue pork ribs, lamb fries (rocky mountain oysters), chicken fried steak, grilled pork chops, fried catfish, chicken fried steak and steak just about any way you could imagine: sirloin strip (New York 10 oz., K.C. 13 oz. and Texas 18 oz.), porterhouse, t-bone, ribeye (bone-in or boneless), tenderloin, pepper, teriyaki and filet mignon.

On E. Exchange Avenue, H3 Ranch adds Mexican favorites like guacamole, nachos, tacos and quesadillas to a menu similar to Cattleman's. Steaks are offered from a petite 9 oz. filet mignon to a 32 oz. porterhouse for two or, as the menu says, "One Hungry Cowhand". 

For fans of barbecue, brisket and pork ribs can be ordered at H3 Ranch with sides and on combination platters of grilled chicken, sausage or shrimp. Rounding out the menu are hamburgers, chicken fried steak, rainbow trout, spit-roasted pig and chicken, fried catfish, Alaskan king crab, cedar planked salmon and prime rib. In a phrase, something for everyone.
H3 Ranch is also open for breakfast, a good time to enjoy the expansive interior with a collection of cowboy art and many mounted animal heads, including a trio of buffalo who loom over the booths in the dining room.

Part of the restaurant, Booger Red's Saloon has a long bar where half the stools are topped with saddles so even a barfly can ride the western spirit without walking outside.
With two locations on E. Exchange, Riscky's--a family run dynasty with more than half a dozen restaurants in Fort Worth--has long been a destination for visitors to the Stockyards District.

Riscky's Barbeque has a large, covered patio cooled on blisteringly hot days with cold water mists. Inside, the restaurant looks like everybody's image of a roadside joint, a big rambling shamble of a space with a honky-tonk, neon-laced bar on one side and the crowded restaurant on the other.
All the barbecue favorites are available: pork and beef ribs, brisket, smoked sausage, turkey and ham, as well as barbecued shrimp and bologna (bolonga, yes, you heard that right!).

To round out the menu there are Mexican tacos and country cafe fried pickles, cheese sticks, onion strings, okra and corn as well as a variety of green salads, potato salad, cole slaw, red beans, mac n' cheese, green beans, french fries and rocky mountain oysters again, called "calf fries" here.
Down the block, steaks are the focus at Riscky's Steakhouse. There's a friendly rivalry between Riscky's, H3 Ranch and Cattleman's. Their menus share a love of Black Angus Beef.  Steaks are grilled the way you want them with lots of sides, salads, soups and "surf"--lobster, shrimp and catfish.

Like so many restaurants in West Texas, Riscky's Steakhouse is a big, casual, friendly place to eat a bunch of food, hang out and have a cocktail or a few bottles of Shiner Bock.
North of downtownAngelo's Barbecue has that same comfortable, big room feel. Like Harold's in Abilene, Angelo's focuses on barbecue classics.

On the trip, in the parking lot near the entrance smoke billowed out of a rusty oil barrel.  Assistant Manger, Lowell Brown explained that they burn off the still smoldering ash from the wood fire pits in the oil barrel.

Was this good houskeeping or a sly marketing ploy to attract more customers? You could smell that delicious barbecue aroma for miles around.
Inside, Angelo's was all business. No wait staff serves you. If you want food, you'll get in line at the chest-high counter, sliding your tray along, cafeteria style, waiting for your turn in front of Lowell and his helpers.
He asks you what you want. You choose your meat. Lowell slices or dishes it out. One of his helpers adds your sides and two pieces of white bread. You reach up and grab your paper plate of food, put it on your tray and settle your bill with the cashier.

The first time you visit Angelo's you might be distracted by the hundreds of mounted animal heads on the walls. The next time you come, you probably won't even notice.

You'll be too focused on eating your plate of fatty brisket and the excellent mashed potato salad with poppy seeds, relish and red pepper. Like me, you'll dig your fork into the creamy cole slaw made with red and green cabbage and you'll never look up at the buffalo, elk, deer and elk staring down at you.
Needing no sauce whatsoever, the pork ribs were, for me, the best dish at Angelo's. The ribs were cooked until tender, with enough smoke to bring out the meat's sweetness.
The fatty brisket was good too but best enjoyed as a sandwich with a generous helping of homemade sauce. In any other context, white bread is bland and uninteresting but here it complimented perfectly the spicy, smoked meat and tangy sauce.

For the last stop on the West Texas barbecue-steak trail, we ate at El Asadero Mexican Steakhouse and Seafood, a mile and a half south of the Stockyards District. The down-home, neighborhood Mexican cafe serves a big menu of Mexican dishes as well as a great steak, the bistec ranchero.
Often chewy and a bit tasteless, chuck steak shines at El Asadero.

The bistec ranchero was pounded thin and charbroiled on a gas grill. The enormous steak arrived at the table covered with caramelized onions and, if I wanted (I didn't), jalapeno peppers. The bistec came with a good sized helping of rice, refried beans, tortillas and a salad. All for $10.99.
The meat was juicy, tender and full of caramelized carne asada flavor, smoky and sweet. Eaten by itself, the steak was delicious. Even better was using the steak to create a taco. I cut off pieces of the succulent meat, placed them in one of the hot tortillas and aded onions, rice, beans and salsa and chowed down.

Hard to believe after so many stops in such a short amount of time I was still hungry. El Asadero's bistec was a great away to end a remarkable trip.

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