Chuck Wagon Redux

The latest culinary craze, Cowboy Cuisine has put a new spin on traditional Texas cooking.

July 1993By Comments

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.

One of the recurrent notes in Cayuse’s repertoire is a surprising hint of sweetness in dishes that you expect to be savory. The pecan-crusted trout, a moist tail-on filet that is crusty outside and flaky inside, is dipped in a mixture of egg and molasses before being dredged in crushed pecans and bread crumbs. The effect is heavenly.

If one thing is missing at Cayuse, it is intimacy. The space is cavernous and cacophonous, with steel struts overhead and a concrete floor underfoot. Seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to drop the ceiling or throw in something to break up the space. Other than that, Cayuse works. It’s fun, the food is good, and for what you get, the prices are right.

Maggie Greene says, “Son of Cayuse is in the offing.” Potential investors from Houston, Seattle, Atlanta, and Toronto think Cayuse can be spun off almost anywhere and are pushing the idea of expansion. Their mamas didn’t raise any dummies.

Rio Ranch, 9999 Westheimer, Houston (713-952-5000). Nothing at Rio Ranch has been left to chance, from the silver collar tips on the servers’ cowboy shirts to the window placed just so, allowing a shaft of light to fall dramatically into the center of the dining room. “Part of the concept is food that fits the atmosphere,” says Robert Del Grande, the 38-year-old part owner and chef of Houston’s fashionable Cafe Annie. “We wanted a casual ‘Let’s eat!’ feel, but not too much of any amusement-park atmosphere. We wanted something that was like what you would eat on a real working ranch. Originally I didn’t want to say it had anything to do with cowboys, but you can’t get away from it.”

Del Grande and his three family-member partners hit on the idea through a combination of necessity and serendipity. “We were developing a second cuisine at Cafe Annie, a group of dishes we cooked for ourselves that were kind of rough and ready,” Del Grande says. “We couldn’t serve them in the restaurant, though, because they didn’t match that white-tablecloth, high-celebration kind of dining. But we loved the food and felt frustrated that we weren’t doing anything with it.”

To dovetail with the homier dishes they had dreamed up, the partners wanted an informal Western look. They began to think of the restaurant (which would be built from scratch) as the home of a mythic family. One room would be limestone—that was the family’s first house. Later, as the family became prosperous, they would add on a tall stuccoed room with wood beams and a fireplace. The last room would be brick and contain a large, open kitchen.

The F word—frying­—is where Rio Ranch’s kitchen comes into its own, with a whole section of the menu fearlessly labeled “Buttermilk Fried.” Asked if he thinks there is currently a backlash against health-conscious food, Del Grande snorts, “There never was a ‘lash’ to begin with. People never stopped eating fried food.”

The menu’s centerpiece and all-around best-seller is the chicken-fried steak. Much soul-searching went into the development of the recipe, especially because Del Grande had serious doubts that it would work. “Chicken-fried steak is the most miserable thing I have ever eaten in my life,” he says. “The coating is so thick it cracks and falls off and the meat is pitiful. So I knew we had to figure a better way to do it.” The result is a pounded sirloin dipped in buttermilk and flour and fried until it is crunchy on the outside and steamy on the inside. The coating, almost like tempura batter, is actually still too thick, but the tender meat within is a far cry from your usual CFS.

The comfort food on the menu comes just the way comfort food should: in big bowls fro the whole table to share—a tossed salad; a basket of muffins, biscuits, and cornbread; a platter of baked potatoes with the works; and ranch-style red beans and creamed spinach with cheddar cheese. Sounds like a covered-dish supper except that most everything is better than homemade. Your grandmother wouldn’t recognize the salad, for instance—mostly romaine jazzed up with red cabbage, radishes, tomatoes, crumbled white Mexican cotiga cheese, and mild buttermilk dressing.

