By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Eat a bloody steak or couple with a cowboy: Those are the two things that suddenly seem eminently appealing every January when the National Western Stock Show rides into town.
I'm otherwise involved in a relationship, though, so a bloody steak it was, and I started looking around for where the beef is these days. Surprisingly, I found it in Lone Tree, hardly a modern-day mecca for folks longing to get a taste of the Old West.
Lone Tree is sad proof that the West has gone, well, south. After hitching up the minivan and driving the far-from-lonesome trails to Lone Tree, I often hark back to the days when a man could just go ahead and shoot someone for being an idiot. The only thing this Little Town on the Prairie has in common with the settlements of yesteryear is a lot of lumber lying around waiting for someone to turn it into dwellings. The area south of C-470 is no longer a vast inland sea of brown grasses and yucca plants; where Park Meadows ends, a movie theater, restaurants and homes "Starting in the Low $300,000s!" begin. The only break in this dismal landscape is a true Western watering hole: the Texas Land & Cattle Steak House, a lonely looking, freestanding stone structure.
Texas Land & Cattle is a six-month-old outpost of a company that started in Austin back in 1993, when good ol' boys David Franklin and J. Aron Fogiel bought the seventy-year-old Night Hawk eatery and turned it into a Texas ranch-house-style restaurant, complete with fireplaces, lots of flagstone and the "bigger is better" attitude that the Lone Star state is so famous for. There are now 24 TXLCs (the acronym is what the company uses as its "brand"), most of them in Texas, with plans for more throughout the West.
We could do worse. This year-old steakhouse has a welcoming attitude and a soothing atmosphere that's created by a low-key combination of cherry-colored wood tables, saddles slung over railings and LeAnn Rimes crooning in the background. Black silhouettes of Western symbols appear on the walls and chandeliers -- think horseshoes, bucking broncos and their riders, and the Texas star -- and two Remingtonesque murals flank the dining room. If you can ignore the view of encroaching development just outside the small-paned windows and concentrate instead on the fuzzy-nosed head of a Longhorn steer that sits above the always blazing fireplace, you might almost think that you were dining in the wild, wild West, rather than the mild, mild Western suburbs.
The food is completely convincing, and at prices much more reasonable than you find at fancy-pants steakhouses. You'd easily spend twice as much at one of those for steaks that are no better -- and appetizers that are a lot less innovative. Our most interesting starter was a steak quesadilla -- a large flour tortilla folded over shreds of smoked sirloin and bacon bits, all glued together with a Cheddar-Jack cheese hybrid. Crispy brown on the outside with little bits of fried cheese hanging over the side, the quesadilla was thick enough to have been a meal unto itself. We were also intrigued by the fried jalapeños, so much better than pepper poppers: The chiles had been sliced in half, filled with more of that Cheddar Jack, then thinly coated with batter and fried crunchy. The only loser in the bunch was an order of Texas onion strings, which arrived lukewarm; the oil had started to seize up, and the onions looked and tasted like limp, greasy shoelaces.
Out of two TXLC meals, the only other misstep was a gloppy Caesar salad, which wasn't helped by a dousing of chile pepper. The choice of a Caesar or house salad comes with most entrees; you can also pay an extra $2.99 for the wedge salad, a move I highly recommend. The wedge was actually a quarter of a head of lettuce, ice-cold and crunchy, slathered with a very tangy blue-cheese dressing and studded with a considerable number of large blue-cheese chunks, a handful of crumbled bacon and some diced tomatoes; two thin, buttery pieces of toast came on the side.
And then it was time to get to the meat of the matter: the steaks. At this steakhouse they actually taste like beef, mainly because the TXLC guys eschew Prime in favor of USDA Choice -- and that, my friends, is where the fat, and thus the flavor, is. The company was smart enough to buy its own packinghouse in Austin, and so the steaks are well-aged and cut right. They were also cooked right, both hickory-smoked and mesquite-grilled, which meant the charred little bits all over the beef had a deep, smoky taste that enhanced the sweet meat, and the tender-textured flesh had just the proper amount of chewiness.
The Texas T-bone was an eighteen-ounce slab of strip and tenderloin, picture perfectly crisscrossed with grill marks and boasting the cut's unmistakable bone-boosted flavor. The onion strings that came on top had leached a little of their juices onto the meat, too, and the steak was so juicy that it left a measurable pool at the bottom of the plate. (And that was a heavy-duty plate, too, more reminiscent of down-home cafeteria dishes than the precious china used to deliver higher-priced steaks.) A wedge salad was thrown in with the Texas T-bone, which, like all the entrees, also came with your choice of eight side options, including chunky, garlic-heavy mashed potatoes; steak-juice-drenched mushrooms; and ranch house beans, which counted a light chile bite and plenty of bacon among their attributes.