Three different servers interrupted my lunch, each seemingly desperate to know what I thought of the fried oysters. One even admitted that these crusty half shell bites represent the best thing on their menu.
The only break in this cavalcade of overtly beaming faces was a comment I happened to overhear. Not that eavesdropping is a habit or anything. Cadillac Ranch's manager simply paused at the bar to huddle with an associate poring over a laptop and issued a self-pitying complaint about one staff member—the self-pitying part ending with "I should be put out of my misery, like a dog."
For some reason, the few places generally capable of turning out memorable fried oysters are skuzzy little clapboard joints, the type where they probably do put dogs out of their misery, Michael Vick-style. Cadillac Ranch is a massive, corrugated-roof hangar with varnished wood, glass cacti and a cool patio space where live bands fill the former Bahama Breeze with Texas twang. And yet they manage to produce some rather compelling bivalves, made irresistible by a tiny dollop of salsa—not piled on to cover the oyster, but just touched to the top of each. Bursting forth with bright tomato, quickly hauled back down by the scowling flavor of root vegetables then kicked around as pepper joins the fray. Hell, even chicken McNuggets would be great with this stuff.
Still, that "best thing on the menu" warning sounded vaguely ominous. The fried chicken I ordered to follow emerged fluffy white and acceptably juicy, but wrapped in batter seemingly dredged from the Great Salt Lake and plated with an offbeat potato salad. French fries served a few days later probably caused an environmental catastrophe, considering the entire Atlantic ocean had apparently been drained, crystallized into salt and dumped on my order.
Maybe that server was right about those oysters.
Cadillac Ranch is a new venture from the guys who brought us Rockfish and Twin Peaks, a kind of culinary yin and yang. The former is a fondly thought of chain while the latter can be described as Hooter's for lumberjacks low on funds, and this current concept fits somewhere in between. It's not as bad as the fries or chicken would indicate, nor does it strive for perfection that often. Rather, the kitchen generally loiters at a safe distance from each side and begins taunting in each direction, showing signs of modest skill one moment, borderline incompetence the next.
Their shrimp and crab campechana appears to be slurry thrown together by a hurried crew instead of a rustic seafood cocktail. But don't let sloppy, wet-chunky looks keep you away from a surprisingly intriguing salsa. It's all about inner beauty: a sweet and tangy constant, similar to Bloody Mary mix without the Worcestershire. Bits of vegetables leach a rooted, faintly bitter taste that swirls just under the surface; pepper, arrayed with other spices, thrashes about; and whole shrimp fished up from the mass causes you to pause and appreciate a lurking cocktail sauce bite.
Too bad that same ethic doesn't apply to bland, farm-raised catfish. Instead, a nice looking presentation turns to sodden mush as you pierce through the outer crust, the sign of a poorly defrosted catch. Although they take great pains to lend even greater rustic charm to cornbread, serving it in small cast iron skillets with a mound of butter melting through the center, it comes across as a confused, almost schizophrenic starter. Studded with Southwestern artifacts—peppers and chili—the crusty round still reeks of New England, where sugary cornbread is the standard. To this two-faced beast, the kitchen adds a bizarre, pumpkin pie flavor and tons of baking soda.
At least that's the impression you get as a starchy, bitter backlash whips across your palate.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment on this Texas twister of a menu is Cadillac Ranch's "Kobe" flatiron steak. Once part of the waste chuck, either ground into burger meat or hacked off as roast portions, the cut is a relatively recent discovery revealed when people who research such things learned how to sever thick shoulder tissue to free a couple grill-worthy slabs. Flatiron achieved sudden fame after the beef overlords dug in their marketing spurs, so from various sources you may hear of its robust flavor, delicate fibers, well-marbled structure and so forth—much of which may be true, providing the cook in charge doesn't char the piece into a tough, chewy, difficult hunk.
Oh, its seasoning resurrects the flavor of rough, tough cowboy campfires—licked by flame until black on the surface, the raspy essence of red meat resonating in smoke, pricked here and there by shards of salt and pepper. But there's also a sheen of oil and that dry, impenetrable grain normally associated with inferior meat. In other words, Cadillac Ranch supposedly takes local Wagyu, the same meat (if not the same cut) prized by the likes of Nick & Sam's and Al Biernat's, and...well, I use the word "supposedly" because the end product is almost indistinguishable from middling USDA choice tortured into submission by teenage line cooks at Ponderosa.
Still, while dining here is a perilous series of steep climbs and shrill, out of control plunges, the place has some merit. The fried oysters alone are worth one trip and the patio many more. While prone to amateurish mistakes, the wait staff works hard to make guests feel not only comfortable, but almost giddy. One evening, indeed, our 20-something server—who vanished some time before—stopped by with a solemn expression and said "my poor lost children, I've been neglecting you."
Now how can you frown at that?
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Yes, there's a haze of "chain" about the place, but it's easily forgotten amongst the bustle and bracing faces. However, if I had to explain Cadillac Ranch in one dish, it would be the jumbo lump crab cake. An appetizer, it glows from the plate: big chunks of pearly meat, clinging in a mound so desperately, the edifice seems likely to collapse at the slightest touch; seared with a gentle touch, promising a surge of rich sweet shellfish and fresh ocean breeze; prepared without filler; dressed under and around, so as not to interfere with the meat itself. In your mind, all the crab cakes you've tried in the past gasp and back away. This, simply put, is an impressive, enticing, almost gorgeous presentation.
But again, looks deceive. The crab cake is an illusion, lacking any of the sophisticated, creamy sweetness, any reminder of the sea, anything but the misery leftover when a desirable object shatters—your brand new Xbox 360, for instance.
Go for the atmosphere and order carefully.
857 W. John Carpenter Freeway, Irving, 972-506-7262. Open 11 a.m-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday. $$-$$$