First-time visitors to the Perini Ranch Steakhouse are easy to spot. They’re the ones standing beside their cars in a gravel lot filled with giant pickups, peering around and muttering under their breath, “Where’s the steakhouse? Is it really that little wood building with the weathered screen door and a Mrs Baird’s bread sign?” Yep. The low-slung structure is in fact the best-known country steakhouse in Texas, and owners Tom and Lisa Perini like it just the way it is.
Located right outside the tiny West Texas town of Buffalo Gap, the steakhouse is turning forty this year, a run that would be impressive for a restaurant in a major city, never mind a small place off a two-lane blacktop in the middle of nowhere (well, seventeen miles southwest of Abilene). The facade is deceiving, though. The Perinis have catered for President George W. Bush, received a James Beard award, and created a nationwide mail-order business. At the same time, they’ve kept the steakhouse front and center. As many nights as they can, Tom and Lisa dine there, welcoming newcomers and greeting regulars, some of whom have been customers since the beginning.
The rustic building has two dining rooms, the largest of which has full-length windows along three walls. On cold days, you might be shown to a plain wood table next to a redbrick fireplace adorned with a Longhorn skull and strings of fat dried red chiles. If the weather’s nice, it’s fun to sit at a picnic table outside on the patio. Until a few years ago, one or more of the property’s tame Longhorns might have wandered up to check you out. They now live in a nearby pasture, which, the Perinis joke, might as well be an old folks’ home for bovines. The whole affair is about as down-to-earth as it can be. A suit-wearing businessman who wanted to open a steakhouse once asked Tom, “How do you make it look authentic?” He answered, “I don’t. It just is.”
The menu is likewise uncurated, having evolved over the years into a roster of steakhouse hits: fried quail legs; bacon-wrapped, cream-cheese-stuffed jalapeños; a burger with New Mexico green chiles; gorgeous Cajun-seasoned grilled catfish. And, of course, steaks: mesquite-grilled Certified Angus Beef, seasoned with a rub of salt, pepper, garlic, and oregano. The menu’s strength is not defying convention or breaking new ground (unless you count the brilliant idea of adorning cheesecake with a swipe of jalapeño jelly).
Sitting in the steakhouse today, sipping your Perini Martini (Tito’s vodka and a blue-cheese-stuffed olive) and waiting for your 22-ounce bone-in ribeye, you might be surprised to learn that this unlikely success story had its origins in loss and disappointment.
Tom was 21 years old and living in Dallas when, in 1965, his mother, Maxine, called with bad news. His father, V. C. Perini, had died from complications of surgery at the age of 70. Maxine said, “Tom, I need you to come home and run the ranch.” He had been happily selling real estate (after a brief stint at the University of North Texas, in Denton) and raising a little hell on the side. He was not ready to do anything serious, much less oversee a small cattle operation.
“My dad was from Colorado,” he says, “and I honestly think he bought this property because he could see hills, and he missed the mountains.” His father loved the outdoors and horseback riding and wanted to share that with his three sons, but the ranch was more of a weekend retreat. The family had actually lived in Abilene, where the elder Perini was a petroleum geologist. The prospect of returning home must have seemed to Tom like being sentenced to solitary confinement. But his brothers were away at college, and he was the logical choice. “I really didn’t want to come back,” he says. “But I did.”
He immediately realized that the property’s size—640 acres—was too small for a proper ranch, so he started leasing additional land to run more cattle. But ranching is notoriously unpredictable, and he found himself frequently borrowing from the bank. (His personal life was equally unsettled; he married twice and divorced twice.) The root problem, though, was that he just didn’t have a knack for ranching. He looked the part—plaid shirt and jeans, well-worn Stetson—but he wasn’t a real cowboy.
He was, however, a real cowboy cook. He had begun buying and fixing up chuck wagons and catering on the side, doing smoked brisket, prime rib, pinto beans, and apple cobbler for parties and events, including the Fort Griffin Fandangle, a summer musical held in the town of Albany, some fifty miles northeast. (The one item that was never on the menu was chicken. Says Perini, “When you’re cooking for cattlemen, you do not do chicken.”)
Big area ranches, such as the Pitchfork and the Four Sixes (now owned by Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan), hired him for horse sales and other large affairs. So did his friend Watt Matthews, whose family owned the 26-square-mile Lambshead Ranch. But Perini continued to struggle financially. One day he confided in Matthews, who responded with some game-changing advice. “Tom,” he said, “I think you can do more for this industry by cooking cattle than by raising them.” The idea of quitting the business caught Perini off guard, but he knew his friend was right. In 1983 he decided to double down on catering and open a small steakhouse on the ranch.
He wrote out a menu on a Big Chief tablet and fixed up the old hay barn. He hired a couple of helpers but did a lot of the cooking himself at first. Soon he had put in a garden, growing tomatoes, jalapeños, poblanos, corn, and squash, the last of which went into his now famous zucchini Perini, the vegetable baked with Parmesan and an Italian-style meat and tomato sauce. (He adapted the recipe from one his cousin, an accomplished opera singer, brought back from Italy.) Gregarious and an engaging storyteller, he was a natural host. He also kept the bar well stocked. “Abilene was basically dry back then,” he says, “so people would come out here to have a drink with their dinner.” He had competition, but nothing was exactly like his operation. The Lowake (“Lo-way-key”) steakhouse, opened in 1951 and located about fifty miles south, was the best established, but it was more of a cafe, with Formica-type tables.
