By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
For instance, the infamous herd of steers at the Convention Center is a load of bronze B.S. when it comes to Dallas' heritage--we've never been a cow town and we know it and what's more, we never wanted to be a cow town. We're a money town, a banker's town, and the Cattle Baron's Ball is as close to even the mild West as we've ever wanted to be. And yet, cows and cowboys are what the tourists expect from Dallas, and tourists are bankable. So we borrow and steal from the rest of the state--from Fort Worth, from West Texas and from the Hill Country, coloring our heritage to suit the customer.
Y.O. Ranch Restaurant, a new restaurant in the West End, is again selling that pseudo-Western story, claiming as its theme the history of a chuck wagon that actually worked 200 miles away. Named after a working ranch in the Hill Country, the Y.O. Ranch Restaurant is a Gene Street dream, based, like his other restaurants, on an American myth. Good Eats serves the kind of food that June Lockhart might have served to little Timmy; Y.O. Ranch serves the food you imagine Hop Sing rustled up for Ben and his boys.
Of course, it's in the West End--that's where those tourists are. The West End is the theme park of downtown Dallas. We all remember when the West End was going to be an arts district, when it was home to some great restaurants like Oasis, designed and furnished by local artists. And we all know that the West End turned out to be downtown's food court, lent a little old-time atmosphere by the brick streets and horses. Where else could a hokey place like Y. O. Ranch open up? It was made for this space--even Addison would demand more design. There are cliched attempts to evoke the Old West--cedar beams, hollow-sounding wood floors, rusty iron chandelier, and sepia photos like the ones we saw of Butch and Sundance in the movie nearly 30 years ago. The bar is behind a false front like an old Western town. The separate dining room is otherwise laid out pretty much like Good Eats used to be, with booths down the wall. It's not that the space is badly designed, it's just that the space looks like there was an imagination budget in place. It looks like a restaurant that escaped from Six Flags.
The real Y.O. Ranch was originally a 550,000-acre "spread" outside Kerrville, founded in the 1800s by Captain Charles Schreiner, a Texas ranger. The story is printed on the back of the restaurant's menu and it's all very Lonesome Dove, fiction that doesn't really relate at all to Dallas a hundred years later. Now the Y.O. is down to 80 acres and raises not just Longhorns but eland, oryx, and sika deer from Japan.
There's an unembarrassed hokiness about this whole Y. O. ranch theme, as there is about the whole West End. "Just think what one of those cowboy trail-drivers would have given to get this kind of meal upon getting that herd to railhead at Dodge City or Abilene, Kansas," muses the menu's copywriter. Well, now, I wouldn't even have brought that up--the tenuous relation of the theme to the cuisine--but since it's mentioned already, I have to wonder what those cowboys would have thought about being presented with portabella mushrooms, frog legs, and spinach.
Who cares what the cowboys would have thought, anyway? And who cares about authenticity? It's just surprising that in such a cliched setting, the food is so fine.
It's really not such a big surprise when you know that the menu was devised by Matt Martinez Jr. In Dallas, foodies are on the same kind of first-name footing--know him or not--with Matt as we are with Dean Fearing or Stephan Pyles. Matt is one of our own, never mind that he grew up in Austin a fourth-generation cook. He's made his reputation here, separate from his family. They say that when Julia Child was in Dallas for the Newspaper Food Writers and Editors meeting a few years ago, she discreetly left the posh dinner at the Crescent before it was over so she could run over to Matt's No Place in East Dallas to taste some of Matt's real Texas food.
That story may or may not be true; it is a fact that Matt Martinez is a born cook, not a trained chef. He cooks his own brand of cuisine, one that has evolved through the years, but not because of where he's traveled or even what he's tasted. He doesn't bother much with melting pots or fusions or outside influences. He just keeps working, getting better at what he does and what he's always done.
So when we went into Y.O. the other night and saw Matt at the stove in his straw hat and apron, we knew we would be faced with some fine food on our plates.