By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
The Army encampment on the fork of Texas’s Trinity River was officially named Fort Worth, but drovers on the Chisholm Trail knew it as Hell’s Half Acre, an iniquitous layover populated by outlaws and frontier rowdies. Like some humans with a wicked past, the city found redemption but managed not to lose its colorful character; and today’s Fort Worth, brimming with southwestern spirit, is a world apart from high-fashion Dallas, just thirty miles east. As a cultural capital, it has its own ballet, opera, and symphony orchestra, and it is the site of ambitious museums and public sculptures—particularly of western-themed art. For those of us who like our culture on a plate, it boasts all the blue-ribbon steaks and expert barbecue of a good cow town, as well as Tex-Mex food that is axiomatic. More delectable surprises include an old grocery store that serves what may be the best hamburger in America and “New West” restaurants in which gifted chefs are writing the latest chapters in cattle-country kitchen history.
Among the innovators is REATA, thirty-five stories up, at the top of the Bank One Tower downtown. Reata is an ode to the movie Giant in particular and to the pop-culture West in general. With a colossal ranch dining room and a view for miles, it features leather-framed menus, cowhide-covered chairs, displays of leather chaps and burnished six-shooters, and dramatic painted murals of cowboy life. If you watched much television in the 1950s and 1960s, you will likely find yourself humming along with the background music—tasteful interpretations of cowboy-show theme songs—even before you are conscious of hearing it.
Tradition is tweaked for many Reata specialties: Oven-warm sourdough flatbread and fluffy biscuits studded with pecans are presented with a ramekin of garlicky, peppered olive oil for dipping; chicken-stuffed chiles rellenos are served atop corn chowder; a tall root-beer float is spiked with Kahlua. No adornment could improve Reata’s exemplary ribeye steak, which the menu warns is well-marbled (praise be!). Cut to whatever size you choose and grilled over mesquite wood, this steak is tender, full-flavored, and luxuriously juicy. We got a twenty-ounce cut; Reata provided a clever little cardboard saddlebag for leftovers.
The day starts early in cattle country, so it should be no surprise that Fort Worth has always been a good breakfast town. By seven in the morning, the PARIS COFFEE SHOP on the south side is bustling. An airy room with a counter, booths, and tables, Paris (named not for the capital of France but for the original owners) is filled in the morning with the smells of sausages, bacon, and corned beef hash, as well as tangy biscuits smothered with gravy. Other good breadstuffs include soft, glazed cinnamon rolls and a choice of eight-grain, sourdough, or sundried tomato toast. The Paris Coffee Shop is also a legendary lunch room, known for such stalwart midday meals as roast pork with corn-bread dressing and baked short ribs with turnips and their greens.
If you need strong coffee to start the day, there isn’t a friendlier wake-up call than a visit to the FOUR STAR COFFEE BAR on West 7th. Find a seat on an upholstered chair or couch in the Reading Room, which adjoins the regular dining room, and you can spend hours sipping coffee or espresso drinks, chatting, or reading books (customers are invited to check them out, using the honor system). To accompany the giant cups of coffee, there are sandwiches, salads, and boutique pizzas midday; eggs, bagels, and fat-free muffins are offered in the morning.
ESPERANZA’S MEXICAN BAKERY, out toward the stockyards, is another kind of breakfast spot, where piñatas hang overhead in the gala, pink-walled dining room. Mexican fare is served at lunch and early supper, but we like it best in the morning, for huevos rancheros, chilaquiles (corn tortillas mixed with eggs and cheese), and the most wonderful comfort-food cereal in this hemisphere, arroz con leche, which is nothing but boiled tender rice in a bowl of hot milk sweetened with cinnamon sugar.
Esperanza’s is a branch of JOE T. GARCIA’S MEXICAN DISHES, a ramshackle landmark where Tex-Mex food has been defined since 1935 and where the hugely popular outdoor patio, with strolling mariachi, is just right for feasting on tacos, enchiladas, and tamales. For southwestern meals with a more modern touch, Fort Worth has one of Texas’s three branches of BLUE MESA. In this stylish shopping-center restaurant, fajitas sizzle and guacamole is mashed tableside. Even such low-fat Mexican spa cuisine as tomatillo-sauced chicken and spinach enchiladas tastes mighty good, although we defy you not to polish off the sweet potato chips that accompany the blue-corn chips and salsa with every meal.
