Gastronome on the Range
Stephan Pyles swings for the barbed-wire fences with his modern Texas cuisine.
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At Stampede 66, Dallas chef Stephan Pyles’s latest gig, the symbols of his West Texas youth are writ not just large but colossal. Wild horses fashioned of gleaming wire come bursting through a solid wall. A giant rattlesnake of screen wire and glowing LED lights stretches its fifty-foot length over a row of booths like a Chinese New Year’s dragon. Pairs of massive cattle horns appear to float high above the bar, while video screens show cowboys at work on the range. Etched-glass horny toads creep along a limestone column, and at the center of it all is the original Phillips 66 sign from his folks’ truck stop diner in Big Spring, illuminated as if it were a holy relic from the Crusades. So overwhelming, in fact, is Stampede that after I finished taking pictures with my phone, I had to order a margarita to unwind. But—whoa!—even the signature drink was outrageous: a frozen fuchsia-colored slush of tequila and cactus pear purée prepared table-side amid clouds of liquid nitrogen. Already recognized as one of the most prominent chefs in Texas, Pyles the Great and Powerful has lifted the curtain on his most theatrical creation yet, and it is something else. To be honest, if it weren’t for the high quality of the commissioned artwork and the sense of humor evident throughout, the place could easily turn into a self-parody. But it doesn’t. And the main reason it doesn’t is that Pyles himself is the real deal, a fifth-generation Texan. He has bragging rights and kidding rights in equal measure.
I have to admit I was skeptical, though, when he declared two years ago that he was thinking of returning to his roots. “People kept telling me I should bring back Star Canyon,” he says, referring to his previous greatest hit. Really? I thought. Why? Granted, he had a superb run doing sophisticated Texas cuisine there in the nineties (and before that at Routh Street Café and Baby Routh). But that was then. The restaurants he has now, Samar and the eponymous Stephan Pyles, are international and edgy. Why go backward?
But Pyles kept turning the idea over in his mind. “It finally came to me that it would work if I made it about my experience growing up in West Texas, about working in my parents’ cafe, going fishing at the lake and having a picnic at the water’s edge, lying under the stars at night on a blanket.” He had found the path. He diversified the Texas shtick, turning for inspiration not only to the usual suspects, like Mexican and Southern traditions, but also to less obvious sources, such as cattle drives, Friday night football, and Neiman Marcus’s Zodiac Room. Twenty-four months later, Stampede is a reality, a crazy quilt of culinary memories stitched together with modern ideas and techniques. And, yes, it works.
To see what Stampede is all about, you need look no farther than halfway down the menu’s first column, where you’ll find “Sonofabitch 2012.” If you’ll flash back to high school history, you might remember that sonofagun stew (the name was often sanitized) was the organ-meat combo that chuck-wagon cooks sometimes prepared after a hapless calf broke its leg in a prairie dog hole. I wondered what a classically trained chef would do with that. Happily Pyles’s SOB is a fantastic cream-enriched veal stock shot through with chipotle purée and brimming with bits of meltingly tender veal parts (shoulder, tongue, heart, liver), teensy brussels sprouts leaves, and pickled red onion. Nearly as delicious as the stew is a dish that flirts with Texas’s Mexican and Western heritages, roasted Bandera quail; the bird is stuffed with a blue-corn-cornbread-and-chorizo dressing and garnished with rubylike pomegranate seeds. Incidentally, both the stew and the bird get a nice lift from a side order of chowchow, a spunky cabbage, onion, and sweet-pepper relish that you may have seen at your grandmother’s house.
If these three dishes speak to the more historic and rural parts of Texas’s culinary traditions, there are others that draw on its recent, urban roots, specifically the fifties heyday of Neiman Marcus’s original Zodiac Room. Popovers and poppy seed dressing were two of the most enduring legacies of the dining room’s influential chef and cookbook author, Helen Corbitt. Pyles says, “Hardly anyone remembers her, but she was so important to the sophistication of Texas cooking.” So as an homage, he adds her sweet-tart dressing to a riotously colorful salad of red grapefruit, fried green avocado, and gorgeous white lump crabmeat. And he fills her crisp popovers with a secret trove of molten pimento cheese.
As interesting as it is to plumb the more anthropological elements of the menu, the most fun is Pyles’s take on two staples of tailgate and convenience store dining: “Freeto-Chili Pie” and a “Bowl of Red.” The latter—a damn fine version with three kinds of chiles and adapted from a well-known recipe of Lady Bird Johnson’s—is homemade but served out of a can, just to make you laugh. The Freeto Pie involves the same chili and a layer of homemade corn chips, presented in a foil pouch. It’s garnished with candied jalapeños and—chefs will be chefs—smoked-cheddar foam.
If you’ve followed your well-trained server’s instructions and shared a lot of plates, by the time you get to the “Sweets” category, there may be precious little room left for dessert. So take my advice and go for the butterscotch pudding in a mason jar. Not only is it mind-bendingly lush with cream and sugar, but because it’s made from hundreds of individual butterscotch candies painstakingly unwrapped and melted into a honey-colored brew, the flavor will zap you straight back to Saturday at the movies. You may have never eaten at the Zodiac Room or ridden in a cattle drive or given two hoots about high school football, but after one scoop of that pudding, you’ll believe. Yes, my friend, you can go home again.