No place in the West End

To hell with authenticity, Y.O. Ranch has great cowboy grub

Sometimes it's hard to find the Texas in Dallas, Texas. We've paved it with parking lots and covered it up with malls and mirrored skyscrapers till there's very little landscape and no history apparent; what you see instead is our own invention.

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.

I'm not real sure many out-of-town guests would "get" this food any more than those cowboys coming into Abilene would (though this is the most authentically Texas food you can get in Dallas). It's heavy on the animal protein, for one thing, and I don't mean chicken. An order of elk steak comes garnished with a whole quail. An appetizer includes boar sausage and beef brisket. The chef's favorite sauce is a smooth yellow blend made from processed cheese; any New Yorker I know would sneer at such a sauce. Well, as my mother used to say in the days when I turned up my nose at asparagus, "All the more for the rest of us."

There are four appetizers and we tried them all while drinking a bottle of Randal Graeme's "Big House Red" from the short, inexpensive wine list. Margaritas and beer would suit this food, too. The seafood corn cake, a deep-golden round that droops over the edges of its serving plate, was crisp-crusted, its delicate cornmeal crumb set with sweet corn kernels, bits of crab, and chopped shrimp--a marvelous dish, substantial but not heavy. Creek Bottom shrimp were cooked fast and gently, with peppers and onions, and the Smoked Bob plate held griddled boar sausage, cut into strips, chewy and spicy with a hint of game, in a pool of that plastic yellow cheese, a scoop of creamy guacamole, and flour tortillas to wrap it all together. Again, you can order this with beef brisket if you're protein-challenged. Choose the goat-cheese vinaigrette on your salad--a rich scoop of mild cheese tops the dressed greens, making an extravagance out of an interlude.

When we asked how the frog legs Martinez were prepared, we were told by our waitress (who ended every sentence with a question mark) that "they're breaded and grilled?" The elk special was cooked the same way, and surprise, so was the "turkey tender." She didn't mean breaded, really, she meant dredged, the meat just floured enough to protect it from the heat, and some things seemed griddled more than actually grilled. Almost all of them were served with "Matt's secret sauce?" about which she would say no more. The Tex-Mex platter, she told us, was up to Matt--whatever he had in the kitchen that particular night. We put ourselves in his hands.

A bone-in ribeye, charred on the outside with a pile of smoked mashed potatoes to soak up the red running out, is one of the best-cooked pieces of meat I've had in this town which has gone bonkers for beef, but I liked the elk even better, with its bouquet just a little stronger, like beef with another dimension. The tiny naked quail seemed all the more delicate beside it, like bread compared to meat. Frog legs Martinez, a recipe Matt inherited from his dad and adopted and adjusted, came in a stack of five, straddling each other on the plate, simply grilled, tasting not like chicken.

Matt's side dishes are no mere garnishes--sometimes they don't even make the plate look pretty. Dark, dense portabella mushrooms, cooked with onions; and a mess of spinach, barely wilted on the griddle so it kept all its brightness, were two of the choices. Cowboy beans came with the Mexican plate, two well-constructed tacos stuffed with shredded (not ground) beef and cheese, then griddled and topped with lettuce and tomatoes, and a pair of cheese enchiladas so covered with thick chili and melting cheese that they'd given up, lying so flat on the plate you thought you'd been served stew.

This is essentially the same food Matt serves in his own restaurant, No Place. It's Texas-style food, all right, but it's not really Dallas-style food. That is, it's not trendy, or light, or particularly stylish. It doesn't even necessarily look pretty. When you're concentrating on your food, you don't much notice who else is in this restaurant or what everyone else is wearing. Matt's restaurants (and no matter who the investors in Y.O Ranch are, it's Matt's food that makes this place, so I feel justified in using the possessive) aren't places to see and be seen; they're places to eat big and relish what you taste. Welcome to the Y.O. Ranch.

Y.O. Ranch, 702 Ross Ave., 744-3287. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Y.O. Ranch:
Creek Bottom Shrimp $7.95
Seafood Corn Cake $8.95
Wild Boar Sausage (Small) $4.95
Bone-In Ribeye $23.95
Muy Grande Tex-Mex Platter $14.95
Frog Legs Martinez $14.95
Smoked Baked Potato $4.95

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