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Silks' reach for culinary respectability fades in the stretch

"I'm going to have to get into this horse-racing thing," an elderly woman chirped as she made her way from the betting window back to her table at Silks. "If for no other reason than to come here and enjoy all of this."
And that's what you'll find at Lone Star Park: an abundance of "all of this." If you're in the betting way, you'll discover lots of wagering amenities to keep you riveted in place: rows of betting windows and self-service betting machines (sort of like an ATM in reverse), wandering betting attendants who carry little computers on their shoulders so you can place a bet without ever leaving your Daily Double Steak Sandwich, and closed-circuit television monitors everywhere so you can keep tabs on races throughout the day.

If you're not in the betting way, there's still plenty to keep you occupied. Which is good, because I'm one of those who has a hard time getting into the swing of betting. I usually find myself wagering on things like how much time will pass before a set director brushes the clod of pancake makeup off Patrick Buchanan's shoulder during Crossfire. My other gambling experiences involve losing a pair of Nebraska Cornhusker gym shorts and my deceased aunt's coin collection through poker games.

That's why I was certain I could avoid all ancillary distractions when I made the trip to Silks at Lone Star Park to sample the food. And there are plenty of distractions. The facility's $96 million, seven-level grandstand rises from 315 acres of Grand Prairie scrub like an elaborate Spanish baroque-style monastery (somehow, the architects must have been irony-proofed on this one). Behind the grandstand is an appealing paddock area where the horses are saddled and paraded before each race. Up the stretch from the grandstand is the family fun park--a place to bring the kids if you don't want them to find out that "Tasting Spunky" ran off with their college tuition money--with picnic areas, a playground, a petting zoo, and pony rides.

But the most important feature of the park is its huge food service operation, which efficiently resupplies the girths of patrons with rapidly thinning wallets. One of the largest restaurant operations in North Texas, Lone Star Park has 12 concession areas, 11 bars, three restaurants, and a private dining club, all serviced by 13 kitchens, including an 8,400-square foot central kitchen on the third level of the grandstand. The crown jewel of all of this frenetic food service is the Silks Dining Room, an upscale restaurant named for the jacket and cap worn by jockeys.

"The way that we look at this is that it's an entertainment venue," explains executive chef Pat Hershorn. "As the chef, I've got to look at it to where it's not a racetrack--it's a restaurant." Hershorn, whose previous stints include one as executive chef at the Dallas Museum of Art, would have to be blindfolded to see it this way. Nearly every table in the tiered, four-level restaurant--which has expansive floor-to-ceiling windows facing the track--has a nine-inch Sony television carrying simulcasts of the races. A guy named Chuck Badone, the "track handicapper," periodically interrupts the televised statistics and pastoral scenes to give you the scoop on the upcoming race along with his picks, most of which will cost you. Badone also tries to explain track handicapping, an incomprehensible statistical analysis.

Another thing you'll find on your table is the Lone Star Park souvenir magazine, filled with history; jockey, owner, and trainer profiles; and a glossary of horse-racing jargon that defines such things as "washy" (a horse that becomes so nervous it sweats profusely before a race). You'll also hear lots of noises--from the racing announcements to the yelling and stomping of patrons trying to coax a horse across the finish line--and find people the next table over who place bets from wads of $50 and $100 bills while you scrape your pockets for an extra quarter to place a minimum $2 bet. Silks is not so much a restaurant as it is an interactive sports bar with Caesar salad and sliced pork loin in orange marmalade sauce replacing bowls of cheese balls and Chex party mix as bar snacks.

Silks has a set menu that changes seasonally (thoroughbreds April through July, and quarter horses October and November) and a buffet that changes daily. Menu items include things like appetizers, sandwiches, a ribeye steak, and daily specials ranging from quail to veal chops. Lone Star Nachos Grande was something that actually could feed a horse, or maybe two. It's a huge heap of stale tortilla chips, grilled chicken, refried beans, diced tomatoes, and sliced jalapenos. The cheese application was interesting in that it had a foundation of liquid cheesefood, similar to what you might find in ballpark nachos, and a light sprinkling of shredded jack and cheddar cheeses to give it authenticity. All in all, it was a gooey mess.

Hershorn says he believes Silks has to go head-to-head with some of the better restaurants in the Dallas area, because that's the kind of clientele he's drawing. "But we can't lose sight of the fact that there are people who do like chicken-fried steak, who do like baked chicken, who do like turkey and dressing," he adds. These considerations are obvious on the buffet. Four entrees, two vegetables, two starches, one soup, and anywhere from eight to 10 salads are available for all-you-can-eat indulgence each day.

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