Portraits of monumental Herefords, Anguses, and Brahmans decorate the walls at CATTLEMEN’S FORT WORTH STEAK HOUSE in the historic stockyards district. Captions identify each corn fed bovine, telling not only its name but its glory as a top-producing bull or cow. At the back of the main dining area, known as The Branding Room, raw steaks are displayed on ice in front of a charcoal fire where beef sputters on a grate. Before placing a dinner order, many customers stroll back toward the open broiler to admire the specimens on ice. Patrons compare and contrast ribeye and T-bone, demure filet mignon and ample porterhouse, and sizable K.C. sirloin strip and mighty pound plus Texas strip.
The Texas sirloin is the steak lover’s choice: aged, heavy beef with a lightly charred crust and robust opulence that is sheer ecstasy to savor. Soft dinner rolls make a handy utensil for sopping up all the luscious juices that puddle onto the plate. Start with a good Gulf shrimp cocktail, get the zesty house dressing on your salad, plop a heap of sour cream into your baked potato, and accompany the big feed with frozen Margaritas, long-neck beers, or even a bottle of Texas’s own Llano Estacado Cabernet Sauvignon.
In much of Texas, the best beef is served in grocery stores. Fort Worth has KINCAID’S, a store that began cooking hamburgers to go in the mid-1960s. The half-pounders soon became so popular that stock shelves were cut down to counter level and topped with old doors that functioned as makeshift tables where burger eaters could stand. That’s the way it is today, with some communal tables added up front for sit-down dining. We still prefer standing at the counter, somewhere near the boxes of Jell-O and Lava soap, where we unwrap our burgers and use the paper bag in which they are served as a drop cloth. Not only does the mustard leak and the lettuce, tomato, and onion spill, but the beef patty itself is so heavy and tender that it falls to pieces.
ANGELO’S is a dining hall with a remarkable exhibition of game animal trophies. Notwithstanding the sprawl of its two rooms and its daunting popularity, and despite the fact that beer flows into frosted goblets at an amazing pace, there is something distinctly meditative about the Angelo’s experience. Perhaps it’s the odd sense of tranquillity induced by the haze of hickory-and-brisket vapors that waft from the smoke pit, which we sniffed two blocks away, through rolled-up car windows, long before we ever saw the old rugged eatery. Although lit with functional fluorescents, it seems softer inside, like some living diorama in a natural history museum entitled Texas Barbecue Parlor; Late-Twentieth Century.
“You are in the land of brisket,” proclaims the counterman when an out-of-towner innocently asks what type of beef is served. To prove his point, the counterman steps aside, providing a full view of the chopping block behind him, where a kitchen carver plunges his fork into a great slab of smoked beef, holds it aloft like a trophy, then plunks it back down on the cutting board and begins slicing pieces nearly a half-inch thick. A row of slices is delivered on a Styrofoam plate, to which beans, potato salad, coleslaw, a length of pickle, a thick slice of raw onion, a ramekin of barbecue sauce, and two pieces of the freshest, softest white bread in America are also added.
Sliced brisket stars at Angelo’s, but the hickory pit also yields pork ribs as well as zesty hot link sausages, ham, and salami. In the cooler months of October through March, Angelo’s posts a sign advertising bowls of chili. Most people get an order to accompany a rib or beef plate, but, at a table near ours on a cool day in November, one strapping ol’ boy in overalls settled down to face a lunch that consisted of four bowls of chili, two cups of hot peppers, and a tall stack of spongy bread slices. Before plowing in, he raised his goblet high in a toast spoken out loud, apparently addressed to the gods of good eating—”Here’s to the coldest tap beer in town!”— and drained the full eighteen ounces in one long draught before spooning into his Lone Star feast.
Cattlemen’s Fort Worth Steak House
Esperanza’s Mexican Bakery
Four Star Coffee Bar (permanently closed)
3324 West 7th Street
Fort Worth, TX