After watching Stephan Pyles and eating his food for more years than we want to admit, we know good and well that he never does anything small and subtle. Given that he’s a fifth-generation Texan, proud of his Big Spring upbringing in that understated way that most West Texans are, he does tend to go fearlessly into everything he does with his restaurants and his cuisine. This has never been more evident than at Stampede 66, the 7,000-square-foot, 130-seat restaurant Pyles will open in about a week in the Dallas Arts District. A true homage to the Lone Star State and his humble roots, Stampede 66 brings together Pyles’ stylish interpretations of his favorite Texas foods and a setting that puts contemporary updates on traditional ranch motifs. And though Stampede 66 will feed you homey foods in ways you’d never considered, and in spite of sexy cowgirl/cowboy artwork in the latrines, Pyles retains a keen sense of decorum. That twinkle you always see in his eye shows up in the sense of fun evident on his menu and in his decor, but nothing is ever cartoonish. Along with executive chef Jon Thompson and consulting Spanish chef Najat Kaanache, Pyles developed a menu he unveiled for a handful of sneak-previewers on Tuesday. Well, he says it’s the “probable” menu. Judging from our collective reaction, we hope it’s the final menu. Favorites were a starter basket of chicharonnes, or pork rinds, one version made with manchego cheese and the other dusted with brick-red chile powder; followed by a side of silken lump crabmeat with grapefruit, thick slices of avocado coated in panko crumbs and fried, tossed with the famous poppy seed dressing of Helen Corbitt (known as the Julia Child of Texas); and a Shiner Bock beer bread, served in a Shiner can, flavored with a hint of honey. Shrimp and grits inspired much eye-rolling at our table: Homestead grits from the gristmill near Waco served as a bed for sous vide-cooked crustaceans; in one of Pyles’s nods to the molecular gastronomy techniques he enjoys, he includes a shrimp “sphere” atop the grits–a fat little bubble of shrimp sauce that you pierce with a fork so the contents flow over the food much like an egg yolk would. But the “freeto” chili pie spoke of an even richer Texas heritage, as the dark red chili–flavored with guajillo, ancho and chipotle chiles–at the bottom of the assemblage was Pyles’s rendition of the Pedernales Chili recipe favored by LBJ and Lady Bird, always a specialty at their ranch near Stonewall. Atop the chili were homemade, crisp tortilla strips, garnished with smoked-cheddar foam and candied jalapeños. Honey-fried chicken nearly drew applause for its moist interior and crispy-crust jacket. Injected with honey, cooked sous vide and then pan-fried, the hefty bird basket came with a mashed-potato tot; buttermilk biscuit; housemade pickled vegetables; and a deep, almost roux-like pot-likker gravy that bore hints of the collard juices used in its preparation. Meat freaks should love the tender hanger steak, coated in ground coffee, glazed with a coffee reduction, topped with espresso foam, and served alongside a mini-cast-iron skillet of red flannel hash (made with beets and potatoes), crowned with a soft egg. As rich as these are, it’s wise to leave room for a brilliant rendition of butterscotch pudding. And one end of the bar, you can sit watch the hand-making of tacos and margaritas under the watchful gaze of longhorns. Stampede’s decor also includes a Phillips 66 sign, in honor of the truck stop Pyles’s parents owned and the place where he learned to cook. Also worked into the art are a chandelier from his long-shuttered Star Canyon, arty metal stylized horses and a snake, and a pig fashioned from chicharonnes. Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and Janis Joplin play on the sound system. As we consider that Pyles has opened 18 restaurants in five cities over almost 30 years, and though he’s rarely ventured far from where his star first rose so high at Dallas’s Routh Street Café, it’s nice to see him have fun going home again. Posted by June Naylor. Stampede 66 will serve dinner nightly and add lunch hours in December. Entree prices will be in the $12-$21 range. Sunday brunch and dinner will offer family-style service, too. 1717 McKinney Ave at Akard St., just off Woodall Rogers Freeway, Dallas. 214-550-6966.
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