The restaurant business was up and down too, though, so Perini was always on the lookout for opportunities. And word of his steak-cooking prowess got around. In 1991 the Texas Beef Council, a promotional organization funded by the cattle industry, asked Perini to join a marketing tour of Japan. A few months later, one of his chuck wagons was in a shipping container crossing the Pacific. For almost two weeks he and a small crew went from one supermarket parking lot to another, handing out free samples of grain-fed American prime rib while a Japanese band, Charlie and the Cannonballs, sang songs like Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love.”
Not long after that experience, he got the notion to sell mesquite-smoked tenderloins by mail. He couldn’t have known it then, but that would turn out to be a brilliant idea.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Tom’s personal life was also on the upswing. Around 1995, while serving on the board of Abilene’s Ben Richey Boys Ranch—a private, nonprofit home where young men learn life skills through ranching and farming—he met another board member, Lisa Sanders. Originally from South Carolina, she was living in Albany and doing contract work for the Texas Historical Commission. She too was divorced, and they hit it off. Lisa was quieter than Tom, adept at analyzing and organizing, but she shared his love of food, wine, and travel. They were a good match, and after a couple of years, she moved in with him at the ranch.
The year 1995 was a busy one in other ways as well. The James Beard Foundation—the New York–based organization whose awards are known as the Oscars of the restaurant industry—had heard of Tom’s catering talent and asked him to cook a benefit dinner at the Beard House. The offer was a huge opportunity for national exposure, but there was a drawback: he would have to pay for his staff’s travel and lodging. “I ran some numbers,” he said, “and it looked like I was going to be out ten thousand dollars.”
He called a friend in the advertising business and asked for advice. “Cook up about twenty of those smoked peppered tenderloins you sell, and ship them to some publications in New York,” the friend said. “I’ll bet you get at least one story and enough sales to cover the trip.” He did so, making sure that the New York Times was one of the recipients. He decided to cook for the Beard House regardless, and the dinner went off splendidly. Then, a few months later, he got a call from the Times requesting a second tenderloin. “Aw, they’re just hungry,” he thought, but he grudgingly sent it along. Then came another bewildering call: “Do you have an 800 number we can publish?” The next morning, at about 4 a.m., his phone rang. It was a friend who lived in New York. “Tom,” she said, “the Times has picked your tenderloin as the best mail-order food gift of the year for the entire country!”
A turning point had been reached. Soon both the Neiman Marcus and Williams Sonoma catalogs began featuring the tenderloin, Northwest Airlines ordered 30,000 pounds for first-class meals, and Texas governor George W. Bush asked Perini to cater the first of several events at the Governor’s Mansion. Every few months there would be a story on national television and coverage by publications large and small, including this one. In 1997 Texas Monthly included Perini Ranch in a story on the best steakhouses in Texas; in 2011 we put Tom on the cover for a home cooking feature.
In 2002 Tom and Lisa were married, making official the partnership that had transformed the business. They zeroed in on mail order and catering and also created an ambitious annual festival, the Buffalo Gap Wine & Food Summit, which ran for fifteen years, until the pandemic hit (they’re hoping to bring it back in 2024). But throughout it all the steakhouse remained their first priority. That local-minded focus would lead to another honor from the James Beard Foundation, in 2014, one the couple consider the most important they have received: the America’s Classic award, a designation given to restaurants “beloved” by their communities and reflective of their character. Tom, Lisa, and most of the crew traveled to New York, and onstage the evening of the event, after Tom was presented with the medal, he turned to Lisa and placed it around her neck. She burst into tears as the country’s leading chefs and restaurateurs whistled and cheered.
As they celebrate the steakhouse’s fortieth year, the Perinis are marking the occasion by creating a podcast and a commemorative book. (Disclosure: Texas Monthly Studio is producing the podcast, and I am one of the interviewees.) A few years ago, Tom and Lisa opened three more businesses in Buffalo Gap (a cafe, shop, and private party space) and renovated two
rustic-classy guesthouses on the ranch. Some days they’re so busy it’s hard to get to the steakhouse for a meal. But they go as often as they can, and most mornings Tom loads his two basset hounds, Jett and Winston, into a four-wheeler and heads over there for the regular planning meeting. In spite of the trips abroad, the fancy catering gigs, and all the attention, the little weathered hay barn is still the heart of the whole operation.
A prestigious catering job took an unimaginable turn.
In 2001, President George W. Bush invited Tom and Lisa Perini to prepare food for the 1,400 attendees expected at the annual Congressional Picnic, on the South Lawn of the White House, on September 11. The day before, the Perini Ranch Steakhouse crew spent hours in the White House kitchen, prepping catfish, steaks, and green chile hominy. The next morning, Tom remembers, “Lisa and I were at our hotel watching TV in disbelief as the planes hit the World Trade Center.” Meanwhile, their employees, who had arrived early at the White House, were racing for cover as a third plane flew over, headed for the Pentagon. Tom goes on: “We didn’t know if the world was coming to an end or what. The next day we were at the White House packing up when I heard somebody calling my name. It was the president, who said he was sorry the picnic was canceled.” A few days after that, the employees drove their gear the 1,600 or so miles from D.C. to Buffalo Gap. Tom says, “Later they told us they had never seen so many flags flying, everywhere. It didn’t matter if you were a Republican or a Democrat. For that moment everybody was an American.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Westward Home.” Subscribe today.