The Mexican influence is strong, sometimes Tex-Mex, sometimes pure interior. Nachos Rancheros Deluxe is a glorious pile of corn chips, refried beans, avocado, jalapeños, cheddar and jack cheese, and salsa, though not nearly as gloppy as most nachos. Chicken mole comes drenched in savory chile-and-chocolate sauce with baked sweet potatoes alongside. Even the ribs are slow-braised. “That’s the Mexican style,” says Del Grande. “I’ve always said if you didn’t see a strong Mexican influence, something was wrong.”

Rio Ranch opened in December, and Del Grande envisions a series of Rio Ranches down the road. He says, “That rustic cowboy-ranch thing just keeps coming back to haunt you.”

The Backyard at Bee Cave, Texas Highway 71 at Farm Road 620, Bee Cave (512-263-9707). You can actually imagine driving around the Hill Country on a lazy summer afternoon and stumbling upon a roadhouse that looks like the Backyard: two rooms, stark white walls, Saltillo tile floors, cedar beams around the doors and windows. The bar area, with abundant mounted animal heads and windows looking out into the vast oak-shaded yard, has the most character. The low-ceilinged dining rooms are a little utilitarian, although softened with touches like wildflower watercolors and tangles of barbed wire, mustang grape vines, and twinkle lights on the ceiling.

The creation of chef Jeff Blank, of Hudson’s on the Bend, and Tim O’Connor, former co-owner of the Austin Opera House, the Backyard opened in May with an ambitious menu. Overall, the barbecued meats are a smoky success, and you certainly never go away hungry. Several of the more complex recipes are being tweaked and refined, however, and the kitchen has been known to sling salt around with a prodigal hand. But time should smooth over the few rough spots.

Of the abundant smoked meats, the trout and chicken are the best. The rainbow trout is moist and flavorful, with the aromatic scent of pecan wood. Served atop cooked apples with bacon and nopalitos, it comes drenched in a thin, if dauntingly sweet, cider sauce. The chicken could hardly be improved upon. Half a bird is smoked to a mahogany turn, its pink meat almost not needing the accompanying honey-mustard sauce. And all that need be said for the pecan-grilled lamb chops is “fabulous.”

As for the brisket, on one occasion it had an overcooked-pot-roast texture, and the ribs have been a little dried out. The smoked pork sausage, however, shows that the kitchen is serious. Homemade, with a satiny texture and incredible flavor, it could be the best thing on the menu.

“We’re still experimenting,” says co-owner Jeff Blank, as he prowls the dining room soliciting diners’ opinions. Some side dishes are iffy. The rattlesnake-and-chicken-stuffed poblano chile, for instance, comes in a spicy ancho-chile sauce with a nice bite to it, but the stuffing needs a chunkier texture. The Mexican marigold-green goddess dressing on the homey iceberg lettuce wedge is just plain strange. On the other hand, the Texas dewberry slaw (mostly red cabbage, despite the name) has been improved; way too strong one visit, it had a proper balance between sweet and sour the next.

The Backyard advertises “Cowboy and Indian Food,” but you have to give a liberal interpretation to the term “Indian.” True, the Indian Veggies—chayote squash, nopalitos, jicama—are from the New World, but deep-frying isn’t usually cited as part of the Native American repertoire. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter; just shut up and eat your vegetables.

Despite the turnover in the menu, the Backyard has a lot going for it, the most seductive of which is the setting. It just doesn’t get any better than lolling around on the terrace under gigantic live oaks, sipping a longneck while clouds scoot by in a cobalt sky. At night, the Yard’s amphitheater hosts entertainers like Willie Nelson, Leonard Cohen, and Little Feat. Just watch that traffic when you pull out onto Highway 71; it can be wild.

Texas has always had a regional cooking style, but until now it lacked definition. With Cowboy Cuisine, a few savvy chefs have melded the state’s three historic culinary traditions and brought them into the nineties. These innovators understand instinctively the force of the family dining table and the power of the Western myth. With their steaming platters of brisket and their home-on-the-range accessories, cowboy restaurants stir deep memories in our collective unconscious. They reassure us that although the wild West is gone, it is not forgotten.

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