The way people are acting, you would think they had never heard of chicken-friend steak. Or chili. Or nachos, or pecan pie, or meat loaf, or biscuits and gravy. Texas is being swept by a food craze—call it Cowboy Cuisine—and all of a sudden folks can’t get enough of the food they’ve been eating all their lives. It’s as if one morning everyone woke up and said, “You can have your milk-fed veal in béarnaise sauce—pass me the brisket.”
Three new restaurants have tapped into this trend, updating and modernizing it. Houston’s Rio Ranch has built its own ranch house, with cowhides on the floor and an antler chandelier. In Dallas, Cayuse’s jokey three-dimensional mural of pop heroes shows how the West was fun. And in an oak grove outside Austin, the Backyard at Bee Cave has created a faux-adobe nook filled with cedar beams, barbed wire, and potted cacti.
These trendsetters have been mobbed from day one, and other examples of the genre are already springing up. In Houston an entertainment and food extravaganza with a ranch house theme will open in the Carlisle’s old digs this fall. In Dallas, Stephan Pyles, of the late Routh Street Cafe, promises that his new venture will have a strong Lone Star character.
And while Texas may be the spiritual home of the movement, it has established beachheads elsewhere. The Cowgirl Hall of Fame is going great guns in New York, has one spin-off in Santa Fe, and is planning another in Nashville. The Cottonwood Cafe is taking out quarter-page ads in Spy magazine touting “genuine Texas cookin’ and frozen margaritas.” And in Washington, D.C., Mark Miller’s Red Sage is so swamped that if someone calls to cancel a reservation, the hostess is likely to say, “Oh good!”
Just what is Cowboy Cuisine? Basically, it’s the synthesis of Texas’ three historic cooking traditions—Western, Southern, and Mexican. It crosses dude ranch fare with all-American comfort food and gives it a contemporary spin—grilled duck with Tabasco and molasses, deep-fried corn on the cob with chipotle chile sauce, seafood grill with ranchero sauce and Texmati rice. Most of what you see on the menus at these places is familiar, but the elements are combined in unexpected ways. The thing that makes Cowboy restaurants different from the Lone Star Cafes and Chili’s and North of the Borders is that Cowboy Cuisine has been filtered through the sophisticated lens of Southwestern Cuisine.
This region’s signal culinary innovation, Southwestern Cuisine (Texas edition) was created in four temples of haute cuisine: Houston’s Cafe Annie, Dallas’ Mansion on Turtle Creek and Routh Street Cafe, and San Antonio’s Fairmont Hotel. Its trademark dishes, such as smoked-duck enchiladas and cilantro pesto, have spread down to the next tier of restaurants, but not much farther. Now Cowboy Cuisine has come along to give the upscale Southwestern accent a populist pitch. Cowboy restaurants are unintimidating, folksy, and fun. You’ll never be inspected at one of them by a waiter wearing a Rolex. You can dine without taking out a second mortgage (most entrées are less than $10, except for steaks and seafood, and appetizers and side dishes are $3 to $7). On Cowboy menus you will find English and Spanish but not French. And yet you are not in Bubba Country. Even if you could order a seven-course dinner, it wouldn’t be a six-pack and a possum.
Other than the Southwestern influence, the salient point here is style. Cowboy Cuisine is inseparable from the more general buckaroo revival that is taking place in fashion and decor. Roy Rogers lunch boxes, driftwood lamps—all the doodads and knickknacks we treasured when we were growing up—are fashionable now, fetching unbelievable prices at trend meccas like Cadillac Jack in Los Angeles. This fad is obviously at work in the packaging of Cowboy Cuisine. And why not? There is a synergy in popular culture, a cross-fertilization of ideas among music, dance, art, decor, and fashion. Cowboy restaurants have merely provided the edible part of the cowboy zeitgeist.
Cayuse, 3211 Oak Lawn, Dallas (214-521-0114). The operative term at Cayuse is High Kitsch. Open since February, Cayuse (meaning “wild horse”) is a tribute to the cowboy renaissance. A red vinyl wagon-wheel sofa and chairs front the rock fireplace on the rear wall. The decorative focus is a hokey mural of Western heroes and heroines (Roy, Gene, Hopalong, Matt, Miss Kitty, Howdy Doody) that was commissioned by Eduardo and Maggie Greene, the husband-and-wife team who also own the Mexican restaurant Acá y Allá. Maggie, an outgoing brunette who favors Western shirts and skirts à la Dale Evans, has been collecting cowboy artifacts for years. She says, “I’m fascinated with Western memorabilia. When I was growing up, we lived in an old house that had a linoleum rug with a cowboy pattern; I wanted that room, but my brother got it.”
The long bar that leads to the dining room is in fact a glass-topped display case with treasures from Greene’s personal Texana collection: cap pistols, spurs, red and green jalapeño Christmas tree lights, and more. Suspended from the ceiling is a huge molded-fiberglass cowboy on a bucking bronco that was once an auto dealer’s sign. Says Greene: “We’re like Disneyland for grown-ups.”
The menu touts “Steaks and Square Meals,” and culinary hits definitely exceed misses. The more traditional dishes are well and simply executed. The ten-ounce ribeye, cooked medium rare, was thinnish but eminently tasty and tender, seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper. Almost better than the steak was the hamburger, a ground-chuck patty grilled over apple and pecan wood. This is the way burgers are supposed to be, hand-pressed and succulent, with homemade barbecue sauce on the side.
The kitchen also does well by the slightly more complicated dishes. The tomato linguine in the Red River Pasta came cooked more than al dente but passed muster anyway, with chunks of carrot and celery for texture and slices of roasted venison sausage for substance. Seasoned with olive oil and garlic, it was finished with a sprinkle of oregano and Parmesan.