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 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
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.
The cowgirl's ribeye was more intensely smoky and possessed a heartier texture than the T-bone; it was also the best-marbled of the steaks we tried, with fat bubbles poking out everywhere and an agreeable grainy quality that made for delightful chewing. It sported a light sprinkling of pepper, as well: TXLC showers a little bit of cracked pepper over all of its steaks, which adds a nice nip. But the best use of pepper was on the eatery's signature smoked sirloin, a velvety-textured steak encrusted with peppercorn bits. The hickory smoking that the meat had been treated to added a dense, dark flavor that will haunt me for days to come. That and the heavenly side of butter-drenched sweet potatoes.
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In addition to steaks, TXLC offers other smoked options, such as two eight-ounce pork chops, tender and juicy, with a light smoky flavor and a mildly spicy chipotle glaze that stopped just short of cloyingly sweet. The salmon steak is billed as "lightly smoked"; sadly, our delicious smoky fish arrived a little too done and on the dry side.
A staff member noticed that we hadn't eaten the salmon, and it was taken off the bill -- which is just what should happen in a place that cares about quality service. The rest of our needs were met in a timely fashion, too, with staffers keeping our glasses full and taking away empty plates at just the right time, all the while dispensing plenty of good, old-fashioned friendliness. They also dispensed some good advice, steering us to two unbeatable desserts. The chocolate-chip-gooey Jack Daniel's pie -- like an individual, deep-dish, pecan-packed Toll House terrine covered with melting vanilla ice cream -- was a must, as was the Texas bread pudding, a dense sponge of a thing, filled with ripe peaches and swimming in a tooth-achingly sweet caramel sauce.
Still, the touch that most impressed us was TXLC's policy of having the server wait after delivering your entree, so that he can see if your meat has been cooked to the right temperature. At all too many other steakhouses -- both high- and low-end -- you discover too late that your meat isn't to order and then waste time trying to flag down a staffer. And you wouldn't want to put another minute between your mouth and that first, wonderful bite of a TXLC steak.
In fact, the only thing that would have made my Texas Land & Cattle meals any better would have been a side of cowboys to go.