Though born in New York, Billy the Kid was a New Mexico outlaw doing most of his treachery (he had been charged with 12 murders by the time he was 18) in and around Lincoln County, New Mexico. Lincoln County is also the home of Smokey Bear, at least according to the Lincoln County Grill menu. There's even a mug of Billy the Kid on one of the restaurant's bulletin boards.
Launched in Plano some 18 months ago, Lincoln County Grill is the sibling to an LCG in Ruidoso, New Mexico, a restaurant that opened in 1993. Owner Paul Martin and his wife ping-pong between Plano and Ruidoso to keep tabs on the restaurants. Martin says he plans to open several more Lincoln County Grills in the Dallas area over the next several years.
Lincoln County Grill serves hamburgers and Philly cheese steak sandwiches and Southern-fried catfish and chicken-fried steak. But LCG hangs its hat on "New Mexico home-style cooking." New Mexico cooking is similar to Tex-Mex, with differences that erupt in the sauces. Tex-Mex salsas and sauces are usually tomato-based, while New Mexico sauces are based on red or green chilies. This distinction can be tasted in Lincoln County Grill's chips and salsa, housemade crisp and greaseless chips for shoving into a robust, rich, dark red salsa.
And though this salsa wasn't the best example, New Mexico cooking also tends to be hotter than Tex-Mex--and something else. "It's a lot more flavorful," says manager John Amezcua. "The emphasis is on flavor. Our food cannot be considered bland in any way. It just jumps right out at you."
Then why is it so flat-footed? Lincoln County Grill's fare isn't simply dormant; it's swamped in the kind of lethargy that needs a shot of seasonings fired from a 12-gauge. Pico chicken enchiladas, three rolled tortillas stuffed with chicken in green chili sauce nestled near a pinch of mushy pico de gallo, were barely warm in temperature and downright invalid in flavor. Plus, they were soggy. Sides followed suit. Rice was dry and fuzzy, and the refried beans exhibited the culinary zest of wall mud.
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Smothered chicken burrito, also with chicken in green chili sauce, was cool and tasteless, though the burrito was fluffy and the parts that were blanketed with cheese at least had the decency to borrow a little of that flavor.
Strangely, the most flavor was found in a species that wasn't of a New Mexican strain, but a twist on the chicken-fried torture usually reserved for steaks. Lightly battered and fried (according to the specials board), the pork chops arrived in a thick, greaseless and (strangely) flavorful crust. The thin chops locked inside were moist and flavorful. Even the side of mashed potatoes with flecks of skin were creamy and rich, which is more than you can say for those refried beans, no matter how well they adhere to Sheetrock.
A side of bacon-cheddar fries had specks of real bacon and scallions imbedded in the cheese along with a ramekin of ranch dressing for dipping.
Lincoln County Grill has a large dining room with booth seating wrapped around the counter-service ritual. Soft drinks, dining utensils and burger and hot dog condiments are self-serve. Décor is mostly neon beer signs and Coca-Cola paraphernalia. And it's frightening to think the ambiance has more taste than the food.